Our bus responsibly pulls into stall 5B at 9:05AM, the lefthand windows easing into a perfect parallel with those on the righthand side of Bus 5A. On the lefthand side of our bus (5B), where I sit (Row 7, aisle seat), we stare across the small gap between vehicles at the riders of 5A. With nothing to watch for the next 3-5 minutes (at which point Bus 5C will ease into its adjacent space to our right), tourists on the right half of our bus (5B) crane their bodies and necks in jealousy, desperately threading glances through the crooks and gaps in our (of the left half of 5B's) bodies to also spy on the riders of 5A, who have been idly staring back at all of us since we first pulled in. Bus 5A uniquely occupies the first parking spot in a new row, with only a wall to its left. Accordingly, distant riders (occupying the left half of Bus 5A) behind those (occupying the right half of Bus 5A) immediately across from us (occupying the left half of bus 5B) also stared across the space between vehicles back at us. From our (of bus 5B's, or more specifically the left half of bus 5B's) perspective, these distant riders (of the left half of Bus 5A) appeared as mere pairs of eyes in the shadows, wildlife eavesdropping on the new encampment.
While our driver burped out directions through the staticky intercom system, we sat boredly, absorbing none of her instruction. Instead, we committed ourselves to the ongoing intervehicular staring war, all eyes of 5A vs. all eyes of 5B. I worried we would soon lose this battle when Bus 5C ultimately rolled in on our right, assuming this would lead to half of our bus (the right half) to turn and stare at this new flock of tourists for the next 3-5 minutes.
When, instead, all the patrons of Bus 5A suddenly turned their gaze forward, our victory was short-lived. A very loud whisper from somewhere nearby in 5B.
"What do you suppose they are looking at?"
A good question. We ambled and leaned toward the glass windows in hopes of identifying the target of Bus 5A's collective gaze. By performing a masterful display of visual geometry, in which I aligned the space between two heads, a chin and the neck below, a hanging backpack strap from the overhead rack, and a triangle of space between armpit and akimbo'd limb, I managed to catch glimpses of a new silhouette in Bus 5A, standing somewhere between the driver and bus door. A spied the corner of a red and yellow checkered hat. The tufted edge of a billowy frock floating in and out of my view from 5B. The back of a clipboard suddenly being held up, triggering visible sighs of relief and smiles from 5A's inhabitants. As I and fellow onlookers from the left half of 5B quietly convened about the importance of this new figure in 5A, the distal, right half of our bus was reduced to nudges, pokes into our backsides, and whispers to probe us for new intel. Leaning slowly across the aisle, the backs of our palms protecting our speech as to avoid potential inter-bus-row communication leaks, we replied:
"I think their guide has arrived."
This answer would not satisfy. We found ourselves immediately inundated with new questions from across the aisle in response.
"Is it a man or a woman?"
"Do you think that guide will take them on the tour?"
"Will they leave before us?"
"Do you think our guide could be coming next?"
This last question was typically followed by, first, a brief visual inspection of the still empty space between our bus driver and the bus door, and, second, a derisive gaze to the right, ensuring that Bus 5C absolutely has not been met by its guide. Another barrage of whispered questions to my back as I continued to monitor the situation in Bus 5A.
"What is the guide wearing?"
"Is it the traditional garb of the Historic Clydestown settlement?"
To this pair of questions, I felt immediate conflict. I held the distinction of sitting sufficiently close to the front of the bus to earn me an angle from which I saw at least some of 5A's guide and, thus, I could answer the first question. But, I also had no knowledge of Historic Clydestown's discovery, settlement, and larger contributions to modern day society, such that I could not answer the second question. Naturally, I lied.
When the engrossed population of 5A then sprung to their feet, it signalled the beginning of a new war.
This war, fought within the metal and glass confines of Bus 5A, consisted of battles contested through invasion and position. Hands reached through enemy lines, gripping the overhead rack in a show of dominance and leverage to catapult the once-sitting into the much coveted territory of standing-room in the skinny aisle. The first successful clashes triggered a general inward collapse of the entire bus' populace. The aisle seats would now be filled by those once sitting by the windows. The window seats now cooled to room temperature and expanded to their original height, free of heat and compression. With new positions established, soldiers in 5A glanced around the bus, squinting at the rows in which both aisle and window seats sat empty, suggesting someone had squeezed two into the aisle in direct violation of decency and traveller's convention. Leers fell on those in the nearby aisle, attempts to shame the perpetrators.
Back in Bus 5B, we stared helplessly to our left, watching those in 5A prepare to disembark. Basic arithmetic put their tourist group one to two steps ahead of us. Although the immediate purpose of their scuffle was obvious and their subsequent intentions crystal clear, those of us sitting on the left half of 5B were still elbowed and probed by those on the right half, who worriedly asked over our shoulders.
