American Meditation: Boredom and the Road Trip

I recently saw a banner advertisement for a new Volvo something or other. The standout feature was not the car (clearly, I cannot remember what it was), rather the phrase “unlimited data for 6 months.” The car came with built in wifi. No need to download movies to laptops and iPads before leaving home: let the cloud take care of that.

I am concerned that we are depriving future generations of the full road trip experience. Little did we know that the minivans with built in dvd players were a gateway drug to something far worse. Anyone can stare at a screen anywhere, watching the same reruns of Adventure Time. There is nothing special about watching it in the car. Is nothing sacred anymore?

I am concerned that in the future, nobody on a long car trip will ever be bored. Boredom on a long car trip is elemental. It is the same as the anxiety felt when asking a crush out for something more serious than Nintendo in basement: it is inescapable, and somehow fundamental to our growth as a human being. There are few times that undiluted boredom is ever felt. In most narrative art forms, boredom is used a way of providing details that would otherwise clog down action heavy scenes.

J.K. Rolling is extremely astute in her use of the normal and boring as plot device.  The moments where Harry and company are bored provide fascinating details into what the wizard world is like.  What better time to describe what sort of chocolates wizards eat than when Harry is bound up in Hospital?  When it comes to the true tedium, she expertly glosses over it. The last few paragraphs of the book constitute the extreme end of the denouement: Harry, Ron and Hermione sit for their exams and leave for home. The action is over and any further detail would constitute a violation of the promise of a good story: time is wasted and nothing is gained. Explaining the intricate details of studying for tests would be, well, boring.

Boredom on a long car trip is the last few paragraphs of a Harry Potter book stretched out over hours and sometimes days. Stripped of all electronic gadget-enabled distractions, that boredom forces us to retreat inward into our self and really think. It gives us the quality time to consider things that get squeezed out by the complications of day to day life. It forces us to be inventive and consider solutions to problems, chiefly, how the hell am I going to entertain myself as we drive across Nebraska?

Occasionally, the thinking done on a long car trip will force us to consider unpleasant yet necessary items. It will force us to consider ourselves as human beings in relationship to the world. It will force us to ask ourselves are we really happy? It drives us to create rich fantasies, and invent versions of ourselves that excel in fantastic worlds.

Think of the car trip as a sort of American meditation. It is one of the few places that in our modern, hyper connected, democracy we are ever truly alone with our thoughts. This, perhaps, is one of the reasons that the road trip has entered the American psyche like nothing else. It is in our bones to get into an automobile at some point in our life, point it towards the unknown in scintillating anticipation, and hope for the best. How would a rerun of Spongebob Squarepants improve upon that?

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