I am roughly a thousand miles from my hometown now, but it doesn’t really feel like that far. I want to figure out why that is—after all, this is an important aspect of books. A large part of what makes an epic “epic” is a large scope. Scope can be rendered in a large cast of characters, or a long stretch of time, or in huge distances, or in all three. But how does an author make two landmarks feel far apart, without just telling the reader that they are?
The answer that jumps out to me is to show the journey. Show the blown out tires and midnight resting stops along the way. The problem is that I had this experience traveling from Tallahassee to Iowa City. My mom and I drove there over the course of two days. We went through the southern end of the Appalachians and a violent thunderstorm at the same time. We stopped in Clarksville Tennessee and spent the night at a hotel there. We carried on through Kentucky into Illinois, and puffy trees disappeared where expansive fields took their place. We passed by the St. Louis arch crossing from Illinois into Missouri, and finally came to our destination in Iowa City, Iowa.
And yet, I can’t conceptualize the distance between Iowa City and Tallahassee the way I can the distance between my house and Moe’s. It’s possible that this is because I’ve walked from my house to Moe’s. Maybe it’s just that I think of cars as slow teleportation—step into a box, wait, step out of the box and you’re where you want to be. Or maybe it has to do with inevitability. The car ride to Iowa City was as much a part of going to college as writing my application had been. The trip was an item in itself, not an expression of distance. When I walked to Moe’s, it wasn’t some inevitable thing.
For a start, I didn’t even have to go there. Not that anyone’s forcing me to go to UI, but it’s something that I’ve been set on for so long, it’s a fact of life. Not so with Moe’s. I made the decision on the bus ride home from school. It was free queso day, and I was going to take advantage of it. I had several moments of doubt when it was not certain that I would go—mainly, when I looked up on google maps the path that I’d have to take. It was long—fifty minutes. And it was hot out. But I went anyway. Every step was intentional. And now I’m beginning to understand what the difference is—the distance became tangible because it was a force that I had to conquer in order to get my free queso. I had to walk down long, unshaded roads with big hills. I had to consult my map when I cut through windy neighborhoods. Worst of all, I had to go through Frenchtown—the “bad” part of town, directly north of the Moe’s—and avoid all of the irrational racist fears that might be inspired there.
So it’s not enough to just show the distance, the distance must be tangible. It must be brought to bear against the adventurer, it must be clear that this distance stands between the quester and the queso. And there was only one moment where I had any struggle on the road, when I was driving through that thunderstorm and could hardly seen ten yards ahead of me. The rest of it was slow teleportation. All I had to do was sit for long enough, and I’d end up in Iowa.
Maybe I should hitchhike home for Thanksgiving, really feel the distance that way.
Or I could save the risk of (insert nightmare hitch-hiking scenario) and just pretend that Iowa City and Tallahassee are linked by a slow teleportation box called the Greyhound.