"Are they getting ready to leave?"
We murmured toward the window unintelligibly, assuming any vocalization would quell those less fortunate in the right half of 5B. Following our eventual acceptance that tour group 5A is, and may always be, leaving without us, we again targeted our stares to the front of our bus. Taking our time, we dragged our eyes across the empty space between the driver and the bus door. Empty. We double-checked. No guide. We checked our watches fretfully. Our third check would be performed discreetly, from the corners of eyes while the head deliberately faced elsewhere. Surely, they should be here by now.
In hopes of combatting the rising tension built upon countless seconds of panic in bus 5B, a few of the riders began to nervously chat about the weather or the ride over with nearby seaters. These tourists participated in another war that remains officially unrecognized in this account, because the entire fight occurred within the confines of their own heads. From my perspective outside of these riders' heads, I could plainly hear the terror in their voices that they were attempting to hide in hopes of appearing to exude calm acceptance that our leader was not (and may never be) here. They thoughtlessly weaponized the social balm of meaningless conversation. When we noticed that the tenants of Bus 5A had begun shuffling forward, one at a time tromping down the stairs and out of the bus into who knows where (perhaps Historic Clydestown), local conversation amongst bus 5B became staccato'd with stutters and quiet groans, as if each rider disembarking Bus 5A was a new punch in the gut.
The complete emptying of 5A was too much for some. Three, no four (!), brave souls defied convention and arose to their feet, awkwardly hunched beneath the overhead rack and eagerly probing a foot out into the empty aisle. Instantly, the shotgun crack of the intercom system wielded by the driver levelled them all, snapping their knees forward and butts down into their rightful place.
"Please remain seated until our guide, D'benzer, arrives. Won't be long now, folks. Thank you kindly."
We were terrified. Many of us sunk further into the cheap foam of our seats, trying for the solid metal beneath it. By pushing ourselves downward and hunching, we hoped to redefine the act of sitting in the rear view mirror to satisfy the demands of the tyrant behind the wheel. Some of us looked down at their feet, hoping to disappear behind the headrest in front of them entirely.
Our bus door opened. Our bodies eagerly followed suit, unfurling from awkward hunches in an attempt to gain verticality and claim an unimpeded view to the front of bus 5B. We strived to stand while remaining seated, hoping to crest the heads of those sitting in fronter rows. If you could have wandered about our bus at that exact moment frozen in time, and poked and prodded its many inhabitants, you would've found our quads tense and engaged. Perhaps in a follow up experiment, you might have found that you could have easily slid a single piece of paper, unimpeded, between each of our butts and the seats below them. In a world where we did not want to sit but dared not stand, we hovered. When height was not an option, the figures of riders swayed left and right to occupy all angles along the azimuth, an opened paper fan of faces all staring at the front of the bus, where our Jesus Christ herself now stood.
The back of the clipboard she held harkened me back to my memories of Bus 5A, when I first caught a glimpse of the top left corner of (what I deemed) nearly the exact same clipboard that was now being held in full view in bus 5B. I smirked and chuckled internally at my familiarity at how-we-like-to-do-things-here in Historic Clydestown. My smirk immediately leveled out, even bordering along a frown, however, when I noticed the alien uniform behind the clipboard. In lieu of the traditional red and yellow checkered cap that I recalled from my peeks into Bus 5A (Ah, good times), our guide wore a plain red visor. Worse yet, she wore neither billows nor frock nor any imaginable combination of the two, instead wearing a white t-shirt and denim overalls. I looked over at the tourist sitting across the aisle. Though we had never spoken on the 6 hour drive here, it felt like only minutes ago that I had educated her about the traditional garb of Historic Clydestown settlement guides as derived from Bus 5A. She noticed my staring, glancing back across the aisle and offering a light smirk before returning her gaze to our savior ahead. I continued to stare at the side of her face. I pitied her cheek and ear. Attached to a head that, thanks to me, might leave today knowing less about Historic Clydestown than when she arrived. I cut my losses and looked forward just in time to have missed only a couple words from our tour guide, whose eyes tracked the print across her clipboard religiously, never once reaching up to meet ours.
"--nzer and I'll be your guide today. I want to remind everyone that Historic Clydestown is a Heritage Site and, as such, I need you to keep your legs and arms inside the vehicle at all times ha ha ha I am just kidding, Clydestown never had vehicles for the most part, except when need and wealth permitted, and hey we won't even be riding a vehicle. We will be walking in an orderly line, one at a time. Please follow all instructions on the signs along the tour and our subguides will answer any questions you have at each tour destination. Thank you all for coming. I love you."
