Most of what I’ve shared so far are a selection of the bigger events that have occurred – some of the exciting events, interesting stories and relatable lessons I think are worth sharing. One of the stories worth sharing today isn’t really a story at all – more like an impression, an idea of what extended traveling on the cheap actually looks like aside from the highlight reel. A lot of people imagine traveling the country, or the world, as a nearly non-stop adrenaline rush, an endless parade of exotic people, foreign places, fantastic experiences. And sometimes, for an hour, or a day or two, it can be that, depending on what you’re doing. But most of the time, it’s not.
My friend, the original glob trotter in my personal circle, described travel to me as a slow burn. I’ve found that to be very true. An extended trip from which one hopes to extract any lasting value must have time built in to breathe, to recuperate, and to reflect on events. There are often long distances crossed, especially on a road trip, which take time. And fantastic experiences and exotic people don’t suddenly bombard the traveler just because they’ve set foot in a foreign place. These things take a lot of planning beforehand and require lots of exploring in the moment. Great reward requires great effort. The combination of disrupted routines, generally worse nutrition (who actually eats healthier when in a new place? That deep fried sushi burrito isn’t going to taste itself), and the exhaustion of being continually estranged from your comfort zone can take a toll.
But it’s totally worth it.
The experience of travel is as much the little things, the meantimes and betweentimes, as it is the big destinations. As old saying goes, it’s as much the journey as the destination. So what does it really look like? What does it really feel like? It’s different for everybody, but for me. . .
It’s eating microwave fried chicken in a dingy hotel room room with my brother, which may as well be a fourcourse meal served in an electrified, shower equipped wi-fi saturated palace, even if there’s only one bed.
It’s the exhilaration of the open road. It’s passing tractor trailers on the Utah freeway and playing pedal-to-the-metal chicken with the oncoming traffic at 105 mph.
It’s laughing at my giant brother sipping mango juice and dancing like an animated thrashing beanpod in a hammock made for people of normal proportions – because there’s actually not much else to do at Grand Canyon village.
It’s driving hard to some destination a full eight hours away, only to find yourself spending four days on a whim exploring an unforeseen gem on the way instead.
It’s not knowing whether to laugh, cry, or puke when Johnny unleashes without warning his allotted one-per-one-thousand-mile car fart in the already somewhat fetid cabin with the windows up.
It’s completely giving up on keeping an organized living space and observing with growing apathy as your gear, food and clothing escapes the trunk and explodes over every convient surface in the cabin. It’s attacking that no-shower-streak record with gusto. It’s smelling like an animal and not giving a damn for a week in the woods until the first pretty girl walks by in the next town.
It’s skinny dipping in wild rivers and floating a log out into a deserted mountain pond in a bid to conquer fears of monsters in the deep, and utterly faily, but the pride of having tried at all keeping your heart warm as your body shivers on the shore. It’s slamming on the brakes to spend an hour swimming in a beautiful blue lake whose existence was entirely unknown to you six seconds earlier.
It’s also taking bird baths in laundromat restrooms and feet that smell bad enough to kill a small buffalo, if only you could catch one.
It’s watching the sun go down beside a fire on an exposed ridge at seven thousand feet, cooking angel guts with your brother alone on the top of the world. It’s making a pact to tend the fire til the strawberry moon rises with the milkyway, but being defeated by the wind and putting out the coals like men – with our own personal extinguishers.
It’s watching the world of songs and literature come to life: realizing why that sweet Mojave rain made such an impression on Brandon Flowers; why the urban California skyline so haunted a jaded traveler; why the scent of juniper is so ingrained in the spirit of the West. It’s wandering through Wyoming mountain meadows and singing hymns to the wind and the thunder as the rain blankets the very rolling seas of grain which so inspired America’s greatest psalmists.
It’s also the exquisitely perfect timing of the travelers trots calling on you as you carve psalms in a walking stick beside a suddenly no longer peaceful brook.
