Monday, February 16, 2009

Reflections on an Approach: The Importance of a Road Trip

Thomas McGuane writes about the "loss of cabin pressure" resulting from trying to get everything down on paper before you change your mind and don’t write at all. I guess this is the main motivation behind these weekly random thoughts which are turning out to be not that random at all. There is a definite pattern emerging here.

This week I consider the importance road trips have had on my life, on what I think and believe. What I have written in the earlier essays has often been the result of such a trip. Here I am not talking about a particular time or place, but the undertaking that led to those times and places . . . the trip itself and not the destination.

"Approach is more than just the last phase before arrival," writes William Least Heat-Moon in his most recent book, The Roads to Quoz: An American Mosey (2008). "[I]t’s at the heart of a true journey and one aspect separating real travelers from mere arrivalists whose highest wish is for destination." I have been on countless road trips over the past four decades; some touch a deeper meaning for me while others are seldom remembered except when some unexpected occurrence or encounter causes a momentary reflection on a place or an event. But all of these road trips, whether they are vivid in my memory or on the threshold of the forgotten, have contributed to who I am today, why I believe and what I do, and they help me to better understand those life experiences to which I constantly return for knowledge and self-reflection.

Growing up I can remember my folks taking my sister and me on occasional car trips into the country on Sunday afternoons. And there were the summer and holiday trips to my grandparents’ farm in southwestern Michigan. But these were "rides," a means of getting from one place to another as quickly as possible and with little if any consideration for the country we were passing through. I shared the back seat with my younger sister and I recall that both of us were often more intent on delineating and defending which half of the back seat was ours than giving any regard to scenery or our parents’ admonishments to sit still and behave. No, these were not what I would later come to cherish as road trips of discovery and renewal.

My first road trip of note came in the summer of 1970, between my freshman and sophomore years in college. I had returned home to Wisconsin after a rather tumultuous year in the academic trenches and spent the summer hard at work and salting way money for my return to Florida in the fall. Nevertheless, I left my job early so that a good buddy and I could take off on a car trip we had been planning all summer. Our dream was to travel all the way to Alaska and back, and in late July we packed up my red 1966 Ford Mustang, duct-taped a handmade "Alaska or Bust" sign to the rear bumper, and set off from Milwaukee on the long trip up through Minnesota and eastern North Dakota, to Winnipeg and the Trans-Canada Highway. From there we launched our westward journey across the Canadian prairie – Manitoba, Saskatchewan, to Alberta and the foothills of the Canadian Rockies. We were treated to 360-degrees vistas of wheat fields to the horizon interrupted only occasionally by farmsteads and grain elevators, and towns with magical names like Moosomin, Sintaluta, Qu’Apelle, Moose Jaw, Swift Current, Medicine Hat. Who could not pay attention and take it all in? This, was a road trip and we were not yet anywhere close to Alaska, our destination.

After numerous detours of discovery on our way across Canada, our time and our money ran out when we reached far western Alberta. We were obliged to turn eastward and to retreat across Montana and through North Dakota on our way home. But it was no retreat in failure. Perhaps we never really meant to go as far as Alaska, but we were gratified by the notion that we were headed toward Alaska and soaked in every bit of the experience along our westward journey. We were content to have left Milwaukee behind us and to be on the road to somewhere else. The "Alaska or Bust" sign affixed to our bumper was a cry of freedom, a symbol of fetters broken. We enjoyed every moment we were on the road, even when we encountered some unanticipated car troubles in the middle of nowhere in Montana. I am reminded of John Steinbeck’s encomium to his Model T. "The American restlessness took on new force. No one was satisfied with where he was; he was on his way someplace else; just as soon as he got that timer adjusted." For us it was a shot water pump. But I know what Steinbeck meant.

I can’t go into detail about every road trip I have been on since then. There have been many over the years and I have now been to all 48 of the contiguous United States and eight of ten Canadian provinces (road trips have omitted the two that are islands). I have been up and down the Eastern Seaboard more times than I can count on both hands and feet, ribs, vertebrae, and the times Elizabeth Taylor has been married. I have driven more than once from home in America’s heartland to both coasts and back, and I have traveled the Left Coast of America from Canada to Mexico. There have been umpteen ambles among the back roads and dirt two-tracks of northern New England. And there was the almost ill-fated trip across the southern tier of states, Florida to Arizona, back in the infant days of 1975, and I shudder almost every time I think about it. Pulling a rental trailer across wind-swept Texas was like driving with an open parachute behind me and I consumed an entire tank of gas traveling from east of Dallas to just west of Fort Worth. Fortunately that was when gas cost cents a gallon rather than dollars. There was the blizzard in west Texas when car and trailer came close to being demolished by a tractor-trailer in whiteout conditions followed by my new wife’s rather traumatic introduction to what can be the monotony of the southwestern desert and her new home in a foreign environment [shudder!]. This is the only one I might want to forget on purpose, but it was part of the learning process so it takes its rightful place in the pantheon of road trips [shudder!].

So what is it about a road trip that keeps me heading down the highways and byways? Part of it is just being underway, finding a path, taking an occasional left or a right at the fork in the road. Robert Frost, in "The Road Not Taken" writes:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverge in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

The Spanish poet Antonio Machado cautions the traveler that there is no road; one makes the road as one wanders. The German poet Rainier Maria Rilke suggests something similar but in a different way in his Duino Elegies; the traveler should beware for the road is also wandering. Regardless, they all point to the trip itself - the route chosen to make one’s approach - taking priority over the eventual destination, if any. William Least Heat-Moon sums it up pretty well; "to go out not quite knowing why is the very reason for going out at all, out to discover the why is the most promising and potentially fulfilling of outcomes."

I do not want to simply travel through various landscape and sceneries. I seek out that road trip that will take me into the landscape in order to better understand it, and the people who call it home, those who praise or curse it for what it offers or takes away. Jim Harrison, in his 1987 essay "Going Places," writes about his affinity for special places "where I sensed a particular magic in the past" certain culverts in western Minnesota, nondescript gullies in Kansas . . . Everyone must find their own place." I have been writing about some of these places in past weeks, and I will be introducing more in the coming months. Steinbeck, writing in Travels With Charley, offers the axiom that a trip may continue "long after movement in time and space have ceased." I believe this to be true; road trips will always offer greater insight into the American land as I travel it from one edge to the other.

NEXT WEEK: The Road to Joe

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