She spoke her final sentence with a strange, unidentifiable accent. Though we would never find out, D'benzer had always thought that that's what italics meant in text.
"With that please ask the riders to line u--"
And with this partial command, our own battle for the aisle began. In the interest of brevity, I would like to simply state that our struggle was not unlike that witnessed 3-5 minutes early in Bus 5A. But I cannot. For our battle was tougher. Leveraging the innate advantages of an aisle seat, I firmly planted my hand above and swivelled into the aisle, but I was not alone. Needless to say, the contortions my body deftly assumed to weasel into a respectable (if not commendable) position in the aisle would make a gymnast blush. Once established in line, I dutily performed my own survey for pairs of empty seats and perpetrators of the common good, who squeezed two into the aisle where God intended only one.
I didn't have to look far. The two seats immediately behind mine both lay bare. Row 8. I wondered if our tickets were assigned based on descending common decency. I started to scan the peripheries of my memory over the last 6 hours, hoping to mentally identify the culprit now hiding amongst the aisle. When I felt convinced that I could recall a squarish man with distinct chinstrap facial hair sitting beside the window behind me, the target of what would be a terrifying glare, I started to turn around, ready to dole out the silent punishment.
I froze in a half turn. Common math would dictate that a window seat rider one row away could occupy anywhere between 1-5 spots behind me in line. What if it was 1? I considered the physical shuffling of bodies necessary to pull the window side rider from his (I think it was a his) seat to immediately behind me in the aisle wildly unlikely. But not impossible. Could my harsh stare be conveyed across mere inches? Would the weaponized subtly of a leer be lost without a minimal distance needed to establish it (I estimated at least 2 feet)? Worse yet, might I look like the rude one, turning around in brazen violation of the sanctity of what little personal space we have left when in line? I slowly rotated back, returning to face the front of the bus, ashamed in my inability to challenge this indiscretion. I would not stoop to his level and defy the basic social physics governing the formations of bus tourists. I convinced myself that other riders on the bus, appropriately distanced from the culprit, were likely staring him down properly, perhaps some even managing to mutter or shake their head when he returned their gaze (I could hope).
Following D'benzer's trudge down the stairs and back out of the bus, we began our awkward exodus. The line moved slowly and inconsistently. We stared down to watch feet greedily invade the new spaces freed ahead of us. We assumed calculated poses when the line stopped moving altogether, exerting postural dominance over those still sitting, ensuring that they would remain that way while we passed. Passing the driver near the front, I bowed deeply out of respect and fear before veering right and clomping out of the bus.
At first glance, Historic Clydestown reminded me of heaven. Immaculate sheets of white covered the entire horizon, dotted only with the glitter of tiny rivets regularly spaced along its borders. The sky seemed to go on forever, a perfect milky white untouched by blue. Noticing a strange texture to the otherwise perfect sky, I soon recognized it as vinyl. Reassessing our environment, I realized that our bus had parked alongside others within a giant, white vinyl tent. Looking back to our direction of entry, I noticed that the giant white tent continued back along the road, taking a gentle left turn out of sight. How far back could the tent go? It was quite dark on the ride here so I had done little to survey beyond the bus window. I imagined a long, skinny white tent starting outside the bus depot and conveying itself all the way to Clydestown.
I want to underline here and now that, as an aisle seater, it was far out of my purview to endlessly spy over the lap of my unspoken partner in the window seat. When you sit in the aisle, you have decided that your world will exist within the confines of the bus for the entire drive. It is the responsibility of the window seaters to survey and report on gross changes in landscape and structure. This reasoning hurt my heart as I felt suddenly betrayed by the rider with whom I shared the most (both the side of the bus and the row number).
Reverting my gaze back ahead, I noticed that behind our guide, D'benzer, the massive white wall was marked with two labelled doors. Above one, in bold impacted black lettering, sat the word, "ENTER". Above the other, further to the right, sat the collection of words, "DONOT ENTER". I cringed at the lack of adequate space between these first two words. Who had approved that a visitor's first experience with Historic Clydestown proper would be one of rampant illiteracy? But wait. Was I not here to travel? To learn, grow, and improve? I admitted that Historic Clydestown was established, grown, and destroyed within a very different era from present day. Perhaps spacing was of insignificance in those times? Worse yet, perhaps donot itself is a historic word commonplace in Clydestown. Admittedly, it sounds latin. If this were the case, my earlier cringing would mark me as both ignorant and indignant amongst the denizens of bus 5B. I quickly tried to look as unsurprised as possible and whispered aloud to no one in particular that I think I had stubbed my toe, in case anyone had noticed my earlier reaction. My deception was flawless, neither the tourist in front or behind me in line exhibited any indication of noticing me.
