The Narrative of Travel: Being a Character in My Own Road Trip

A trip is a story. First a story lived and then a story told (and retold).

There are two types of roles one can play in a story, author and character. The difference between the two is immense. The author dictates the story from start to finish. Even if she develops it in a piece-meal way or is heavily influenced by outside inspiration, she still controls the story and knows what will happen in it. The character, on the other hand, is subject to the various whims and fancies of the author, including the world and events she chooses to create. The character’s ability to anticipate events to come is limited to the meager information he possesses and his skills of inference. Without this ability to anticipate what’s to come, no expectations are set and the character’s experiences are pure and unburdened. The character knows that he is merely a character; he plays his part by taking advantage of each new development and searching for the value locked away within each of them.

While my point may seem abstract, the roles of author and character easily apply to trips. When someone is an author of a trip, they sketch out all the major details before it even begins and have a clear idea of what to expect. To be merely a character, is to accept that the contents of each day are largely a mystery and that decisions are to be made spontaneously. Over spring break I ceded my control as the author of my life and became a character in an absurd and wonderful story; here it is:

I get into the car with my friend on a Sunday evening and head north. The trip before me is merely a skeleton in the truest sense. I know what cities we are going to (Burlington, Montreal, Toronto, Windsor, and Rochester) and I know where we are staying (a combination of friends’ floors, hotels, and hostels), but I really don’t know much more than that. The first leg of the drive goes smoothly; we chat about whatever crosses our mind and enjoy a selection of the 449-song trip playlist. After a few hours, we find ourselves on the University of Vermont campus. We share a bottle of wine with our gracious hosts and settle down for the night. The next morning we’re told to check out the Church Street Marketplace and World’s Tallest Filing Cabinet if we’re looking for something to do. While exploring the former, we meet a man originally from Providence and realize that it’s not just in novels where the lives of strangers are woven together in unexpected ways.

After a few seconds of deliberation, we decide to visit the World’s Tallest Filing Cabinet. What is a road trip without an impromptu visit to a novelty tourist attraction after all? As we drive up and park, I am overwhelmed by its perfection. The filing cabinet itself is really just half a dozen cabinets welded together. Rust, graffiti, and stickers have claimed far more than their fair share of its façade. What pushes it over the top is its location. It’s bolted to a concrete foundation in the middle of a field next to an industrial park. The World’s Tallest Filing Cabinet is so unapologetically underwhelming that it is actually incredible in its absurd splendor. I stare at it for a minute before my friend interjects, “Hey, do you want to go checkout that brewery we passed when we were driving here?”

Sitting at the bar at Zero Gravity Brewery, we propose a toast to the World’s Tallest Filing Cabinet, without whom we never would have found ourselves there. It was that moment that shaped our approach to the trip. Rather than viewing our discovery of the brewery as a mere coincidence, we decided to view it as an intentional event planned by a force external to us both. From that point onward, it was our duty to carefully consider our surroundings and figure out how to live out the story that was being crafted for us. Burlington merely shaped us as characters, the rest of the trip provided us with the opportunities to fulfill our destiny.

Our time in Montreal got off to a great start. We checked into our hotel room to find out that the room we thought had two double beds only had a single queen size bed. Perhaps we would have spent more time dwelling on our sleeping situation if we didn’t quickly notice that there was no door to the shower, only an incredibly thin curtain. Even though the room was endearingly bad, the best part of the hotel had to be the key. It was a simple metal key attached to an eight-inch block of wood that could not be separated from it (we only managed to leave it locked in the room once). After quickly dropping off our bags and parking the car, our night began.

We meandered down a busy street (that we might have later discovered was the heart of the red-light district), looking for a restaurant or pub. I spotted a pub down a random alley and knew we were destined to go in. My friend was a bit resistant, but after it was clear I wouldn’t back down he gave in. The pub was filled with the dull roar of a dozen or so groups of friends relaxing after work. Once we heard that there was a pint of scotch ale from a local brewery on sale for $4, we knew we’d made the right decision. That night consisted of three more pubs and bars, seven more drinks, and a lot of meaningful conversations that I cannot remember.

