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Over ten years ago, in June 2010, I rode my Vespa from Montreal to Brooklyn. These are my notes from that time.

Day 1: Montreal to Argyle

Thursday 17 June  2010.

I set off from my apartment in the Plateau arrondissement of Montreal on my Vespa LXV headed for Park Slope, Brooklyn. My good friend Ghazi was living in Park Slope, though I wasn’t going to see him. Not that I didn’t want to see him, but it was more than visiting a friend that drove me to ride over 500 miles on a motor scooter. I was going to sell the bike. Though really, that was mostly a pretense. I had to sell the scooter for financial reasons, but I really wanted to make the ride.

Here she is, my 2009 portofino green Vespa LXV 150

Wanderlust struck early.  As a child, I explored every inch of the woods around my house, and the second I got a car in high school I began taking road trips all over the north east, not to mention driving on almost every road in Westchester County.  But in the summer of 2004 I went to Italy for a study abroad program, and have been hooked on travel ever since, traveling all over North America, Europe, the Caribbean, South America, and China. I had planned a trip to visit friends in Europe this summer, based around giving a talk at an academic conference in London, but my travel grant fell through. As a result, I was feeling even more restless than usual, which contributed to my desire to make the Vespa trip. Plus, it’s a beautiful time of year and I had planned to take the scenic route.

After moving back to the suburbs of NY from San Francisco in January of 2008, I decided to purchase a Vespa scooter. I’d first become interested in them in Italy (not surprisingly) and SF only reinforced that interest. I had accepted a job at Purchase College, and needed some mode of transportation, since the shuttle from Port Chester was discontinued and the bus takes far too long. And I didn’t want to waste money on a car/gasoline/insurance, not to mention contributing to carbon emissions.  (An aside about insurance: for those of you who don’t live in the NYC metro area, I should add that for a male driver under the age of 25 with any sort of moving violating on their record–all things that applied to me at the time–car insurance is astronomically high. In 2005, for instance, I was paying over $2400/year for basic liability coverage on a ’96 Mazda.  Full theft/fire/etc would have been over $3500.)  Not only was the Vespa aesthetically appealing, great on gas mileage (70mpg),  and cheap to insure ($333/year for full coverage), but it was also very very fun to ride.

drawing by Lucia Hierro

I also knew that I’d be applying to graduate school that coming fall.  After returning from a trip to the Dominican Republic with my good friend crazy old William English, who owns some property in the mountains along the Haitian border, I finally made the purchase.  I went down to Vespa Brooklyn in Clinton Hill, signed the papers, and the next day it was delivered. Right from the start, I wanted a portofino green Vespa LVX- the V is for vintage.   It had all sorts of wonderful design flairs- old fashioned split leather seat, naked handle bars, little windshield.   My good buddy Lee bough a Triumph at the same time, and we both studied for our motorcycle permits and licenses, went down to Harlem to get them  together, etc.  I wish there was a pic of me and Lee riding together, a Vespa and a motorcycle, but there’s not, so here us as imagined by Lucia Hierro.  (I won’t even try to explain why he’s saying “RALPH!”)

But buying it was a form of wishful thinking that I’d be moving back to the Bay Area to go to Berkeley.  As it turns out, I accepted a place at McGill University in Montreal, and stubbornly brought my bike with me.  And to be honest, Montreal is a fantastic city for a scooter, so long as the weather is nice. Most of last winter the scooter was under my stairs! I did ride until 1 Dec, and brought it out for good again in mid-March, but still. Not an ideal situation.

Packed up and ready to go. Note the size of the bag in the passenger seat

So come May I posted some ads on craigslist in Mtl and NY, and after some interest, was able to secure a serious offer from a guy in Park Slope named Isaac.  Part of me knew I should try to find a buyer in Montreal, but most of me was too excited at the prospect of driving the bike down.  It was a rainy June, so I had a few false starts, waiting for a few consecutive days when I knew I could avoid the rain.   My father was especially nervous, but once the weather cleared up and the buyer was verified, I made the decision.