I was floored when the ENTER door was opened to us by our guide's use of a zipper, which followed a gentle, sloping angle over the door's archway. The flap below collapsed to provide entry for our group. I took a final look back at the flawless tent housing the ever lengthening line of busses and decided that this was a good tour and that I was happy that I had come.
Passing through the doorway, we immediately found ourselves inside a smaller, white tent. Like the vinyl tunnel through which our bus arrived, this tent also stretched far ahead, this time taking a slow curve to the right out of view. This visual similarity ignited my imagination. I thought of each tourist in line as a tiny bus, travelling through the sterile entrance to Historic Clydestown early in the morning. I found this thought impossibly funny and involuntarily released a single chuckle. Before the "hah" had left my lips, while it was still a collection of neural impulses destined for my throat and tongue, I had already regretted it. While still vocalizing the single syllable, I was met with a blanket of "shh"s from both in front and behind me, two waves colliding in the ocean, leaving only still water in the aftermath. Alongside the surrounding white noise, an entire quiver of pointed hands rose, directing my gaze to one, of what I was to notice were very many, signs reading "PLEASE KEE PQUIET". This time, I resisted the urge to cringe, instead letting the Historic Clydestown culture of alternative kerning wash over me. I then blushed deeply, looking down to my feet to avoid the glaring judgments from ahead and behind. I assumed the guy (it was definitely a guy) behind me had been doing the same since he was discovered to have stolen his place in the aisle back on bus 5B.
As we continued down the hallway obediently behind D'benzer, marvelling at the walls' consistent studding with PLEASE KEE PQUIET signs, we soon slowed to shuffle and then to a halt. Up ahead, the front of our line had stopped behind a thick white line painted on the smooth concrete below. Just ahead of that line stood D'benzer, turned around and facing back at us. I imagined the line functioned to isolate those enriched in the lore of Historic Clydestown from the simple uneducated. I instantly longed to cross that line. I thought of me on the other side of the line, turnt around and feeling bad for the long line of friends and family eagerly watching my every move. We stood ready for our initiation to cross over into the annals of history.
D'benzer began another introductory speech, again carefully following the flipped page on her clipboard and noticeably pausing before words exceeding three syllables. We wanted to listen, we wanted to learn, we wanted to become the first of our friends to return home with a complex understanding of the cultural context of Historic Clydestown's greater contributions to society up to even today (yes, today!) But when we looked beyond D'benzer's bobbing visor, we noticed the end of another line. Could it be? 5A? We recalled back on the bus feeling like we were ages behind the tourists of Bus 5A, but there they were, in sprinting distance. Our line nodded, self-satisfied that we were gaining ground on the group ahead, shrinking the time between them knowing something that we did not. Back to D'benzer.
"--lydestown. I will act as your guide through the pavilion, which you will notice is marked by famous, and some infamous he he, tourist destinations of Historic Clydestown on the left side every 40 feet."
But wait, D'benzer, you are facing us. The rudimentary principle of mirrors dictates that your left is not ours. Instead, a burning desire to ask for clarification rose, but was soon quashed when my eyes again caught one of the signs suggesting I best kee pquiet. A cold sweat wetted my hair line as I imagined slowly walking the entire pavilion, as we tend to call it here, while looking at the wrong left, missing every famous, and some infamous, tourist destinations. Could I leave later today having just taken a simple walk in a tent (not to besmirch the stoic beauty or utilitarian advantages of tents, as evidenced by Historic Clydestown's liberal implementation of them)? Worse yet, I could now no longer see any traces of Bus 5A ahead.
By the time D'benzer had completed her speech and subsequently led us across the great line into the world of the anthropologist, I began visual sweeps left to right to left again as I walked. I imagined that I may have appeared as a child's mechanical toy that, when rolled along wheels hidden in the base, would pivot it's arms and head back and forth through a sophisticated circuit of cogs and conveyors. This allusion conjured new thoughts in my head about such toys.
When were they invented?
What were they first used for?
What subsequent inventions did they lead to?
I glanced back at the distant white line painted on the ground. Seemingly just crossing that line, submerging me into the world of the academic, the perennial investigator, has endowed me with new lines of thought. Surely, I would have failed to recognize the value in such questions while I still resided on the side of the ignorant. As we rounded the corner and just before the last edge of the white line slipped out of view, I noticed the edge of another guide (5C?!) appear before disappearing back around the corner as I was forced to continue my march forward. We weren't the only tour group gaining ground, it seemed. I would have to learn fast.
