In Alain de Botton’s fabulous book, The Art of Travel, he writes: “we never simply ‘journey through an afternoon.’ We sit in a train. Lunch digests awkwardly within us. The seat cloth is grey. We look out the window at a field. We look back inside. A drum of anxieties revolves in our consciousness.”
Of course, we don’t want to bore our readers with every detail of our journey, but maybe there is something that stands out, some aspect of the journey that is worth remembering and, later, telling.
on American road trips (or road trips anywhere…)
In the U.S., we are used to driving everywhere. We embark on a road trip in adventurous spirit, determined to marvel over everything. What passes outside our window may be stunning, silly, ugly, industrial, tacky, or even frustrating (traffic usually). The roadside may be littered with farmland and silos, decrepit buildings, businesses gone by the wayside, people doing bizarre things, bucolic rolling hills dotted with cows or sheep, or billboards hollering outrageous slogans.
I took my first major road trip when I was about 10 years old. My whole family, with the exception of my baby brother, piled into our Ford station wagon. My parents drove us to Pagosa Springs, Colorado, where my mother was born and raised. I don’t have any pictures from that trip. I’m sure all we kids did was complain: “Are we there yet? I have to go to the bathroom!” I vaguely remember squirming, reading and getting carsick. I have no clue what I saw along the way.
In the fall of 1979, less than a year after I graduated from the College of William and Mary, my first husband Bill and I embarked on a 2 1/2 month road trip around the U.S. We loaded ourselves, our clothes, a tent, a cooler and sleeping bags into a Chevy van with my husband’s two pugs, Max and Ulysses, and my mutt, Lilly, and drove around the country. We camped, we stayed in hotels, we slept in our van. We visited Bill’s father in New Hampshire, made our way to Acadia National Park in Maine, crossed the Canadian border into Ottawa, then returned to the U.S. via Michigan. After stopping in St. Louis to visit friends, we made the endless slog across the Kansas plains until we came to the Rocky Mountains, eventually making our way up to Yellowstone.
After leaving the Rockies, we drove north to Banff, one of my favorite places on earth.
By October 26, we were at the Oregon coast.
We arrived in Crater Lake, Oregon by October 28.
By October 29, we reached the California coast, then went inland to Yosemite, where it was so cold I remember waking up in the van to find the dogs’ water dishes frozen over. In Death Valley, we met the opposite extreme – sweltering temperatures.
I don’t have a travel journal full of witticisms or vivid observations. I know we saw wild and crazy things, listened to plenty of Tom Waits and the Eagles, and told funny stories to each other. After all, Bill was a master of the long joke and I could spin hilarious yarns about my friends and our antics. It’s all lost now. I vaguely remember jotting a few notes someplace, but I have no evidence of it now; whatever I wrote has vanished. As I didn’t make much effort with my writing in those days, it was probably dull as mud.
All I have today is an album full of snapshots to remind me of that epic road trip. However, since someone ransacked our van in San Diego and stole our camera (because I stupidly left my passenger side window partway down when we parked in a neighborhood to take the dogs to the beach for 15 minutes), we don’t have any pictures from San Diego back across the U.S. to the East Coast. On that lost portion of our trip, we stopped at the Grand Canyon, Farmington, NM to visit my uncle, and New Orleans, Louisiana, with several other stops along the way.
On a long road trip by car, if we ever want to get anywhere, we can’t stop at every whim to take pictures. Taking pictures out of a car window simply results in blurred impressions. In the last several years, when driving alone, I’ve held a journal in my lap and jotted notes without looking down – admittedly dangerous and not recommended. Recently, I bought a voice recorder to record my thoughts – a much safer option. 🙂
on planes, trains, buses & pilgrimages:
Of course, our journey isn’t always a road trip. Sometimes it’s a plane flight, or multiple connecting flights, a train or a bus ride, or a combination of all of these. Sometimes it’s a walk or a hike. However we travel, there is bound to be something illuminating in it.