I packed a bag and readied my bike, cleaned the apartment, and set off.  Odometer reading: approx. 3550 miles.  My itinerary for the day: take secondary highways and back roads to the border, cross over into VT via the islands on Lake Champlain, stop in Burlington for tea, and crash at my ex-girlfriend Lexy’s farm house in Washington County.  Unfortunately by the time I left it was after 4pm, and I hit rush-hour traffic heading south on Papineau towards the Pont Jacques Cartier.   Lined up to go over the bridge, I realized it was going to be a long ride.  Why secondary highways?  I put a lot of thought into the route beforehand, though I left room to explore and deviate, as I always inevitably do (to follow interesting things, to get lost, whatever. You have to be open to life, structure can only take you so far.  It’s good to have a plan in mind, but sometimes you gotta ride the dark horse.) A 150cc Vespa has a max speed of 65 miles per hour.  Of course with me and all my shit on it, it’s more like 60 on flat ground, at best.  Fast enough, in any case, to ride on the highway.  But to be honest: fuck the highways. They’re not pleasant. The point of this ride was to experience the road, something sadly lost in our modern mode of highway/automobile traffic.  I should also note that a lot of Quebecois love motorcycles, and I encountered many on my trip through Quebec and Vermont. I’m not the only one who realizes how beautiful these roads are.

My path from my apartment to the border

I took route 134  Ouest, and probably hit every traffic light until finally reaching route 104. When I finally made that left turn I felt like my trip had begun, like I’d finally gotten beyond Montreal and the first leg of my journey. And the scenery, mostly trashy Quebecker strip malls, wasn’t what I’d imagined. Quebec is pretty notorious for their terrible maintenance of roads. Potholes are a natural resource. (Complete with lucrative city contracts!) Granted the winters are rough here, but the point is the roads are terrible. I was surprised, then, that most of the cruising I did was entirely pleasant and pothole free once outside Montreal. Route 217 was wonderful, winding through farmland and seeing hardly a soul in sight. In Saint-Jacques-le-Mineur I stopped at a parking lot at an intersection to drink some water and consult my map before I got too close to the border and had to put my iphone into airplane mode. I did check the map, but ended up diverting my course because of a detour in a quaint little town anyway. I took route 221 straight to the border, and all I can remember are more farms.  When I finally saw that little house that passes for a border crossing, I was happy that I was on my way, about to repatriate and enjoy what I knew would be a great adventure.

on the way to the border

I’d include a picture here, but when I stopped before the border to take some photos, the officers got suspicious and asked me to erase them. (If only I’d uploaded them to the internet first, I thought.)  The two officers were young, maybe younger than me, and were nice guys. I took off my helmet and handed over my passport.

“Where you going?”

“Brooklyn.”  Of course this was met with incredulous looks.  You’re going to Brooklyn!?

“I guess you don’t get many scooters through here,” I speculated.

“Well, some, but not going all the way to the New York City.”

 

Rouses Point

We went through the rest of the song and dance.  No weapons, I’m a  student, here’s my visa, blah blah blah. I mentioned I was staying at my friend’s farm in Argyle, and he asked who my friend was.  Once all this was settled, he lightened up and told me he was from a town Washington County and used to play them in soccer.  Trying to figure out if he knew her, I guess, though I didn’t mention that she was from around me and it was more of a weekend place.    So, I bid them goodbye and cruised on.  I may have yelled woohoo! I think, echoing in my helmet with the bzzzzzz of my wasp below me.  Back in the US!  I made a left on route 11, and headed toward Rouses Point.  Not much to it, but a really cute town along a main road en route to the Vermont Bridge.

