By John Latta
I wonder how many of you see your choice of profession as inevitability. How many of you drive because constantly moving, never really settling down, is something you “just have to do?” There is a school of thought that says that just as man’s first societies were nomadic, so it is that people are still naturally nomadic, and that building cities and living fixed in one place is not man’s natural way of life.
Some time ago, I bought a book and then forgot I had it. My note scribbled on the title page says I bought it in Richmond, Va., in 1989 (June 18 according to the little sticker on the cover). The book sat hidden under layers of dust in my “must read” pile, even though I must have picked it up and moved it dozens of times. But it caught my eye recently, and it occurred to me that I might learn something about truckers if I read it.
The book is The Songlines, by the late, highly respected British writer Bruce Chatwin. He spends time in the heart of the Australian outback with the country’s native Aborigines, trying – I’m going to oversimplify here – to understand their view of life. The Aborigines believed that their ancestors ‘sang’ the world into existence, walking back and forth across the continent of Australia in prehistoric times naming everything they came in contact with from plants to animals and leaving behind trails, songlines, that their descendants rely on for identity, land and their relationship with neighbors. Chatwin argues that the Aborigines’ unwillingness to “settle down” is a perfectly natural preference. When man became settled, he suggests, the trouble began.
We are naturally nomadic, Chatwin asserts, and like other creatures, born to move and keep moving. We do not choose cities; we are forced into them. He refers to a text from ancient Sumeria (one of man’s first “civilizations” where people gathered in city-states in what is now Iraq), which says: “Without Compulsion no settlement could be founded. The workers would have no supervisor. The rivers would not bring the overflow.”
Chatwin quotes a Moorish proverb: “He who does not travel does not know the value of men.” And “In The Descent of Man [Charles] Darwin notes that in certain birds the migratory impulse is stronger than the maternal. A mother will abandon her fledglings in the nest rather than miss her appointment for the long journey south.” He cites an Indian proverb: “Life is a bridge. Cross over it, but build no house upon it.” He finds support in the Tibetan definition of human being – “a-Gro-ba” – which means “a goer” or “one who goes on migrations.”
“The prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos and Hosea,” he writes, “were nomadic revivalists who howled abuse at the decadence of civilization. By sinking roots in the land, by ‘laying house to house and field to field,’ by turning the Temple into a sculpture gallery, the people had turned from their God.”
I am butchering Chatwin’s sophisticated argument. Nevertheless, I could see the author interviewing drivers and deciding that a large number of them don’t just aimlessly choose to drive for a living, but are pulled in that direction because it suits their nomadic spirits. So many truckers will tell you they chose the life because they’ve “gotta keep moving” or they “can’t stay in one place” or “I don’t do good at home, I’ve got to be on the road.” And how many truckers do you know who say they can’t leave the life behind? I’ve interviewed truckers who’ve told me they should probably settle down, but they just can’t, and I’ve talked to many who tried and failed to live a sedentary life.
So as I was reading I was thinking that it’s possible that the call to keep rolling down interstates and considering those journeys an end in themselves – a way of life, not a way to a life somewhere at the end of the road – may come from the oldest core of mankind, not from some hard-to-explain 21st century uncertainty.
Near the end of the book, Chatwin meets a homeless tramp on the street and takes him to lunch at a fancy restaurant (much to the chagrin of the snooty diners) to hear his story. The bum enjoys two steaks and tells Chatwin that he continually wanders because “It’s like the tides was pulling you along the highway.”