The journey to our destination can be excruciatingly boring, or it can be fascinating, if we observe the unusual and render it well. Anything that informs our journey, adds dimension and depth to our travel experience, can become a subject for a travel piece: an encounter with strangers, a movie watched, music on a playlist, a conversation, unexpected challenges.
on bringing ourselves along
We might also consider the following: How do we bring ourselves along? The truth is that no matter how far we travel, we still lug along our happy, sad, angry, adventurous, forgetful or stressed selves. It is impossible to excise our inner or physical selves from this world to which we’ve escaped. How does that self make itself known in this new place? Do we learn something from our best or worst selves?
I’m challenging myself to write about the journey itself in a more engaging way. I invite you to explore how we take ourselves from here to there.
“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery – celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.”
– Jim Jarmusch
In Lolita, at the beginning of part two, Humbert Humbert and Lolita take a road trip across the U.S.A. Nabokov captures a small part of their journey perfectly in this passage:‘s book
Now and then, in the vastness of those plains, huge trees would advance toward us to cluster self-consciously by the roadside, and provide a bit of humanitarian shade above a picnic table, with sun flecks, flattened paper cups, samaras and discarded ice-cream sticks littering the brown ground. A great user of roadside facilities, my unfastidious Lo would be charmed by toilet signs — Guys-Gals, John-Jane, Jack-Jill and even Buck’s-Doe’s; while lost in an artist’s dream, I would stare at the honest brightness of the gasoline paraphernalia against the splendid green of oaks, or at a distant hill scrambling out — scarred but still untamed — from the wilderness of agriculture that was trying to swallow it. (p. 153, 50th anniversary edition, Lolita, June 1997)
Inspired by Nabokov, I wrote about a road trip we took one winter to Philadelphia.
As we drive north on a freeway hemmed in by concrete barriers, the Toyota RAV’s wipers swish the drizzle to and fro on the windshield, a squeaky metronome. Vehicles from Maryland, Virginia, and The Garden State whiz past, their tires flinging dirt-infused mist on our windshield. A Warehouse for Lease! slumps on the fringes and black spiny trees blur along the roadside. U2 sings “Mysterious Ways” and highway vagabond Miranda Lambert wants to “go somewhere where nobody knows.” I’ve snagged my left thumbnail and as usual, I don’t have any nail clippers in my purse. The annoying snag persists. A yellow sign forbids U-turns and when we cross the bridge, a ghostly mist rises off the Susquehanna River. Barns, silos, and bristly sepia fields scroll past and an aqua “Town of Perryville” water tower mutters a greeting. On the industrial corridor near “Port of Wilm,” metal utility towers spread their triple-triangle arms and factories belch smoke, gasping their last breath. Blue-green porta-potties stand in formation along the tracks and containers lie like coffins on idle trains. The derelict train station’s windows are broken. Citywide Limousine squats beside a lot of Ryder trucks and an empty pedestrian bridge covered in chain-link looms over us as we sputter underneath.
Finally, “Pennsylvania: State of Independence,” welcomes us while Hidden Figures of NASA stand in all their mathematical genius on an electronic billboard. Run-down brick row houses hug the highway behind a thin veil of chain-links. CSX rail cars hunker along the highway, dead in their tracks. Another billboard promises “The Wounded Warrior Project helps me heal the wounds you can’t see.” At Philadelphia Energy Solutions, giant cylindrical tanks squat on the land and, next door, bundles of paper haphazardly occupy a recycling plant. A pink “Risqué Video” sign entices those so-inclined. We skid into the Philly outskirts, land of the free and home of the tired.
“ON JOURNEY” INVITATION: I invite you to write a 750-1,000 word (or less) post on your own blog about the journey itself for a recently visited specific destination. If you don’t have a blog, I invite you to write in the comments. Include the link in the comments below by Tuesday, April 3 at 1:00 p.m. EST. When I write my post in response to this challenge on Wednesday, April 4, I’ll include your links in that post. My first post will be about my road trip to Cape May, New Jersey.
This will be an ongoing invitation, once weekly through April, and monthly after that. Feel free to jump in at any time. 🙂
I hope you’ll join in our community. I look forward to reading your posts!