Bridge from NY to VT

Most Americans don’t know much about the history of Vermont.  (A lot of Americans don’t know much about a lot of things, though.)  The territory of Vermont was originally claimed by Samuel de Champlain (the namesake of the beautiful lake) in 1609 as part of New France.  (Vermont comes from Green Mountain in French.) New France was the French colony in North America, at one point encompassing modern day Quebec and everything from Michigan down to Louisiana.  You might remember that this was sold by Napoleon to Thomas Jefferson in the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the first big expansion of the United States. New France basically lasted from the early 16th century until the mid 18th century, not a bad run really, following the French loss in what we call he French-Indian war, in 1763.  The territory of Vermont was disputed, however, and British and Dutch trading posts had been established there for a while.

boatyard

New York state and New Hampshire both claimed the territory, and issued settlers deeds for land. The famous Green Mountains Boys fucked up those settlers. Lead by Ethan Allen, now remembered as a patriot, but mostly defending his land and his ale.  He was a drinker and a fighter, a great American. He was also an opportunist, as most great Americans are. When the American Revolutionary War broke out in 1775, he lead the charge on Montreal.  Quebec can join the rebellion against the British!  What?! You don’t want to!?  Well, fuck all we’re gonna conquer you then. He lead 110 men to Montreal’s south shore, including some rebels from Quebec, but the backup didn’t arrive and they got captured.  Ballsy, you’ve got to admit.  Montreal may have been a lightly defended city, but 110 men?

Read more about the American Invasion of Canada here. (The invasion of Quebec is even better.) It’s maybe not so surprising that we don’t teach these things in school, since these are somewhat embarrassing incidents.  Did you know that in the War of 1812 (which we lost, getting our asses handed to us by the British,) US troops (accidentally) burned down Toronto?  And that’s one reason the British laid waste to DC and burned down the original White House.

Welcome to Vermont!

The independent nation of Vermont was declared in 1777, and Allen was released from jail the following year. Standing on lake Champlain, I felt  I was a Green Mountain boy in a past life. They stayed independent for 14 years, with a unicameral legislature (I think Nebraska still has one,) until becoming the 14th State of the United States in 1791  (14 is a special number in VT.) Along with Texas, Vermont is one of only two states that were there own nation. (I guess Hawaii counts, but we kind of conquered them.)

Enough history.  The point of all this is to say that VT retains its independent spirit today.  And I can see why those drunken militiamen fought to defend it from the encroachment of New Yorkers. I stopped to eat a humus and cheese sandwich at a look out over the lake, saw the wonderful boat yard above, and really enjoyed those islands.   The breadth of aromas while riding a scooter through a place like that is hard to describe, but it’s a fantastic thing to experience.  I feel so much more connected than driving through in a car.

my route through the islands

I even cruised for a long while with six Quebecois on Harleys, all of us stuck behind a slow moving car.  I thought I’d head right across so I could make a pit stop in St. Albans to pick up some pot a friend had stashed by a cemetery, but I missed the turn off and continued all the way down route 2.  It was for the best, I think.   I came out off the islands onto Route 7, and before I knew it was in downtown Burlington.  I stopped for gas, and instantly felt the pleasure of being in VT and receiving nice warm friendly smiles.  I also stopped at Dobra Tea right around the corner to get something to eat and have some tea.   I’d visited Burlington several times in the past, mostly with Lexy to visit our friend Caitlin at University of Vermont.  We visited Dobra Tea in 2005 for the first time and fell in love with the place.  When I was in Prague in the summer of 2007 I made sure to visit their original branch.

the courtyard of Dobra Tea in Prague

It was starting to get dark, though, so after an hour I saddled up again and cruised on out of town. I took route 7 straight down, passed the two whale tales. Because most of Vermont is flanked by Lake Champlain, once the sun went down I was pretty cold. I stopped to relieve myself at an intersection and put on some gloves, but otherwise I kept on going until I hit route 22 (missing Middlebury by about 10 miles) and then on to New York state. I finally reached Lexy’s farm in Argyle at around 11pm.  I built a fire in the wood-burning stove and did some reading. I may have watched an episode of Battlestar Galactica or Cadfile on VHS,  I can’t remember. I was freezing and exhausted, but totally invigorated and full of life.

