I drafted this post over a year ago and never did anything with it. I’ve been rifling through past drafts as a means of writing something not connected to the current state of things (April, 2020). While this is not about the virus, it speaks to an effect of the social changes of the last month. Very few of us are traveling for personal reasons. The interstates are not empty but full of something deemed essential, trucks and those who drive them.
The interstate system is at the core of the American economy. From personal travel to the movement of goods, this system of roads defines the flow of materials across this very expansive landmass we call home. For as necessary as these roads are for the function of our economy, I believe that interstates also are an intrinsic part of our cultural identity.
For better or worst, a defining part of the American culture is that we drive. We drive a lot. Many of these miles pile up at highway speeds. We rush past mile markers as white and yellow lines pass rhythmically beneath our wheels. Many of us do this enough that it can become routine. We can settle into a light focus that puts us, drivers, into contemplative moods. The road provides us time to think and mull over all the ideas we are often too busy to engage with during our day to day. I believe this time for soft-focus it’s one of the many things that keeps us driving on, on, and on.
While driving can provide a space for contemplation, it is also a place for unsolicited exposure to human behavior and various forms of messaging. We drive along interacting with other drivers and their vehicles. Cursing at their incompetencies as they do the same at ours. Our eyes focus on the messages of bump stickers, commercial vehicles, and billboard advertisements. The interstate is a place to think, but it is not often a place where you alone get to choose your thoughts.
Yet not all messages on the road are bad or unwelcomed. There are times when a message comes through and truly engages your mind. I think of quirky bumper stickers, populations(or elevation) signs of passing towns, or the feeling of relief that comes from finally seeing your exit after a long ride. If the circumstances are just right, the contemplative state and the message can combine and provide us with something significant. I call this Interstate Wisdom. Below is an example of one such gift.
The image is a little blurry, a side effect of traveling at nearly 80 mph and being one of those jerks obviously on their phone while driving. But the statement is clear.
Don’t like trucks? Stop buying shit. Problem solved.
I passed this big rig, gave him a fist bump or two, hoping he will take it as a positive gesture. I mulled that statement over in my head during the next three hours of interstate driving.
Problem solve! It’s as easy as that. Just stop buying shit. We won’t need so many trucks, and everyone can be happier because all those slow trucks won’t be in your way. It’s a clear win-win.
I love every bit of it because it frames a significant self-perpetuating issue. Most of our livelihoods are directly connection to continued and increase consumption of material goods. This dependency on commerce defines the role and character of our interstates. It also, to a large extent, defines our communities and our lifestyles. The author William Irving goes further and states purchasing is what defines our lives.
For one thing, modern individuals, rarely see the need to adopt a philosophy of life. They instead tend to spend their days working hard to be able to afford the latest consumer gadget, in the resolute belief that if only they buy enough stuff, they will have a life that is both meaningful and maximally fulfilling.
How can we approach something so foundational? Something so incredibly interconnected it holds true from the global to personal scale. If I begin thinking about how to support an economy that supports people, but doesn’t promote the buying of shit all the time. I find some insight and ideas mixed within some real walls and hurdles. It is a question that quickly spins out of control. It feels too complex to project forward realistically. I believe something better is out there, but how to connect that to the scale of a society, a world without just leaving it all to faith.
Best instead to leave it tightly wrapped within that little piece of Interstate Wisdom. All that complexity and interconnected summed up into three lines. Heck, it even gave us a common enemy, those damn slow-moving trucks.
I still like big rigs, even if they are slow. They are impressive machines, and I deeply appreciate the role they play in supporting the quality of life in our nation. That said, I’ll jump ship and become someone who doesn’t like trucks if doing so helped other enshrine this bit of Interstate Wisdom and start buying less shit. Maybe it’s not the answer, but it seems like reasonable place to start.
The current stay at home measures means that most of us are, due to lack of availability, buying less shit. We are running a live test of what happens when you close off many of the consumptive elements of the economy. These restrictions may present themselves as a lack of choice or, more significantly, as the inability to provide financial stability through one’s profession. These changes in consumer habits will start showing the complex sets of strings that connect our individual choices to buy to people, organizations, and societies all over the world.
I don’t know what this means for the future. I hope there is some mix of positive change tossed in with the hardship. Can living with less now show people that you can do the same when choices abound and still be happy. Can it show us how much we enjoy the company of others, the open spaces, the thrill of being part of a crowd? Can it push us to place more personal value on first-hand experiences and diminish the value we place of things? These are thoughts that are worthy of a long drive.