Thursday, September 9, 2010

Things That Occupy Us

While I was attending college, there was a pretty big shift among which people walked around with headphones on. For a long time in my experience, the people who spent their days filled with music were typically music nerds of some type. There was the metal heads, hop-hop kids and audiophiles. Other than that most everyone else went without. With the advent of the MP3 player it became less cumbersome to bring one's favorite music along. I remember the days when I would take out my Discman to keep my occupied, not only was it's shape, size and media awkward but being the only one on the street with headphones on is a little socially uncomfortable.

As time passed heads of strangers were suddenly adorned with little white earbuds. The iPod had really started to take over and made a life filled with music much less awkward. This had a terrible implications for random social interactions. No longer was it important to be able to chat with the person next to you on the bus, instead you could burry yourself if your new favorite album. And with the advent of podcasting, mixtape production and the decreased price of MP3 players they have become so prevalent that rarely do strangers speak anymore.

Recently I have been frequenting interstate bus systems and there are few places that illustrate this point as much as a crowded charter bus. 3 to 5 hours sitting in close proximity to that large number of people should provide one with the wonderful and/or horrible experience of talking to a stranger. In my travels I have oft chosen to be the silent recluse with my headphones in but on my last few rides I have attempted to engage more in my surroundings. Sometimes this is great, I had an extremely candid conversation with two strangers about the medical industry as I was sitting across from a nurse in training and a physician's assistant. They told me wonderfully horrible stories about the stated of Chicago's emergency rooms and what it looks like when someone has tremendous amounts of bone structural damage. Other times I met people with mutual friends, heard stories about foreclosure, politics, weddings and living in different states across this country.

As true with most shared travel experiences, riding a bus from state to state is a pretty horrible experience, the seats are small and uncomfortable, stops are infrequent and there are no refreshments. A good conversation with a neighbor can make this experience a little less unbearable. One of my favorite modes of travel is taking the Amtrak train. The greatest part of this experience is the existence of the dining car. The Dining car is a social hot spot among train riders, a place to gather and enjoy an overpriced beverage, hot dog and/or vacuum-packed sandwich. If there were more places like this, I think we would be a more engage culture. A great example of German Beer Halls, who have long picnic-style tables that house all of their patrons, preventing anyone from refreshing in private. Here in the US we spend out time out and about immersed in our own lives, rarely moving into someone else's life.

So here is the challenge, I love the idea of talking with strangers but I also appreciate the anonymity that my headphones give me. Now that I have experienced the delightful lack of crazy people asking me for cigarettes, telling me far too much about their own lives and generally unpleasant background noise of travel I find it harder and harder to just leave my headphones at home. I would imagine there has to be a balance between private and public but where to find it.

Image Courtesy of E-Magic

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Cloudy Windows

The view from inside a plane, train or automobile can be remarkable. It seems to change depending on which you choose. The view from a bus is something else entirely.

When you see the world from an airplane things look magical. During the day you get to see the patterns that make up our living space, at night you get the perfect understand of what impact electricity has on our lives. This experience can be magical and frightening all at the same time. Last month I had the opportunity to fly into Minneapolis/St. Paul airport at around midnight. Luckily I was in the window seat and I was just amazed at the view of these two cities from 20,000 feet. First Minneapolis with its countless grid patterns linking together in the most awkward ways followed directly by St. Paul in its state capitol-esque majesty with arcing thoroughfares making slowly increasing broken circles around the capitol building. The view from this plane was quite impressive.

When riding in a car, in a new place, can give the impression of wonderment, seeing cityscapes as fresh as they are, in the country the cloud patterns, hills and prairies are strikingly beautiful. There was a summer a few years back in which I had the opportunity to travel from Detroit to Atlanta by car alone. This drive gave the the opportunity to drive straight through the Appalachian mountains in the middle of the summer. In the heart of the mountain range, at its peak, I was so close to the clouds that moisture was condensing on my windshield. On a similar trip this past summer I drove through the most rural parts of Wisconsin. The views were like travel photos from the plains of Scotland, rolling green pastures marked by the occasional free standing tree. These two drives comprise me some of the most beautiful images stored in my head.

Train travel is something completely different. The view from an Amtrak train is typically fleeting yet natural. Because of the remote location of most of the tracks the landscape is comprised of the most remote locations out side of major cities. When a train enters a city it is almost exclusively surrounded by industrial desolation. There is something poetic about this stark juxtaposition. This poetry is usually brief due to the speed at which a train travel, leaving the rider with very little opportunity to observe his/her surroundings.

The city bus is the only mode of transportation that can take all of the wonderment from traveling. It is as if the fact that someone else has sat in the same exact seat, seeing the same exact views makes everything that you see recycled. Each and every route of travels over the same streets day in and day out, countless people get on and off in different places. Every trip that you take on the bus has been traveled before. The windows are covered with the film of frequent use and the people looking through have the air of obligation. In my final visit to Minneapolis before I moved here I spent the day walking across the city, taking in all of the wonderment that urban life can provide an outsider. After spending at least 5 hours walking I was too tired to walk all the way back to where I was staying. I decided to get on the bus to provide my feet with a little rest. As soon as I picked my seat all of the wonderment that I had experienced in the hours before had completely dissipated. Surrounded by strangers I traveled back through downtown and the views that had captivated me moments before were now some how muted, as if the film on the windows removed the and intangible quality of the images I was seeing. Maybe it's the culture of the bus or maybe it's the shear lack of novelty in riding the bus but there is something unique about using it to get from here to there.

Image courtesy of edenpictures