In Saudi Arabia, I had trouble simply communicating with motorists who have lost the ability to imagine unconstrained movement to any point on the horizon. Asking directions is often pointless. Like drivers everywhere, their frame of reference is rectilinear and limited to narrow ribbons of space, axle-wide, that rocket blindly across the land.
“Why did you leave the road?” one Saudi friend asked me, puzzled, when I improvised an obvious shortcut across a mountain range. “The highway is always straighter.”
To him, the earth’s surface beyond the pavement was simply a moving tableau — a gauzy, unreal backdrop for his high-speed travel. He was spatially crippled. The writer Rebecca Solnit nails this mind-set perfectly in her book “Wanderlust: A History of Walking”: “In a sense the car has become a prosthetic, and though prosthetics are usually for injured or missing limbs, the auto-prosthetic is for a conceptually impaired body or a body impaired by the creation of a world that is no longer human in scale.”
I just call it Car Brain.
The incidence of Car Brain grows with rising latitudes across the surface of the world. (Then it vanishes at the poles, where Plane Brain replaces it.) In the affluent Global North, this syndrome will be familiar to any hiker who has had to share a walked landscape with motor vehicles.
Cocooned inside a bubble of loud noise and a tonnage of steel, members of the internal combustion tribe tend to adopt ownership of all consumable space. They roar too close. They squint with curiosity out of the privacy of their cars as if they themselves were invisible. In Saudi Arabia, this sometimes meant a total loss of privacy as Bedouins in pickups, soldiers in S.U.V.’s and curiosity seekers in sedans circled my desert camps as if visiting an open-air zoo, gaping at the novelty of a man on foot with two cargo camels. Other motorists steered next to my elbow for hundreds of yards, interrogating me through a rolled-down car window. (Not to pick on Saudi Arabia, which is no worse than any other Car Brain society, but exactly one driver in 700 miles of walking in the kingdom bothered to park and stroll along for a while.)
More striking than a Car Brain’s impaired road etiquette, though, are the slow pleasures it misses in life.
From “A stroll around the world” by Paul Salopek in The New York Times.