Luckily, the stopping of our line indicated our arrival at our first Historic Clydestown tourist destination. Ahead of me, I watched as members of our line disappeared into another marvellous zippered door in the side of the expanse of tent, emerging 30 seconds later. I watched carefully, seeing the back of heads disappear one at a time behind a curtain only to re-emerge seconds later, smiling with what I deemed a new understanding of the wide world around us. I revelled in the transformative power of culture.
It was my turn.
I was ushered into yet another tent, though much smaller than the two previous. Instead of curving off ahead into forever, this tent stopped barely over a metre in front of me. The small, square vinyl structure housed a subguide, who squatted lazily against a stool to the left of a small plastic window through which bright light poured, built at knee level. I stooped as much as socially acceptable in the company of others, but was unable to lower myself enough to see out the tiny window below. Suddenly, the subguide stopped picking his teeth and held his opened palm up to me.
"Your phone, please."
Confused by the bizarre request, I feinted a knowing smile and handed over my smartphone. The subguide maneuvered my phone into a molded plastic housing positioned in front of and facing the window. After idly wiping at the face of the phone to enter camera mode, he looked up at me.
"What kinda weather you want?"
I blinked. What kind of weather do I want? After waiting patiently for maybe two seconds, he cleared his throat and I panicked that I would not answer this question well. I stumbled out my reply.
"N-nice weather please and thank you."
He rolled his eyes and muttered while returning to his work.
"Figures, I don't even know why I ask."
I panicked anew. Was this a normal answer? Worse, was this an uneducated answer? Was the beauty of Historic Clydestown best deciphered during a heavy rain? Perhaps a downpour brought out an unspeakable sheen on the roofs of white, vinyl tents? While I continued to worry, I watched the subguide retreat to his work, sifting through a stack of plastic templates, each printed with a different season or storm and all with a triangle cut out of their middles. He ultimately settled on taking the most worn template from the top of the group, which depicted beautiful lush leas along the horizon, capped by a pure blue sky, speckled with two cheeky clouds, one on each side of the missing triangle cut from the middle. He snapped this plastic guide between my phone and the tent window and proceeded to take a picture.
He then slid my phone out from its plastic holder and, while still sitting on the ground looking amongst the plastic guides, lifted it up to me. He spoke to the bottom corner of the tent.
"Thank you for visiting Historic Clydetown's Mount Emmadorn, may the memories you forge today last as long as its mighty peak."
I retrieved my phone and dutifully shuffled back out of the tent, rejoining the line with the front half of bus 5B. Mount Emmadorn? I looked down to my phone, opening the most recent photo taken. There, beneath the fingerprint smudges, sat what I suspected might be the most perfect photo of the most perfect mountain taken on the most perfect day. Holding the screen closer to my face, I found myself transported into the beautiful scene.
I lay, stretched out amongst the soft, lush grasses in the expansive meadows surrounding the base of a mighty peak. Above, a perfect hazy blue sky framed Mount Emmadorn. A comforting base tapering up along visually pleasing geometrical decisions to a generous acme, ensconced thoughtfully in snowy trim. Flanking each side of its silhouette, two perfectly sculpted clouds lazed about the serene blue. The air inside the vinyl tent, once plasticy and stagnant, took on a crisp taste in my lungs and I sighed in ecstasy. I contemplated sending the image to friends immediately, but thought it only fair to reveal it in person, where I would be available to verbalize the beauty and history of Mount Emmadorn, as made famous by Historic Clydestown.
As line 5B was re-establishing, each tourist took the opportunity to relish in the visual delight of a small thumbnail image on their respective smart device. I felt intense jealousy at those tourists smart enough to have brought tablets, leaving me to imagine the joy my own image of Emmadorn would embody had it the opportunity to occupy a couple more inches in height and width. We began our orderly shuffle again, obediently trailing the silent D'benzer.
Approaching the next zippered door on the right, D'benzer gestured us through the motions. Again, each visitor disappeared behind the vinyl flap and re-emerged less than a minute later. This time, however, as each tourist returned from the destination to reform line 5B ahead, they greedily clutched their smart device to their chest, knuckles white, aware of the invaluable experience now encoded into the pixels of a photo inside. My turn!
Without even needing D'benzer's gesture forward, I proceeded into the side tent (nodding knowingly towards her along the way). I, uniquely, entered the side tent already holding my smart phone with the same fervor as those rejoining line 5B ahead of me, respecting the importance of the camera as a central mechanism in my travels. First quickly wiping the palm sweat off of the screen and back of my phone, I pre-emptively presented the device to the entire space inside the tent upon entering.
