“Sometimes it is a little better to travel than to arrive.”
Robert M. Persig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
“It’s the week of the fourth,” he said, “and every bastard from Texas to North Dakota is coming to Colorado in a forty-five foot RV full of kids, pulling two trailers loaded with ATV’s and mountain bikes. Traffic was terrible.”
The normally one and one-half hour easy drive down from the mountains had taken three due to the slow tourist traffic. The Fourth of July draws hordes of tourists in their RVs from the flat lands into Colorado to enjoy the cool mountain air, the closeness with nature — and their big screen TVs, stereos and other amenities in the campgrounds.
Nonetheless, traveling can be rewarding and possibly even a great adventure. I like the feel of the open road, particularly if it isn’t jammed with traffic (emphasis, “open”). The road unfurls like a ribbon ahead, the landscape flows past, and your mind can unwind. Those nooks and crannies full of obscure thoughts can be explored and arcane bits of information aired and considered anew. Robert Macfarlane considered “paths as offering not only means of traversing space, but also ways of feeling, being and knowing.” Rumination on a long drive allows freedom of thought, an ability to revisit things stowed away or left unresolved.
As you go, the land you pass through molds your perspective. The mountain majesty, the unending plain or the unbridled ocean shape your relationship to the world and to yourself. Macfarlane quoted Roger Deakin, “To enter a wood is to enter a different world in which we ourselves are transformed,” he wrote, “it is where you travel to find yourself, often, paradoxically, by getting lost.” Lost in space, lost in thought, lost in time … the road offers a suspension of the present and the ability to reflect.
And the landscape offers variety, a change from where ever you usually are. My sixth-grade class took a train from Texas to Colorado Springs (some kid’s dad was a bigwig in the railroad) and it was mind-blowing to us, used to our gentle, treeless rolling hills. As the train rolled through Denver in the middle of the night, I saw a cross made of stars in the sky. Back home, I looked through star maps and the encyclopedia to find out which constellation it was, and found there was not one. A miracle! (Only later, upon moving to Denver as an adult, did I see the lighted cross on a mountain side, high above the Texas horizon I had expected.) We saw actual mountains, mountain streams, pine forests, waterfalls, and of course, the Great Plains. I saw western movies with new eyes from then on.
Today, it’s hard for me not to see the western terrain through the eyes of the explorers, fur trappers and prospectors. I see each valley as if entering it alone, except for my horse, pack mule and trusty Sharps buffalo gun. Ever watchful for hostiles or vicious beasts, I comb each new vista carefully, looking for friendly or unfriendly cover. Jefferson instructed Lewis and Clark to keep an eye out for prehistoric animals, and collect specimens that they might encounter. I, too, am captured by the mystery of new land — what will the next turn in the road bring?
Forests offer a different, more limited vista, but can be remarkably distinct. In the Rockies, pine forests are usually steep, crowded and uniform. In the Northwest, massive trees loom over mossy ground, the lowest branches often dozens of feet up the trunk, the dense shade stifling most undergrowth. Southern forests are tangles of trees and shrubs of different types, except where they are farmed to form neatly groomed plantations aligned like rows of corn.
Towns, people and local food also reflect shade of differences. I think it was Dan Rather who noted that you could distinguish the East from the West by where the chicken fried steaks first appeared on the cafe menus. Although much food is somewhat ubiquitous across the country these days, you can still find regional differences in the local restaurants, cafes and diners. My first experience with Cincinnati ‘chili’ (cinnamon) was memorable, as was my first taste of chili with beans. Fried bologna sandwiches are just as good as they sound. Clam chowders apparently vary across the country as does ‘Mexican’ food. After two years in a small Arizona town, I relocated to Atlanta, where I nearly shut down a ‘Mexican’ restaurant trying to get some hot salsa.
People debate the merits of small roads (William Least-Heat Moon’s Blue Highways) or the bigger, fast roads like the interstates. I can enjoy both, depending on the scale I’m looking for. The blue roads (on the road maps that few people use any more different colors reflect the road type — two-lane, four-lane, etc.) are slower and get you closer to the towns and the people, providing much more detail. The faster roads give you a sense of the grand scale, a feel for the mountains, plains and forests (without necessarily seeing the trees).
“All the years I have lived and walked in it, written about it, tried to communicate the feel of the place, the scale defeats me. Always I find myself like the tourist getting the film back from his first western vacation, trying to understand how his camera made the mountains small.”
~ Richard Manning, One Round River
Obviously, different trips require a different approach. Do you want to poke around the small towns and visit the ice cream shop or antique store? Do you need to cover ground to be able to experience something at a given time further down the road? I have found it hard to try to do both on a journey. Moving fast gets into my system and I find that my driving metabolism speeds up and is hard to resist. Stops seem unnecessary, whether for gas, bathrooms or meals. On the other hand, per Simon & Garfunkel, “Slow down, you move too fast. You’ve got to make the morning last.”
I suppose that’s the point of it all: Traveling makes me feel “groovy.”
Robert Macfarlane, Landmarks, 2015
Robert Macfarlane, The Old Ways, 2012
Richard Manning, One Round River
Robert M. Persig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, 1974