The next day best embodied our decision to accept the story that was written for us. We opted to walk rather than using any sort of transportation, because we didn’t want to miss any hidden opportunities. Montreal is worth visiting just for the chance to walk through its streets. Murals, street art, and graffiti can be found on most any corner or large building façade. There seemed to be an artistic arms race going on in Montreal and everyone was the winner. As we walked, my friend pointed out a building littered with fliers with boarded up windows protected by iron bars. I’m not sure if he was struck by divine inspiration or merely possesses an especially keen sense of intuition, but his choice for us to go inside was a great one. Immediately upon stepping inside we were given a glass of steaming apple cider. As I enjoyed my newfound beverage, I tried to figure out what exactly I had just stepped into. While I’m still not sure how to convey Eva-B’s essence properly, the best I can do is say that it is equal parts café, thrift shop, and artistic commune. There was a wide array of things for sale, people making jewelry, and what looked to be living spaces. After an indeterminate amount of time there (I’m fairly certain time functions differently in the realm of Eva-B), we moved on.

A few more minutes of walking and we stumbled across an anarchist bookstore. We browsed for a bit, but ended up just leaving with our experiences of the place. A couple blocks later we found a true oddity, a bar/barber shop. There were two barber chairs in the window and a full bar and dance floor in the back. Having never even conceived of such a place, we succumbed to its allure and both got haircuts. With new looks and empty stomachs, we searched for dinner. Upon my friend’s insistence that we walk down the street with the same name as his girlfriend, we found Yokata Yokabai. Unbeknownst to us at the time, it is known for having the best ramen in Montreal (and the best ramen outside of Japan in my friend’s opinion), and it was made that much better by our accidental discovery of it. Inspired by our exquisite meal, we pushed onward to discoving more of Montreal’s gems. We grabbed a drink at a quintessential speakeasy (long stairway leading to a basement, crushed velvet sets, and smooth jazz playing), after the wallpaper in the stairway caught my eye. We were graced by a live performance at a jazz bar when my friend caught faint murmurs of music as we walked by.

The highlight of the night was finding Arcade MTL. A three-foot tall PAC-MAN mounted on the side of a building caught our eyes and enlightened us to the wonders of an arcade bar. There was a $5 cover charge that included a beer and unlimited games (old arcade games and consoles). We stayed there for two hours, playing video games and drinking beer. We were reliving our childhoods like true adults. Eventually we tore ourselves away from the games and planned to end our night. We decided to cut through an alley to get back to our hotel faster. Mid-way through an otherwise deserted alley we see a single sign Kamasutra.

My friend: “We should go in!”

“I have no desire to go to a strip-club.”

“We don’t know it’s a strip club, it could be fun!”

“It’s a strip club.”

“Think about all the other cool places we’ve found, it could be great!”

“Fine, do what you want.”

My friend presses the buzzer to request entry (why this did not alert him to the true nature of the place I will never understand). We’re let in and immediately confronted by a very large man. It finally becomes clear to my friend that it is a strip-club, but the man asking for us to pay a cover fee is far too intimidating for either of us to feel like we can simply leave. However, the author of our story did not fail us. The cover charge was $5, but they only accepted cash. Luckily for us, we’d both spent our last $5 paying the cover fee for the video game arcade. The poetic nature of that narrative was an excellent way to finish off the night.

My story continues in three more cities and includes doors being ripped off hinges, graffiti alleys, ping pong pubs, and restaurant recommendations for Rochester by a man in Windsor. However, a story lived is far more fun than a story heard. No matter how eloquent my prose (and believe me, I know it’s not that eloquent), you’ll never be able to experience what I did. So, if you take anything from this, take my word and my advice: next trip you take, try merely being a character and faithfully accept any story that is written for you.

Artwork by Isabela Miñana Lovelace

Photographs by Ben Stalnaker

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