This tent was structured identical to the previous housing Mount Emmadorn. Solid white walls and a roof, and the knee-high plastic window below, a portal back in time. I daydreamt of crawling through the tiny, plastic pane, emerging into a faraway era lush with green grass, mighty peaks overhead, and sometimes billowy frocks (sometimes red visors). The only difference in this tent was the presence beside the window, a grubby looking teenager who stood idly beside his seat. His far too long arms swiped the phone from my open palm before he dropped to all fours. I soon heard the familiar clicking of phone plastic on the molded cradle positioned across from the small window below.
He looked up.
"What kind of wea--"
"Rain. Heavy rain. Monsoon season."
I had thought about this decision heavily during the short walk from Emmadorn. I recalled the plastic guide I had selected earlier, exhibiting worn edges along the blue sky and green grass from endless handling between tourists. I thought of all the other riders of bus 5B, each popping into a tent and simply asking for nice weather. I assumed every one of them likely had a picture of that lush green meadow and blue sky not unlike my own. Not to mention those before in Bus 5A, constantly running from us, and those behind in Bus 5C, constantly running towards us. The beauty of the mountain scene was diluted by knowing it could be seen by all those around me. I assured myself that my next decision would show distinction. That I would leave today with a unique story and experience. How many others had the gall to visit Historic Clydestown in its, no doubt notorious, monsoon season? I reckoned none. A sudden interruption from below.
"Uh...sorry….what is a monsoon?"
Hah! The cheek of this one. I suddenly understood how this subguide had earned his prefix. I suspected only D'benzer would sate my sudden urge to discuss the complex meteorological systems and workings of the ancient Historic Clydestown, if only I could catch her outside of the hallway of KEE PQUIET signs. I sighed, looked down, and rephrased.
"Just give me whatever has the most rain."
He nodded and began digging. After a couple seconds of comparing amongst a small swath of samples, he decided upon the plastic guide retrieved from the very bottom of the pile. Noticing a strange texture to the guide, he used a bitten fingernail to pluck at the corner, freeing loose the corner of a plastic film, placed by the manufacturer, from its face. A gush of joy washed through my body--this guide was brand new! Untouched! I had broken new ground, colonized new time and space. I bounced gently on my feet as he snapped the guide into place. I noticed, in lieu of a triangle cut from its centre, these guides had a strange slanted, bulky cylinder removed from theirs. As he began aligning the camera, guide, and small window, I estimated that my visit in this tent had surpassed the typical short jaunt of tourists before (and likely after) me. I could (and did) only imagine the tourists outside, furiously wondering what was taking so long, jealous of the additional enrichment these extra seconds were likely providing.
My thoughts interrupted by a knocking. The subguide below had rapt his knuckles on the wall twice. Soon, I heard the gentle sprinkling of water against steel somewhere outside the confines of the vinyl tent, in Historic Clydestown. After taking the picture, the subguide knocked again on the wall, this signal being met with the sudden ceasing of rain outside. The subguide rose and handed me back my phone, offering parting words but let's be honest he should just be grateful I was willing to take him along on my journey to Historic Clydestown in the deadly middle of monsoon season.
"Thank you for visiting Historic Clydestown's city hall, where people meet and people speak."
I hustled out the door and into the end of the growing line in front of me, eager to investigate the unique image. I pulled the phone up to my face, shielding its sides with my palms, unwilling to let peering eyes stow away on my pioneer voyage. The screen looked dark, evil clouds blanketed the sky above and heaved endless water down onto a strangely shaped cylinder. The city hall of Historic Clydestown looked like the tower of pisa, its interior seemingly filled with cement before the whole structure was heavily eroded. With only rain and grey clouds as reference, I had trouble identifying the scale of city hall. Frankly, it appeared far too small to inhabit humans. And even if humans could shrink to a size allowing them shelter within, the structure appeared solid, with no windows or doors to let them in. Furthermore, city hall appeared to sit alone, with only a circular gravel path tracing its circumference as evidence of civilization beyond the strange monument. I reasoned that city hall was, to Historic Clydestown, a symbol. A material sculpture which sat prominently as a constant reminder to the ties that bind its varied inhabitants, while eschewing the need for messy affairs like marriage licences and civil court inside. Historic Clydestown was firmly established around a literal pillar of society. Though powerfully stark and depressing, I came to love my sombre study into the enigmatic civilization. I thought I should probably write a paper. Back home, they wouldn't believe it til' they saw it. And I would show it to them.
After our line had reassembled beyond the enlightenment of city hall and began trundling forward behind our guide, I sought to lift my spirits by revisiting Mount Emmadorn on a beautiful summer morning. Swiping to the right, I shuffled dark city hall aside to reveal the bright splendor of Emmadorn. Swiping back to city hall, a hunk of concrete veiled by endless torrents from the heavens above offscreen, I recognized the absolutely inane transition in weather from mountain to town. My chest ached in panic. How could I reconcile a morning of blue skies with a midday of monsoons when my friends would come knocking, positively collapsing over one another, to ask about my tour of Historic Clydestown?