Burlington to Argyle

Day 2: Saratoga Springs to Harrison

Friday 18 June  2010.

I’ve never been one to try to stay within artificial confines. I’m not sure if that’s why I’m undisciplined, or if it’s the other way around.  Disciplined or not, I still manage to remain very productive, and often focused quite intensely. A 500-mile long Vespa trip might be a pretty apt metaphor for this condition.

Sometimes it is good to have focus, and only then can one really subvert an established form.  Devotion is required to  break out of the fantasy of the individual ego, and certainly to accomplish anything likely to resonate with others.saratogany

argylesaratogaThese notes are arranged into a narrative and visual account of a particular trip, and in some ways it may function as a travel guide, in that if you ever find yourself in these places some of the spots I mention may have added significance, or you might patronize a cafe or restaurant you wouldn’t otherwise have known about.

In keeping with the changing scenery and my changing mood on that day,  my reflections here tend a bit more on larger issues that are implied by the towns I pass through.

______

After a long evening on the Vespa, and a cold night drive from Vermont, I woke feeling in high spirits and much more ready for the second leg of my journey. Argyle always leaves me feeling great. The fire in the wood burning stove had gone out sometime over night. I made some more tea, re-infusing the leaves from the night before, and then went outside to grab some more wood to make up for what I had used.

So far I’d spent 6 bucks on gas and another 6 on tea and snacks. They don’t call them gas sippers for nothing, but still, pretty frugal on my part. I had brought my water bottle and some nuts, dried fruit, a humus & cheese sandwich, a peanut butter banana sandwich, and a granola bar.

Argyle isn’t much of a town, and it’s a dry one at that: not even a bar. The farm itself is something like 170 acres, so our visits were spent mostly hiking around the property or hunkered down in the house. We would go to nearby Greenwich (pronounced Green-wich as it’s written, not all fancy like in New York and London) for groceries, or to the Aviation Mall if we really wanted to see a movie, or just see some people, not that Glens Falls is known for its people watching. Strip malls, highway interchanges, and outdoor supply stores, gas stations and fast food places. A true portrait of American, of one aspect of America at least. But not one that I’ve ever found particularly charming.

For charm (and Indian food) we would go to Saratoga Springs, which had a bit more life owing to the proximity of Skidmore College and a walkable “historic” center. And so that morning I left Argyle on my scooter and headed south and west, towards Saratoga Springs, were I stopped for a quick breakfast and coffee at Uncommon Grounds. Because my iphone had a Canadian plan, I couldn’t make any calls or use mobile data, so I took advantage of the Wi-Fi at the cafe to message my parents and check the route, and back on the road I went.

catskilltrainsWhat’s liberating about long bike rides is also alienating, increasingly so at faster speeds. One thing about driving long distances on a motorcycle or scooter is that, unlike in a car, there’s no sound system, and unlike a bicycle, the motor is too loud for headphones or portable speakers. You can’t really listen to music or have conversations, so you have many opportunities to reflect and think. Luckily I like myself enough to spend long periods of time in my own mind, reflecting on my surroundings and myself. Driving from Argyle to Saratoga, passing through Greenwich I turned onto route 29 and cross the Hudson River, here much less impressive than the river I know downstate. I remember growing up in the Lower Hudson Valley, in elementary school I had a book documenting a kayak journey from the Hudson River’s source at Lake Tear of the Cloud all the way down to its mouth in New York Harbor. The author came to the Scholastic Book Fair at my school, which made the possibility of such adventures more real to me.

catskilltunell4My journey is much more pragmatic, of course. I had just finished my first year of graduate school, and had almost no money. I was selling my Vespa, and going to my cousin’s wedding, so I had even saved on an Amtrak ticket. All of which conspired to have me feeling nostalgic, letting my mind wander. I crossed the bridge into Schuylerville. SKY-lur-vill, I remember Lexy explaining to me years earlier. Lot of Dutch settlers in the area. Funny spellings.  New York was once New Amsterdam, after all, those Dutch folk didn’t all leave, did they? Was it those Dutch descendants who had ostracized Argyle’s sole German resident after the war?  That cold isolation, I was told, had driven the man to suicide. His Luger was even said to still be somewhere in the woods…