It’s missing home but knowing you’ve got to obey the urge to be movin’ on. It’s your emotional soundtrack jumping from Boulevard of Broken Dreams and Whitesnake to lullabies and childhood sing-alongs to death metal – often in proportion to the proximity of the gas pedal to the floor.
It’s walking into a bar in a city you’ve never seen just to tell a bartender you’ve never met that an old friend of theirs who’s now a new friend of yours would like her to drop him a line. It’s encountering someone from your high school in the Denver Goodwill store while wearing the same shirt you were when you first met eight years ago. It’s orchestrating travel plans to meet friends from AmeriCorps all over the country and bumping into another at random in a Washington Walmart, six thousand miles and three months from where you’d last seen each other.
It’s attending a church service in the morning where you are the only one over sixteen and under sixty, and a rock show at a motorcycle rally the same evening.
It’s steaming about the pop-culture duo of Carly Rae Jepsen and Lady Gaga becoming the de facto karaoke soundtrack to Arizona and the Grand Canyon, but buying the songs later because you know it’ll remind you of you and your brothers’ epic road trip together for the rest of your life, regardless of the songwriting quality.
It’s actually feeling good about getting kicked out what you didn’t know was the teenager’s section in a small town library because for once in your nearly twenty-three years of life someone thought you were over eighteen by looking at you, only to find the library is closing and you’re forced to earn your wi-fi instead by purchasing an enormous thickburger at Hardees, and thoroughly milking that milkshake for the next three hours.
It’s shaving in the rearview mirror with just the head of a disposable razor because that’s all Johnny bought at the store and after a month you’re still too lazy and cheap to buy a handle. There’s usually blood.
It’s straddling the yellow line on the Utah interstate for a set of pushups, because ain’t nobody coming for miles and you’ve always wanted to give that beautiful line a kiss, or forty.
It’s tying up your splash guards with wire you found in the New Mexico desert and the rattling of your exhaust heatshield manifold, whose fastening bolts, like your splash guard’s, have rusted out in winter wind and salt somewhere in the last four years between Vermont and Portland.
It’s finding out with relief that your transmission isn’t leaking – it’s just your power steering – but being secretly bummed cause that means you don’t have an excuse to ditch your car, buy a motorcycle, and enjoy the look on your mother’s face when you pull safe and sound on two wheels into your driveway come Fall.
It’s getting stuck in the mud and walking three miles in the rain through the sage with a new appreciation for the community waiting for you at the end of the road, and the stable you’re looking forward to sleeping in that night.
It’s incredible hospitality that lets you explore a place you’ve always dreamed of going in a fantastic way you never imagined you would.
It’s the unspoken understanding exchanged in a handshake or hug between travelers that says it was great to meet you, but we’ll likely never see each other again, and that’s ok.
It’s picking up hitchhikers and talking to well-traveled tramps. It’s crossing through a herd of cattle in a forest and being invited by their cowboys at the end of the trail for a burger and a beer.
And it’s eating Chef Boyardee cold from the can in supermarket parking lots. Wearing your favorite shirt for a week in the blazing desert sun until sweat turns it as dark as the skin on your neck and it sprouts as many holes as the pants you let get too close to the fire back in Oregon.
It’s long, long hours listening to songs, podcasts, and the silent, thoughtful music of the road as your little red ship winds its way along America’s asphalt rivers as they run through some of the most spectacular sights in the world.
It’s spending all day writing in town after four days in the woods and appreciating the bustling wonders of civilization before heading back up the mountain at dusk to your stalwart, smelly little twenty dollar tent nestled at the edge of a pitch-pine grove. It’s the defiant, jubilant triumph when after working for hours to start a fire after a pouring rain the flames jump almost as high as you do. It’s missing home but feeling fine as you warm your hands over the dying coals. And it’s experiencing nothing but gratitude and the familiar warmth of last night’s beans saying goodnight as you lay yourself down in peace beneath the silent stars.