Motorcycles and Backwaters

I turned over this morning in bed and began flipping through Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I remember watching my dad read the book a couple of years ago when we were on a backpacking trip (the image is one of him beside a lake high up in the Yosemite backcountry, just south of Vogelsang), but I'd never looked through it before. Two passages jumped out at me in the first couple of pages, and reminded me in a strange way of some of the things I've been writing about the past couple of days.

In the first few pages, Robert Pirsig is talking about how the experience of being on a motorcycle differs from that of being in a car:
You see things vacationing on a motorcycle in a way that is completely different from any other. In a car you're always in a compartment, and because you're used to it you don't realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You're a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.

On a cycle the frame is gone. You're completely in contact with it all. You're in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming. That concrete whizzing by five inches below is the real thing, the same stuff you walk on, it's right there, so blurred you can't focus on it, yet you can put your foot down and touch it anytime, and the whole thing, the whole experience, is never removed from immediate consciousness.
A couple of lines later, he talks about the roads they were looking for (and this is what really reminded me of Highway 35):
Roads with little traffic are more enjoyable, as well as safer. Roads free of drive-ins and billboards are better, roads where groves and meadows and orchards and lawns come almost to the shoulder, where kids wave to you when you ride by, where people look from their porches to see who it is, where when you stop to ask directions or information the answer tends to be longer than you want rather than short, where people ask where you're from and how long you've been riding.
To be sure, we were driving along 35 in a mini-van stuffed to the gills with clothes, books, a microwave, and a piano, not to mention the two cats riding in the backseat. Not, I'm afraid, the type of rig that lent itself towards short walks along quaint Main Streets, but the impulse is there. And now that I'm thinking about it, a friend of mine rode his motorcycle out West a couple of years ago - I don't remember his route, but I wonder how much of Pirsig's description holds true in practice. I also wonder how it would be to read Zen next to Steinbeck's Travels With Charley, another one of those books that really celebrates small country roads and the process of moving slowly through the country. Pirsig's book was first published in 1974, and I wonder how much of this aesthetic that he's talking about - the roads where kids wave to you as you walk by, for example - is still there. I feel like Steinbeck's book was very much a book about a way of life that was vanishing, a book shot through with these kind of elegiac moments. Not having Pirsig's book, I couldn't really say, but I'd be interested to see what my friend remembers about his ride, and about whether any of this holds true.

And on a related note, I was also reading John Wylie's Landscape this morning when a small passage caught my eye. The book is, I suppose, fairly specific to the discipline of cultural geography, but here Wylie writes:
Already, this chapter has noted Carl Sauer's identification of landscape studies with fieldwork in rural and remote locales and, thence, North American cultural geography's apparent preoccupation with rural backwaters. Turning to the UK, intellectual associations between the terms landscape, history, rurality and nostalgia are even stronger.
It's the phrase "rural backwater" which really stuck out. In a lot of ways, I think the terms are a matched pair. Literally, "backwater" means "A part of river not reached by the current, where the water is stagnant," but several questions persist in my mind. In the first place, at what point did backwater come into common usage (either literal or figural)? It seems to carry with it some old tradition of navigation by waterways, which makes me think of the way in which much of the Midwest river valleys were settled. But in a more figurative sense, what does it mean to call someplace a backwater? To me, it suggests other places that are in the current. And without leaning too much on Heraclitus (What, you can never step in the same river twice?), I wonder what assumptions are built into the term. If a backwater is literally a place out of the current, a figural backwater would be a place in which the current of progress (of development? of thought?) has passed it by.

And that, in turn, seems a problematic way of describing these rural locales in which it seems like time has passed them by. By and large, I think, these places tend to be in the Midwest, in places off the Interstate (Driving with Kirsten on I-70 west of Topeka, we were passed by a Toyota Prius; I turned to her and said, "We haven't seen one of those since North Carolina!"), where life seems to go on in much the same way it has gone on for years and years. It's by no means that simple, but I'm wondering about the understandings of time and progress that are built into characterizing a place as a "rural backwater".

To be honest, I'm not sure that there's a way that you can get around the fact that language is already shot through with a whole series of assumptions, epistemologies, and beliefs about the world, and while one might take that as a injunction to coin new language to describe the world in the moment of the now, I would like to hold out the belief that it might be possible to use the language that we have inherited in such a way that it both remains attentive to its freight of history while holding out the possibility of describing the world as it is. In this particular instance, I think "rural backwater" is a particularly powerful and evocative description, but the term might carry in it assumptions of progress or development. That said, rivers seem to have figured so strongly in the American imagination (the geographical imagination in particular), and to call a place a backwater is also in some sense to draw from that stream as well. And I'm not sure if this qualifies as the kind of humanist practice that I was reading about earlier on this summer, but it might.

All of which is a long way of saying that things are neither here nor there: if language is a kind of frame, then it might be possible to put the frame and what it frames in dialogue with each other.


Jordan M said…
I would like to point you to two other relevant words, one with an actual history and one that is probably a bit more modern.

Podunk -

Bumfuck -

"In this particular instance, I think "rural backwater" is a particularly powerful and evocative description, but the term might carry in it assumptions of progress or development"

Most of us from such places see the terms as having negative connotations (when said by others) or nostalgically or humorously (when said amongst natives). There's a melancholic romanticism attached to such lonely out of the way places, peoples' ideas of rural idylls foisted upon the sometimes harsh, isolated, impoverished existence of those scattered, dying communities.

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