I had little time to solve this mystery because we had reached our third, and what we were told was our last, of Historic Clydestown's extant landmarks. For the last time, each tourist would disappear behind a zippered vinyl door, reappearing seconds later with a new memory held tight to their chest and digitally backed up to a micro SD card or the cloud.
By the time I breached the vinyl entrance, I had settled on a solution to transform the three isolated photos into a story, a journey through a time long past. I held my phone out to the subguide before she could even stand, appearing as just a mop of red curly hair from my vantage above. She held up her own hand, avoiding my phone and, instead, issuing a novel request.
"May I see your ticket please?"
The shock chilled my arms and legs. Did she think I was here illicitly? That I was some sort of cheat who had snuck into the tent on a bus not prominently labelled with a number and letter or even worse walked here? That I could not afford the trip? I hmph'd loudly and presented the stub, ripped fresh by the driver back upon boarding the vehicle in the early hours of the morning. The subguide mindlessly pulled an infrared scanner from her overalls pocket, scanning the barcode with a sterile beep and reading the tiny message appearing on its back LED screen. She looked up to me.
"Are you Quincy Stilts?"
The absolute gall. I disapprovingly responded.
She hit a small green button on the back of the scanner, decorated with a tiny grey checkmark, before reaching for my phone, which I had left presented in the relaxed palm of my other hand. I welcomed the familiarity of a subguide taking my phone and opted to flex my own familiarity with the practices of Historic Clydestown and its associated tourism enterprise. I began, unprompted.
"Weather-wise, I would like something intermediate, not too sunny and on the way to a wicked rain story. Something that evokes a sense of impending doom while maintaining the clear beauty and bizarre hyperacuity of details we get in the weird dark and bright lighting before the tempest comes to destroy."
Upon finishing my poetic request, the subguide was handing back my phone, having already snapped both the phone and weather template into place, captured the photo, and reset the photography rig. I simply took my phone and left, giving her parting declaration the same respect I had felt that she had given mine.
"Thank you for visiting Historic Clydestown's big ol' horse. Neigh neigh neigh neigh neigh."
Back in line, I checked the image. Grey skies. Grey earth. A large grey clump of grey boards precariously held together in a formation only the most generous could locate equine features on. The perfectly captured intermittent weather between light and storm had robbed the scene of any colour and beauty and, instead, the picture hovered in some non-committal in between that I had not intended. In fewer words, it was ugly. I garnered that Historic Clydestown beauty was only evident in the extremes, either under the crystal clear beauty of a sky of blue or tormented in the severity of the storm. Anything in between was, simply, gross.
I pulled the screen closer and squinted in hopes of unearthing beauty where only grey existed. Beyond the grey haze, I noticed a figure standing in front of the wooden "horse" (in name only). Carefully pinching at the screen of my phone, I zoomed in. Amazingly, there I stood beneath and just off to the right of the mighty mess of planks. My full body in view, I stood with arms raised, appearing to present the Clydestownsian landmark as something much more grandiose than the failed carpentry captured in the photograph. The outfit I wore in the photo bore no resemblance to what I had on now. I cataloged my outfit starting at the feet, recognizing the yellow sneakers and gym shorts adorning my lower half. Strange. I had blown a hole in the sole of the right yellow sneaker roughly a year ago after a full summer of recreational basketball and tossed the pair. This recollection triggered an entire intramural season of memories. In the context of these memories, I now recognized that my pose was not of one presenting the ugly wood horse of Historic Clydestown, but of a particularly photogenic lay-up I had performed, later to be circulated on- and offline via the county newspaper. I had been extracted from that captured moment of sport (to no dismay on my end--we lost all of our games) and pasted back in time, amongst the ugly greys of Historic Clydestown. But the scenery was not the only difference I noted about the tiny me contained within my smart phone. Instead of a matching basketball top, I now wore a white t-shirt that, despite the overwhelming greyness of the photo, clearly read, "ILOVE CLYDES TOWN".
Though the timeline rattled my brain, my superimposition in front of the famous (perhaps this one was the infamous) Historic Clydestown big ol' horse became valuable upon reconsideration. While my views of Mount Emmadorn and city hall were visually stunning, they offered little proof that they were mine (even less so when I recall how they were captured). Conversely, my presence beside this artful pile of refuse connected my experiences with those of history. It was proof. Incredibly grey proof.
