The Meaning of a Bus

Maybe some of you know that I spent ten weeks in the summer of 2009 living on a veggie-oil powered school bus with a few of my friends and tooling around the American South. Well, the guy who came up with the idea, purchased the bus, drew up the plans and repaired the diesel engine/veggie oil system whenever the bus broke down — my amazing, brilliant friend John Pags — has a blog post reflecting on the meaning of the trip. I hope he won’t mind if I just excerpt his post in full:

I finished Blue Highways recently, and I’m not quite sure whether I liked it or not. It has many lovely stories about small towns all across America, which I loved to read about, but it’s also littered with little throw away facts about towns he drove through. It felt at times like the entire premise of the book was just an excuse to tell stories about small towns, but there’s a point of separation from the story when he just rattles off facts about a town without having stopped in it or talked to any residents. It feels like it would have been better as a collection of short stories, each with their own setting and characters instead of pulling them all into this larger narrative. I realize it’s all true, it’s just that I didn’t find his voyage all that interesting in and of itself.

Although I guess that shouldn’t be surprising, since the author/narrator didn’t really either. From the last page:

The circle almost complete, the truck ran the road like the old horse that knows the way. If the circle had come full turn, I hadn’t. I can’t say, over the miles, that I had learned what I had wanted to know because I hadn’t known what I wanted to know. But I did learn what I didn’t know I wanted to know.

I feel a similar way about the Tour, and often replied as such if anyone asked what I had learned. That’s also why I probably won’t ever write much about the trip, save a few events. There was a more revealing passage, several pages earlier, that had also echoed what I had felt about the Tour. Looking back, it really reflects what I feel was the purpose of the trip:

In a season on the blue roads, what had I accomplished? I hadn’t sailed the Atlantic in a washtub, or crossed the Gobi by goat cart, or bicycled to Cape Horn. In my own country, I had gone out, had met, had shared. I had stood as witness.

This drove me nuts for maybe a year or so after the trip had ended. I kept trying to write some sort of cohesive, definitive account of the trip, but I always came up against the fact that there seemed to be no cohesive plot. I had no idea where things had begun, I had no idea where they ended, and there was more discernible arc connecting the two. It was with a certain arrogance that I just assumed that a series of thematically and causally connected events in my life automatically formed a story.

We’re conditioned to believe that our whole lives are in the stories we tell to ourselves and each other. Any story has some sort of meaning embedded in its text, so the natural instinct is to judge that there is some sort of meaning imbued into actual events, and that making sense of those events is a sort of forensic, archeological process. But of course, we’re not archeologists. We’re sculptors working with raw, shapeless material. Telling is shaping, no matter how much we try and convince ourselves otherwise.

As far as the Juan Way Tour goes, I’ve abandoned shaping a single big document out of it for now. I treasure the raw material too much to dare chip at it with shaking hands. Maybe some day when I have the time, focus and skill, I’ll give it another shot.

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