When I last wrote about I Can See By My Outfit by Peter Beagle, I wrote of the guilt that comes from stopping too soon or going too fast. There is another side to that guilt, perhaps the physical manifestation inside your body. It’s similar to how your stomach can turn due to unpleasant thoughts, but still, there’s another essence to it.
We always stop driving before sunset, partly in order to set up camp while it is still light, but partly, I think, because the hour before dark is a strangely lonely time to be driving something as small and open as a scooter as far away as we are. The thin orange light is going away so swiftly, and yet our own lights seem so feeble against the thickening air. Coldness begins to bloom inside both of us like a night flower, and each feels as alone as though the other were not there, and more deeply homeless than being a long way away from home should make him.
Even when I had just started, I was aware of that hour. The first night truly on my own, somewhere in Ohio, I raced against that hour and against the first of many rain storms. My original plan was to camp, but since the dark was quickened by the clouds and covered in the rain, I chose a motel. Though I would pick a motel over a campground more often than I’d like, I would never flirt with that hour before sunset again.
Just as the hour before sunrise is beautiful and sacred, the hour before sunset, if you pay attention, is solemn, though somehow almost profane. The splendor of the deep reds and pinks hover and slip under sparkling amethyst mountains as the last fingers of daytime lose their grip to the darkening east. You will never feel more widowed than riding west, always failing to preserve enough light to usher you to day’s end.
That lonesome vacancy that guides you though till dark is unhurried and I’ve found it is best find your home for the night before dusk.
As I would ride, I would become hyper-aware of everything – sometimes to the point of becoming unconscious to the road itself. Each town and each farm held lives that I couldn’t touch, but somehow touched me.
Everything I see interests me, and if I don’t stop and dismount to look at every pattern of branches against the sky and down every dirt road, still, some part of me stays behind each time. I see a house by the highway, and I put myself into it in the seconds it takes me to go by – difficult, because very few houses, seen as you pass, seem big enough for people to live in – and not all of me catches up with me before I am out of sight. A car passes Jenny and takes a fragment of me wherever it is bound. I wonder if many people above the age of five are this caught up in what they see around them, this aware every day and every night for all their lives. I don’t think there’s enough of me to keep it up for very long, unless you can grow yourself again from a single morsel, like a starfish, but today I would scatter myself along the road like a handful of seeds, if I could, as far as I could.
This is something only the strange solitude of seeing everything so plainly, yet so quickly, can give to you. It is, however, the kind of loneliness that you welcome, that you long to experience. The loneliness of the road, especially of being on a scooter, hundreds or thousands of miles away from the place you most remember as home is a loneliness you crave long after it’s gone, replaced only by the loneliness you’ve seen in other folks living and unmoving in the towns you’re slid through as you wander.
Everyone talks to us this afternoon. One of the things that has struck both of us deeply on this trip, in spite of – or perhaps because of – the fleeting contacts we have made, is how badly people want to talk to someone. They cannot make anyone hear them unless they scream, but they seldom really scream. Instead, they put letters in bottles and throw them into the sea of strangers, and the letters always seem to say, “Save me, save me.”
Like Peter and Phil, the travelers in I See by My Outfit, I’ve seen this across the country. Those who say that people are the same everywhere you go, have not actually been anywhere – or may as well have just stayed at home. But those who perfectly deny it, as I used to, are failing to see the thread that runs through us all. While we are not all the same, we all yearn to be heard, to not have to scream and to break those bottles holding our dreams on the rocky shores of each coast and upon the mountains, prairies and towns across all the land we’ve ever wanted to see.