Authors: Eric Kraft
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I'd often dreamed of going West to see the country, always vaguely planning and never taking off.
On the Road
When a man sits down to write a history,âtho' it be but the history of Jack Hickathrift or Tom Thumb, he knows no more than his heels what lets and confounded hindrances he is to meet with in his way,âor what a dance he may be led, by one excursion or another, before all is over.â¦ For, if he is a man of the least spirit, he will have fifty deviations from a straight line to make with this or that party as he goes along, which he can no ways avoid. He will have views and prospects to himself perpetually soliciting his eye, which he can no more help standing still to look at than he can fly.â¦
IN THE SUMMER OF MY FIFTEENTH YEAR, I made a solo flight from Babbington, New York, on the South Shore of Long Island, to Corosso, New Mexico, in the foothills of the San Mateo Mountains, on the banks of the Rio Grande, in a single-seat airplane that I had built in the family garage. Because I was still a boy, barely a teenager, the feat was breathlessly recounted in the Babbington newspaper, the
and in the regional press as well. There were errors in those reports, and the errors have been repeated in anniversary recaps at intervals since then. The errors have now been so fully sanctioned by repetition that they have the ring of truth. From time to time my day is interrupted by phone calls from eager interviewers who want me to tell the story again. Without exception, they want me to retell the story as it has already been reported. I have tried, during some of those telephone interviews, to correct a few errors of fact and interpretation, but my efforts have been dismissed with the condescending politeness that we employ with those whom we regard as having had their wits enfeebled by time.
Because I have consistently failed to set the record straight by phone, I have for some time intended to prepare a full and accurate written account that would do the job without my having to pause in the telling to endure the protests of reporters who accuse me of being “modest” when I am only trying to be, at long last, honest. I have finally begun writing that account. The first third of it, which chronicles my preparations for the trip, occupies the pages that follow, and to my surprise, it
full and accurate, setting a standard of completeness and accuracy that I shall strive to maintain in the two parts of the tale that are still to come.
In the spirit of completeness and accuracy, I will confess to you here that the account that I have found myself writing is not quite the account that I had intended to provide. I'll be frank: I had not intended to set the record quite so straight as I have done. I had intended to allow some of the old errors to standâthe ones that conveyed an impression of me as more capable and my trip as more successful than either actually wasâand I had intended to perpetuate the myth of myself as a daring flyboy, the “Birdboy of Babbington,” the epitome of American ingenuity and pluck, teen division. My intentions altered after I revisited Babbington, the start and finish of that famous flight.
As you will see in Chapter 1, “Babbington Needs Me,” I revisited the town because I received a note from a former schoolmate urging me to see what had become of the place during my absence.
Following that visit, upon my return to Manhattan, I sat down to write, full of good intentions, determined, focused, a man with a mission. Almost at once I began to meet with lets and confounded hindrances, difficulties and disappointments, and even a personal disasterâan injury to my beloved Albertineâthat delayed my work, stretching it out over a far longer time than I had intended to give it. This unexpected extension of the time given to thinking about what I wanted to say led me to compose a more complete account than I had intended. For me, you see, the lets and hindrances abetted my love for a full account, because they gave me time, and, given time, I tend to wander, and when I wander the byways of memory, surprising views and prospects solicit my eye. I pause. I look. I enjoy the view. I explore the prospects. I add the view or prospect to my account. I can't help myself. I am by nature digressive, within limits.
My friend Mark Dorset, an unaffiliated academic who specializes in human motivation, has written at some length on digression, and some of what he has said applies to me:
Digression is antithetical to, but dependent on, the intention to progress along the straight and narrow way. In order to digress, one must first be progressing. One cannot be sidetracked unless one is first on track. One cannot stray unless one is first on the right path. One cannot turn aside unless one is first moving straight ahead. Proust famously pointed out that we cannot remember what has not occurred; he might just as well have pointed out that we cannot digress from a route that we had not intended to take.
If one's honest answer to the question “Where are you trying to go?” is “I don't know,” then one cannot digress.
To digress, then, you must begin by traveling a route that will get you where you intend to go. You must have a goal and a plan for achieving it in order to depart from it. You cannot digress from the right path unless you are already on it.
The easiest path to digress from is the straight and narrow, the straight and strait, rather than the broad way that rambles on its own. The slightest deviation from the straight and narrow is a digression, but the broad way allows a lot of wandering within it, so that one may amble a meandering course and still be within its limits, not really digressing at all.
The digressive thinker is by nature an explorer rather than a point-A-to-point-B traveler. What is the opposite of a digressive thinker? Someone like Phileas Fogg as Jules Verne portrayed him in
Around the World in Eighty Days:
He gave the idea of being perfectly well-balanced, as exactly regulated as a Leroy chronometer.â¦
He was so exact that he was never in a hurry, was always ready, and was economical alike of his steps and his motions. He never took one step too many, and always went to his destination by the shortest cut; he made no superfluous gestures, and was never seen to be moved or agitated. He was the most deliberate person in the world, yet always reached his destination at the exact moment.
He lived alone, and, so to speak, outside of every social relation; and as he knew that in this world account must be taken of friction, and that friction retards, he never rubbed against anybody.
That is certainly not me. I am no Phileas Fogg. I rub against everybodyâand against every memoryâand against everybody in every memory. The friction retards my progress but warms my heart.
The slightest deviation from the straight and narrow is a digression [top], but the broad way allows a lot of wandering within it [bottom], so that one may amble a meandering course and still be within its limits, not really digressing at all.
There is attached to digression a strong suggestion of weakness of character in the digresser. The digresser is digressive, inclined to stray from the right path, the point, the main subject, the intended direction, and the goal, and this tendency to stray is considered by many to be a fault, which characterization makes digression nearly equal to transgression. Progression, on the other hand, is generally regarded as a virtue. The progresser, if you will allow me the term, is progressive (not in the political sense, usually, but in the forward-marching sense), never straying from the path or plan, always moving toward an established goal step by step. To go off course by choice, or to be lured from the right path by a seductive roadside attraction, is regarded as a fault, but to be forced off course is not. The sailor blown off course by mighty Aeolus is guiltless, a victim, but the sailor drawn off course by the Sirens' song is a fool who ought to have stopped his ears with wax and stayed the course.