The long hours on the road weaving in and out of small towns and cities gave me time to let my wind wander, to contemplate many questions, such as: why are Americans so very fascinated with vampires? –and how did the development of the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s affect the trajectory of the country by shifting the job base away from agriculture and mom-n-pop hospitality towards corporate and centralized/urban service jobs? I’ll leave it to individual readers to draw any connections between the two. The stretch of the state between Saratoga and Albany, on the outskirts of Schenectady, offered no shortage of portraits of American decay.

Screen shot 2010-07-24 at 4.45.20 PM

“Each epoch not only dreams the next, but also, in dreaming, strives towards the moment of waking. It bears its end in itself and unfolds it- as Hegel already saw it- with ruse.  In the convulsions of the commodity economy we begin to recognize the monuments of the bourgeoisie as ruins even before they have crumbled.”

One thing about taking secondary highways is that you get a view into a decaying America, a window into a place that hasn’t always been well preserved. Cruising the highways and small towns of upstate NY, I couldn’t help but think of this quote from Walter Benjamin’s “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century.” (1939) Many of these towns were developed in response to the growing dominance of the automobile, displacing the importance of the canals.  When the interstate highways were built,  travelers were routed away from the small towns and towards the homogenization of corporate highway rest-stops, complete with the kinds of corporate junk food who could afford the logistics.

Kerouac’s road was very different than the one I’m on. And what he was chasing wasn’t really ever there, either. In May of 2008 I had accompanied a friend on a drive from New York to Denver, stopping in Chicago and in her home town in Kansas on the way. I was so consistently disappointed to find McDonalds and Pizza Huts. Could America really be such a monoculture already? The bar’s weren’t much better, but at least the beer was cheap. Back in upstate New York, some towns have done well, those with some history and marketable charm, ideally a small liberal arts college. But most are dry husks, and the abandoned restaurants and foreclosed homes weren’t done so recently. It’s a peculiar thing about people, I think, that we can look back at failed empires of the past, or even just of a half century ago, and yet not manage to see the “ruins before they’ve crumbled” around us right now.

catskilltunell3Was that the real lesson of Modernism? Is that why so many turned to Eastern spirituality? Maybe it’s just me, but when I look at a building I can’t help but wonder, what will it look like in ruins, overrun by plants? Or, how long until a sniper is perched on that ledge? Nothing lasts forever. What will this building’s end look like? Will it coincide with this society’s end? All things must pass. So it goes. Etc.

The steady hum of the road drums up more of those big picture reflections. The European colonization of the Western Hemisphere, the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, and mercantilism initiated  a  westward shift of the hegemonic center of global trade. Once, that center was in the “middle east” where trade routes crossed,  but westward expansion allowed Europe [the Spanish Empire, Venice and Genoa, and their financial successors, Amsterdam and London] to become the center.  Gutenberg’s moveable type printing press reshaped Europe in the half century prior to Columbus, creating imaginary communities, a republic of letters. Is it technology that drives the engine of history?  I’m sure it’s not so simple. The mistake is to think that any sort of moral superiority can be ascribed to success in this way, which we can see is fleeting anyway. But I think Benjamin was right to see it as tired directly to matters of economics. Our current world-system is evaluated based on the production and consumption of commodities, whether or not anyone “needs” these commodities, whether or not this contributes to human flourishing. How else to explain the circulation of commodities? But all things must pass.

