Column generation camper: pioneers of slowness

The rest stop "a dazzling little town" to writers Julio Cortazar and Carol Dunlop. For others, a sinister place.

At night outside Milan Photo: Imago/IPA

Among the world’s crazy expeditions, the VW bus trip of writers Julio Cortazar and Carol Dunlop (1982) was guaranteed to be the craziest: 33 days on the Paris-Marseille highway from rest stop to rest stop. But the literary result was great: "The Autonauts on the Cosmobahn," as the title goes, is still a wonderfully ironic-poetic travelogue and an ethnography from no-man’s-land, i.e., from places that one visits at best to pee, grab a bite to eat, refuel.

Not so Cortazar and Dunlop: they have prepared their research trip perfectly and meticulously keep their shipboard diary. They work at their travel typewriters with the same concentration as on a real trip to the end of the world. And soon you’re cheering along with them when a highway rest stop is finally on the agenda and, like an outpost of civilization, awakens desires and promises high pleasures. For example, an extensive shower, fantastic food and, the pinnacle of luxury, a real bed in a motel. They stock up their supplies in the useful assortment of gas station markets.

But what’s most exciting is their different view of these rest stops: for it’s in the rest stops that tout le monde meets and catches its breath from the crazy speeding on the highway. They are places of international encounters, actually much too good for a quick trip to the bathroom or a microsleep. And once darkness sets in, the autonauts say, night after night one can witness the emergence of a "dazzling little city" that "will exist only once, to be replaced the next day by a similar, but different one.

My camper friends wave it off. They find any sinister place off the highway safer. They argue criminal gangs, assaults, burglary, prostitution. I gladly heed their advice. But I always dawdle at rest stops. It’s hard for me to leave. That’s the fault of literature.

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