Moving Forward, Looking Back

February 21, 1997
on the road to Billings, MT

My dad bought a brand new Ford station wagon in 1966. It had a 289 V-8 with a dark green body—sans the wood paneling down the side. Somewhere between the ages of six and ten, I remember riding in the back of the wagon, facing the rear window. I always liked riding in this fashion no matter where we were going. At first it was a little awkward in tight traffic or at a stop light because I was forced to look directly at the car behind us and its forward-facing passengers who couldn’t help but look at me. However, once I mastered a couple of silly faces, I didn’t even mind the stop lights and heavy traffic.

Often I pretended the car was a World War II bomber. As its tailgunner, I watched the world rush up and around my head and slowly disappear into the horizon’s infinity. But, no matter how carried away my imagination would get, I would eventually stretch out and fall asleep as the world continued to shoot by. Sleeping in the car was easy and became an enjoyable experience for me. I would venture to say that the best sleeping I’ve ever experienced was in the family wagon on long vacations out West.

Today I traveled to the city with a large group of students in a full-blown, Greyhound-like bus. This particular model has a row of seats in the rear facing backwards. I unconsciously selected one of these seats for the two-hour journey. I was astonished by the comfort I found in this location of the bus. Yes, it did remind me of my childhood, but my thoughts drifted far beyond the old ’66 Ford. I started searching for the source of my contentment. Why was I so comfortable in this particular orientation of travel—moving forward, looking back?

While muddling over my attraction for riding backwards, a sense of contentment came over me as we rambled down the road. I was reminded of romance as the whining resonance of the anterior-based engine became as intimate as a lover’s breathing. It didn’t take long to tune in to the delicate variations of frequency and pitch as the bus moved through its gears resulting in the slightest changes of velocity. After a while, the whine transformed into a lullaby—seducing the community of riders into a blanket of sleep.

It’s rather surreal to watch the world go by when you’re looking back. Here you don’t see anything coming—there’s no time for preparation—it just hits you. Without warning, a huge billboard demands your full attention, but slowly—even the obnoxious oversized advertisements blend into the landscape until it is reduced to a single point on the horizon. I’m reminded of how we sometimes fall in and out of love. We never see it coming but often we have plenty of time to watch it fade slowly and eventually out of our lives.

Most of us probably prefer to see something coming so we can prepare for its arrival—I guess this is why our eyes are mounted in the front of our head. However, living in a world that changes everyday with blinding speed, I suspect we have grown accustomed to things springing up on us out of nowhere. And it is only after the surprise attack that we have the luxury of watching its aftermath drift slowly out of our lives.