coxsackieI made a wrong turn as I came into Albany, pulling over into a gas station to ask for directions. I had stuck to Route 9 since leaving Saratoga, but all of a sudden I didn’t know where I was. I can’t help but wonder if we as a society haven’t  taken a wrong turn, too. We have more than we need and we still aren’t happy.  We have the technical and administrative capacity to structure society in a way so that we can all have the necessities and be happy, but instead we use them to wage terrible war and live in societies that are terribly unequal. Soon enough, the cost of industrial capitalism will prove to be more than we can bear, as the environment itself turns against us.  While we restructure debt and rebuild nations, temperatures are turning more extreme, glaciers and ice caps melt, and our society built on petroleum unravels. The signs are there, but we continue to eat meat from factory farms that pollute and waste resources, we put ourselves in debt not to learn but in hopes of getting a higher paying job, and we waste all of our resources, all of them.  None of us are innocent.  Seen from above, our entire way of life is just a short blip in the history of our planet.  A species that overreached.

The earth is our mother, it graciously provides for us, but we mistreat her again and again. Our common home. Imagine if those early “explorers,” those Conquistadors, the conquerors, the pilgrims, had met the First Nations of these lands with this spirit in their heart, instead of a calculating eye, looking for every opportunity to extract wealth, resources, energy, life itself. Life is just as beautiful in adversarial conditions as in peaceful.

My ass was pretty sore from all that sitting.

H-coxsackieRiding my bike through  the misty old streets of the Plateau Mont-Royal, slightly buzzed and more than a little stones, I had an experience I still can’t explain. Loving how the smoke moves through the cool air, I spot the basilica dome ahead of me in the distance, Montreal’s namesake mountain just behind it in the background. I push myself as I ride up the hill, let myself feel aggressive, yell at myself, forcing myself to ride straight up Avenue du Parc as fast as I possibly can, not letting myself stop. It’s been a while since I’ve pushed myself like that.  Skiing, probably, or when I hiked up to Machu Pichu. It needs to be more often. I remember that sometimes all it takes to accomplish something is to tell ourselves that we can.

correctionalThe stories we tell ourselves matter. Stories teach us a valuable lesson about how we live our lives, because stories in fact make up a part of our lives, they tell us who we are. We create our identities this way.  (The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Aeneid, The Gita, the Bible, The Quran, etc, etc, all those Big Stories, but the little ones, too.) History is a story. And every story has to have a medium, and that medium in turn effects the story itself. The recitation of an epic poem is not the same as reading it is not the same as the film version.

Today we seem to have a greater diversity of stories and of writers, and the media have multiplied, often becoming more ‘realistic’ portrayals of the world round us. People worry much more about the risk of alienation as the media become more spectacular, as they purport to replace the traditional means. But the truth is the risk has always been there, that this anxiety is hardly new. No matter what, these media, whether books or video games, are only useful in so far as we continue to live our stories. There is nothing inherently wrong with our stories. If people are anxious about the decline in face-to-face communications today, imagine how people reacted to the written word. What an abstraction that was! Some marks chiseled on a stone, traced in wax, scratched out on dried skins, how could these hope to capture the artistry of an orator, the poetic inflections of a true bard? They can’t convey the subtleties of voice, they can’t respond in real time to the whims of the audience. &yet &yet…. Virtual representations of communication, visual representations, digitally mediated communications present us see with an opportunity to better understand how our identities as individuals are always already porous and performed. The artifice is always there, it is art, and it is us.

roadrailI read voraciously as a child. I think I understood early on that stories are a central part of our lived reality.  We actively create our realities. The stories we tell about ourselves actually help us to fashion ourselves. As peoples, as individuals, as nations, as artists. Perhaps because of this magical seeming power I was most fascinated by fantasy novels and mythology early on, including the Bible. I read a little science fiction too, but I continued to read fantasy. I learned early on from Ursula K. Le Guin that there is magic in language, that power comes from names. But fantasy is generally understood as escapism, and I can’t blame anyone for viewing me as spacey. The removal from the world as we know it, the ability to create whole new universes with different rules struck me as most interesting, because these stories were still relatable, still unfolded something about what it means to be human. To live a good life. But this only made the “real” world around, the mundane world, seem all the more full of wonder and possibility.

