Jul 23rd 2010: Travel

Sitting in the complete dark at a campground in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park, after the fireflies gave their farewell at the end of dusk, surrounded by a ruckus of nocturnal insects and birds, my iphone and its kindle app competing with a pale moon above the canopy as the only illumination in the forest, I continue to read more of Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley.” This book has been my companion throughout this trip. It is actually rather short, a light read in many ways, but with all the excitement going on and the hours spent driving everyday and the related exhaustion I have become a very slow reader. This has served me well. As the days go by for me, as I make my own discoveries, so does Steinbeck and often, when I finally find the patience and the calm to read more, I find that, even though our trips are quite different, we have been going through the many of same motions. I think these are general road trip experiences and worth at least a blog post, especially at this point of the journey. All the quotes below I borrowed from his book.

To start, there is that sense of doom I had when embarking on this trip. After I had bought my car in a rush, determined the route, all of a sudden the massiveness of the undertaking became clear. “And suddenly the United States became huge beyond belief and impossible to ever cross. I wondered how in hell I’d got myself mixed up in a project that couldn’t be carried out. It was like starting to write a novel. When I face th e desolate impossibility of writing five hundred pages a sick sense of failure falls on me and I know I can never do it. [...] Then gradually I write one page and then another. One day’s work is all I can permit myself to contemplate and I eliminate the possibility of ever finishing.” Fueled by worries I contemplated meticulous planning, but I quickly abandoned it. Wherever I ended up, that’s where I ended up. Hopefully there was a campground or at least a reasonably priced motel in the tiny wherever town. Keeping a few must meet commitments in mind, this initially scary daily uncertainty became first a point of excitement, later a simple routine. Wherever was good enough. You come to realize that there is always a safe place to crash somewhere. This is the US after all. And the flexibility to change your plans on the fly because you heard a rumor about a great place to see in some tiny diner is invaluable.

A practical insight I took from Steinbeck was to really stick to local roads whenever possible. This occurred to me after the mad dash that was the Western section of my trip. There was little time and so much to see, fantastic National Parks and all, and the interstate was the American artery that connected them and allowed me to stay somewhat on schedule, but providing little understanding of what was in between. “It will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a single thing.” With more time at hand in the South, I opted to take the longer routes, usually three to four times longer due to slower speeds, curvy roads, and lack of general straight line, A-to-B efficiency. Though more tiring, it allows you to see the country, the little towns, and get fruit on the roadside. It avoids the trucks peer pressuring you into driving at least the maximum speed limit. I would have never discovered places like Jerome if I hadn’t followed those little roads.

Another shared experience is that loneliness you feel once you are by yourself, especially after having spent time with a close friend or a relative, who came to join you for part of your trip. It takes a few days to overcome until you become content with the trip again and excited for what you are about to see next. And after seven weeks I have to say, traveling alone across this country does open you to reflection and thought than you otherwise could, and allows you, no forces you, to explore places and meet people. Feeling initially a sheepish reluctance to answer the repeated question of incredulous strangers “You travel alone?!?” I am now quite comfortable by myself as, in the end, I’m not really alone. People and places are everywhere. And they all speak English. And so I don’t think this will be my last road trip and as much as I enjoyed the company I had, I would also love to journey alone again, despite the related, occasional, emotional ups and downs.

Then there are the experiences you have with the people you meet. Some I met by chance, like the guys from New Orleans, working a tiny cafe in Austin, who are eager to ride their bicycles to San Francisco. I met them because I accidentally went to the wrong location of the Austin Museum of Art and we ended up talking and stayed in contact ever since. Others are more planned like high school friends I had not seen in over a dozen years and with whom I stayed and had a chance to catch up. Some are in somewhere between, half planned, half chance, like the wonderful people who opened their homes, and an available couch, to a stranger like myself. These are people with whom I had exceptional conversations, who took me out to local bars and music venues, provided insights in the local communities, and always made me feel welcome, treated me like a friend. But most importantly of all, from the conservative, anti-immigration Arizona couple, to the liberal, creative people in Austin and Nashville, there was never a time I could not relate one way or another. As Steinbeck puts it: “From start to finish I found no strangers. [...] these are my people and this is my country.” And I would like to extend this to the places, too. Many towns and cities I stopped at I hated leaving, especially if I had gotten to known them better, and I would love to go back to at some point, to spend more time, maybe even a few months there. I know this is somewhat unrealistic, but I’m keeping a list. Just in case.

Now, after seven weeks traveling, I am only two weeks away from my final destination, New York, and with the end in sight the trip is slowly starting to wear on me. I am sad to say that recently I have barely used my Leica, one of the most joyful tasks on this trip. The absolutely stunning beauty of Tennessee has not gone by unnoticed, and I did enjoy the Jack Daniel’s distillery, but it no longer stops and makes me pause either, as it might have earlier on. “I was driving myself, pounding out the miles because I was no longer hearing or seeing. I had passed my limit of taking in or, like a man who goes on stuffing in food after he is filled, I felt helpless to assimilate what was fed in through my eyes.” Having definitely oversampled the sights at the beginning, even with a recent recovery break in New Orleans, the living-out-of-your-trunk, if-I-see-one-more-National-Park… fatigue has remained. And the prospect of what’s to come next, after the trip, are  starting to look better and better. As a consequence I have decided to use my flexibility to cut parts of the northern section, mostly consisting of Montreal, Quebec, and Maine, so that I may visit them when I will actually be able to appreciate them. And maybe later add Chicago to the list. The remaining two weeks are less focused around exploring new places, but to visit old friends in their different east coast locations, to reconnect, and, only as a secondary goal, to get to know the places they call home. Nevertheless, there are still a few destinations lingering on this trip I am, at least photographically, excited about, and as such I don’t expect the remaining two weeks to be boring either. We’ll see.

Unrelated update: (while I have your attention) backpacking for a couple of days in the back country of the Smokey Mountains was exactly what the doctor had prescribed. After sitting on my butt for seven weeks, the long and intense hikes up and down the mountains, the swims in the ice cold streams, the fights with the bears (kidding, just making sure I kept your attention) got my heart, which I had assumed to have atrophied to the size of a walnut, pumping again. Now a shower.

Posted in Travel by Ernst Bruening on July 23rd, 2010 at 2:52 am.