Now owning this third image, my plan could be set into action. I viewed my last three pictures, sitting idly as thumbnails in a line, on my phone screen. Mount Emmadorn, city hall, big ol' horse. Holding my fingertip down against the third, dreary shot of me and an arguable horse, I slowly dragged the image to the left, until it hovered nervously between Mount Emmadorn and city hall. Whereas the tour had taught me the linear geography of Historic Clydestown, I now sought to manipulate time and space itself. I moved my fingertip from the screen as big ol' horse was plucked from history and gently settled between the peak of Emmadorn and Clydestown city hall. Although the order of these destinations made no sense within the confines of the white vinyl tunnel, the transition from blue sky to grey to near black from one picture to the next looked perfect, almost calculated. I had shifted the heavens and left with a now-whole memory. I imagined trekking hurriedly down the side of Mount Emmadorn as I noticed clouds in the distance, hurdling past the big ol' horse as the skies threatened, and finally taking shelter by city hall as the skies sobbed down onto me. I took extra pride in knowing no other had, or would, tour Historic Clydestown along this novel path.
As I rearranged the universe in my phone as I saw fit, line 5B shuffled ever forward along the giant, vinyl loop. Though we felt a sense of exhaustion at the breadth of Clydestown we had seen, we had one final stop and it would prove to be our most important.
In contrast to the plain, untouched vinyl that had lined our path so far, the neon sign hanging above the automated sliding glass doors, hiding an overflowing trove of trinkets behind its panes, seemed wildly out of place. None of us seemed to mind when we resolved the words above.
I nodded happily after reading the sign. By journey's end, Clydestown had solved the riddle of appropriate spacing. The line formation we had so obediently held throughout our tour started rupturing as the doors slid open and ultimately dissolved into a puddle of tourists. We oozed into thin aisles between snowglobes gently settling plastic shavings onto a tiny recreation of big ol' horse, giant (maybe lifesize?) foam hats sculpted into the sort-of recognizable form of city hall, and mugs depicting Mount Emmadorn cut out and hanging in white space. To the left of the mug array say adhesive templates, each depicting a different weather pattern, which were applied by the cashier to fit snugly around the beautiful landmark after purchase.
I want to point out that I am not a cinchy traveller. I do not believe poorly manufactured plastic and ceramic act as a substitute for real experience. For the fresh air, the long bus ride, the reflections and shadows playing on white vinyl, finding yourself running through town from an impending monsoon. However. I do believe there is a certain unspoken synergism where your travels can manifest both invisibly, in the mind and the memory and digital photography, and physically, as objects which can stock your shelves and weigh down your papers and, on those boring days at home, help you travel back to the simpler times of Historic Clydestown. Following this notion, I purchased a small baggie of gravel that, I'm told, came from the same path walked around city hall by not only high ranking local Clydestownsian politicians, but also the simple folk, butter makers, candle lighters, bath tub users, people like us. This bag of egalitarian gravel provided a new, political depth to my journey and what was now a multimedia presentation I would give family and friends back home.
But perhaps the greatest synergism between the unplacable experience of travel and the material souvenir came with my second purchase. For there, on the distant right wall of the GIFT SHOP, sat a plethora of crisp, white, t-shirts, reading " ILOVE CLYDES TOWN", identical to the one I wore in my third (now second) image, where I sat proudly in front of big ol' horse but soon ran from the coming rain. A sudden completeness whelmed my innards as I watched the shirt folded and placed in the plastic bag, triggering a slight rattle from the gravel below. Though the yellow sneakers I wore in picture were long gone, this shirt would act as the bridge to complete the connection between the me walking these vinyl hallways and the me traipsing beneath big ol' horse.
Line 5B reformed, we passed through a final vinyl door beneath the giant word, "EXIT" to appear in the, now full, bus parking zone. We lined up to our bus door in the tiny space between 5B and 5C and tromped back up the stairs onto the bus, a second bow of deep respect to the driver along the way. Us first-in-line aisle seaters took to our chairs, only later to rise and awkwardly bend along the aisles as the window seaters filtered in later on. Bus full, another shotgun crack of static signalled a new set of instructions from the driver that we, again, would ignore, instead spending our time rifling through the contents of our GIFT SHOP bags. And with that, the slow reversing, turning around, and driving off through the great white, vinyl tunnel back home.
I stole glances across the lap of the tourist beside me. The giant clean walls passed by while I sat ready, clutching my phone set to camera mode. I swore I would capture the end of this elongate tent, where it would disappear and reveal the beautiful countryside beyond, providing the context of hinterland to my journey through Historic Clydestown. But I guess the travels of the day, from the hikes through the mountain, to the run from the rain, to the warm midday spent sheltered from the rain had stolen too much of my energy. After successfully fighting off a nod or two, I succumbed to the bus' deep rumbling and fell asleep. I stole a final glance at my phone before passing out.
It was 9:35AM.