Stories continue to serve us. The rise of blockbuster films and video games in no way diminishes the power of literature. Peter Sloterdijk and other media theorists are right to say that writing has become a marginal art.  However we always knew that change comes from the margins.

I drove towards the hospital and eventually caught my bearing, following signs for 9 West, which would take me most of the way to Westchester. Once you hit the Catskills there’s some more life, but between Albany and Saugerties my memories are mostly decrepit structures and the prison economy. Upstate doesn’t real conform to the rural stereotypes. It’s not just all white farmers and exiles from The City. Schenectady, Albany, and Troy all have visible Black, Arab,and South Asian communities. They also appear to be segregated by the built environment itself, in subtle and not so subtle ways.

To the west is Utica, a small city that saw thousands of immigrants from Bosnia arrive in the 1990s displaced by the Bosnian War. It wasn’t all that long ago that snipers were firing shots in the streets of Sarajevo.  In fact, it wasn’t terribly long ago that a war was being fought in the streets of Berlin. I suspect there are similar events taking place as I write this, and not just in the obvious war zones. War doesn’t just look like snipers. War can also look like a crack epidemic, like lack of social housing, like an epidemic of desperation.  Sometime in the future, in ten years, maybe a hundred, maybe five-hundred, battles will take place here in the streets of Montreal and Brooklyn.

History is important for many reasons, one of which to teach us that things as they are now are not static, but dynamic and changing, even when we can’t perceive it. What it means to be a man/woman/white/black/child/adult and so on changes with time, with cultures. These concepts aren’t natural but naturalized, and therefore constantly being renegotiated.  We would do well to remember this. But this should also motivate us to try to make the future better.  There will one day be a civilization better than this one, of this I have no doubt.

I think of Pink Floyd playing in the ruins of Pompeii…

Society is sick. And the disease is money. If our way of life is so great, why are people so depressed?  Why are they so in need of distraction?  Why are alcohol, pain killers, and opiates so popular? What are we numbing ourselves to? We insist we are happy. I’m happy! Then why do we take anti-depressants?  Why is the suicide rate high?  We’ve let this go on for too long. It’s visible on the desolate streets all across the country.

railwayphotoI look around my room, where I’m writing this, and I am happy.  Musical instruments, art, items collected in my  travels around the world, and many, many books and notebooks. Bourgeois nonsense distracting me from the world, or further evidence of the power of stories? In college I became obsessed with the film Roshoman, because it didn’t insist on some universal perspective, but on the inherent relativity of our individual perspectives. I had a similar feeling when I first read Roberto Bolaño‘s The Savage Detectives. Although it was his 2666 that really got me thinking about stories, and the future. As I said, names have power, so I’ve always been attentive to the significance of titles. Why did Bolaño call his magnum opus 2666?

The year 2001 has come and gone, but Space Odyssey’s “reflections on our fate” haven’t lost any of their power because that power wasn’t derived from accurately predicting a given set of events in a given year. 2001 was just a horizon. That horizon is still there, in the future.

The title of Bolaño’s 2666 is never explained. There is nothing sci-fi about that novel, but the title is certainly a year, and has a lot to say about history and the future, and above all literature and literature’s relationship to the concepts of history and the future, since both are very much wrapped up with writing. But in an earlier novel, Amulet, a character experiences a vision of a street at night as “a cemetery in the year 2666, a forgotten cemetery under the eyelid of a corpse or an unborn child, bathed in the dispassionate fluids of an eye that tried so hard to forget one particular thing that it ended up forgetting everything else.” When I read this, I recognized the impulse, and I tried to imagine what the world might actually look like in the 27th century. It is impossible to predict. Yet we are responsible for whether or not this will be a dream or a nightmare.

Sometimes I worry that most people have it wrong. The internet can offer a static self, a reputation, a lack of inhibition, and the real world offers a wonderfully freeing sense of anonymity. I don’t look forward to loosing my anonymity.  Being conspicuous isn’t desirable, either. What else can we do but take advantage of the cards we are dealt?

I’ve often thought that the unofficial  slogan of the USA should be “Just Because I Can.”  If you climb the highest mountain around just because it is the highest, you’re bound to get yourself into trouble eventually. Maybe you finally reach the summit and realize you should be diving to the deepest depth. Or maybe you’re running from something, and it’s time to stop running. It’s time to deal with it.

The melancholic demeanor of a person who realized that the only thing they really wanted in life was unattainable. For me, I just wanted to know everything. I realized early on that this was impossible, but refused to stop trying anyway. Is this impulse heroic or insane, or worse, stupid? Was that the point of Don Quixote, that his “world-image” was so out of sync with his reality that his concept of nobility had turned him into a fool? Or was nobility a fool’s gold all along?

I pull off in Saugerties, a charming town on the west bank of the Hudson River, the location of Saugerties Light, a lighthouse built in 1869. This is what passed for history in this country. Real history would necessitate coming to terms with just how genocidal the colonization of North America truly was. I park my scooter, and before I even take off my helmet, I’m being greeted by pedestrians. The contrast to the desolate roads and prisons I’d been driving past is stark. I mumble a confused “good afternoon, how are you?” before setting off on the trail toward the lighthouse. It’s not at all how I pictured it. The river I’d crossed in Schuylerville is now impressively wide. The volume of water seems impossible. Where does it come from? Where is it going?

Life is just as beautiful in adversarial conditions as in peaceful.

Day 3: Harrison to Park Slope

Saturday 19 June  2010.

I arrived in Harrison behind schedule, but was happy to have a meal and bed waiting for me. I set off for Brooklyn late the next morning, expecting this final leg of the trip to be the least complicated.  After all, I’d driven from Harrison into the city countless times. Even on my scooter, I knew the way.  Before moving to Montreal, I had spent a lot of time in Washing Heights and Inwood, where my girlfriend at the time was from, and I would often ride through the Bronx and down into Manhattan. But I wasn’t out for one last joy ride, and getting into Brooklyn while avoiding the most dangerous highways proved more challenging than I had hoped. I was nearly forced off the road by aggressive drivers on the Bruckner Expressway in the Bronx. The FDR was no less frightening on a scooter. In Chinatown, I was stuck in traffic on the Bowery, waiting to cross the Manhattan Bridge into Brooklyn. I spend almost as much time in Manhattan as I did riding from Albany to Harrison. But once I get to Brooklyn, around 4pm, I easily zip towards Prospect Park and meet my buyers in front of their beautiful brownstone in long since gentrified Park Slope.

The first day, riding through the winding roads of Quebec and Vermont, I couldn’t help but think of the past, a past that one could read on the surface and between the lines of the land. Riding through New York, that sensation was even more intense, compounded by the empty factories, abandoned restaurants, and prisons that now compose much of the landscape of rural upstate New York. The introduction of the automobile created the Mo(tor Ho)tels, and the Interstate Highways displaced the circulation of people who once were the life blood of these channels.

By the time I reached Brooklyn, I was imaging what the landscape might look like in the future. Would there be a time in the future of this spot in which a sniper would be perched up on that building? Will the city ever endure bombing campaigns, or have ground troops occupying it? After returning recently from another trip to Europe, this sensation of confronting the realities of the past and how our own sense of stability is just as precarious, has come to dominate my consideration of ‘the future.’ As the 10th anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001 approaches, this may not seem unusual, but those events are only tangentially related. Life is movement, and we are kidding ourselves if we think that somehow we are more stable than a river. I’d say this is the calm before the storm, but in truth it hasn’t been so calm. The situation in Europe has done nothing to convince me that we aren’t on the cusp of another shift. But then I remember, we can write our own stories.

Screen shot 2010-07-21 at 3.50.11 PM

One thought on “From Montreal to Brooklyn on a Vespa

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