A year and and nearly two weeks ago, Julia and I left Los Angeles to travel the country by motorhome and do research for our book on contemporary Native American life. Thursday we returned to L.A., not home quite – because we’ll be setting wheels to road some more, intermittently, throughout the next year – but to a surprising little hideaway on the beach, looking out at the Pacific.
Fifty-three weeks of travel – unthinkable for some, but for me and for Julia, as our lives have evolved, an almost pressing need. Our travels started uncertainly. They didn’t always go so well. We did not reach all of the destinations on which we had set our sights, but as John Steinbeck said, “A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.” Our destinations and our destinies are like a ball bobbing on the ocean, and we kicking behind it. Sometimes we do, in fact, direct it exactly to where we were aiming, and so we are apt to forget that the current might just as well have gone against us.
“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” – St. Augustine
Among the fascinations about human life shared both by travelers and lovers of literature – so I am doubly blessed in what absorbs me – are the varieties of those human destinies, and the more one travels, the greater number of different kinds of lives one encounters. There are those among us, the larger number, who lead settled lives of varying degree. There are those – players in the great games of power and progress that posts on this blog often address – who are driven in their lives to consequential action. Their purpose is in the work of attempting to direct that water-borne ball over the waves, for themselves and for others, and their lives would feel otherwise aimless.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” – Mark Twain
Another kind of life is that of the other travelers making their way over the earth, most from starting points different from your own, some even choosing to remain where one of their journeys has taken them. In cozy mountain villages in Laos, rambling seaside retreats along the South China Sea, in Roman train stations or filling up the tank, one crosses trajectories with so many random destinies, as one randomly happens to others. There is talk of coming and going, places one should see, a beer in a café at sunset. And if nothing else, there is one thing you all have in common: a place exists in the world called home, in whatever language, and none of you are there. You are each held out into the void of what still remains to unfold in your life, as is everyone, only made more palpable because of the newness, at every step, of the ground beneath your feet and the unfamiliarity of every moment. “There are no foreign lands,” said Robert Louis Stevenson. “It is the traveler only who is foreign.”
“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.” – Cesare Pavese
Of all the elements of travel, the originating impulse is in the elation of setting off. Traveling over land by motorhome, picking up our home (not simply ourselves, and on to some hotel, but our home) and moving on when it suited us – this became a reinvigorating joy. It reminded us each time, having rutted our wheels in a place we had stayed long enough, of the essential freedom of what we were doing. The panoramic screen of our windshield looming before us, Homer and Penelope setting their chins to the floor, Julia would lock us down and I would shift into gear, counting time into Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again”:
Goin’ places that I’ve never been.
Seein’ things that I may never see again
“There is no moment of delight in any pilgrimage like the beginning of it,” said Charles Dudley Warner. In a motorhome, that delight can come every time you draw up your levels and pull in the slides. “I just can’t wait to get on the road again.”
Some of what you can understand through travel is as plain as the West Texas expanse or a Tennessee woodland: how could people living in those places, with their histories and their struggles, possibly see the world in the same way as someone from New York City or Los Angeles or Miami or Seattle? Why should they? It is a wonder they all make up a single country. If one travels for the only profound reason a person should – to come to know the world, and oneself, and not simply dip a toe and shrink back from the cold water of the new and strange – one might reject a little less and abide a little more. Tolerance, rightly understood, is not a PC shibboleth, a guilt-ridden principle of holding no principle dear enough except the one of tolerance – it is essential humility before the immensity of experience. The whale is not greater than the eagle.
“The use of traveling is to regulate imagination by reality, and instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they are.” – Samuel Johnson
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” – Henry Miller
There are the people, the places, and yourself. There is the world that contains them all. In 1981, I traveled to Greece. I had just left my corporate life and almost certain fortune behind (offered, by the company’s owners, the final promotion on Friday – the last rung on the ladder to the top – I resigned on Monday) and was beginning, not for the first or last time, a different life. I flew first to Rome, later took a taxi to the Roma Termini railway station to catch a train to Brindisi, from where I would travel by ferry across the Adriatic Sea, along the coast of still closed and mysterious Albania, to Greece. At the rail station in Rome, I encountered two young men, one still in his twenties, like me, a slight, long-haired and wispy-bearded Canadian, the other an athletic and red-headed eighteen-year-old Brit. With all three of us headed to Greece, we chose to travel together, and for a week were the fast friends that found traveling companions can become.
The young Brit was exploring Europe on a parent-financed escape from grief. His twin brother had died, and he was seeking whatever there was of recovery in the distraction and education of travel. The still hippieish Canadian had been living overseas for ten years. At about the Brit’s age, his girlfriend had left him, and left him devastated. He took off for Europe and had returned to Canada only once: some years of living in North Africa had created havoc with his intestines, and he had returned to Canada for surgery. Now he was living in Greece on tourist visas, which he renewed every ninety days by traveling to Italy and then reentering the country. He had bowel problems that the Brit and I patiently accommodated while we remained a threesome.
“The open road is a beckoning, a strangeness, a place where a man can lose himself.” – William Least Heat Moon
The Brit, of course, considered the Canadian and me vastly more experienced older fellows, and was duly impressed to learn the Canadian had been at Woodstock. I missed Woodstock because my closest friend and I had flown to California on the first independent travel of my life, while still in high school: we were ticketed for vagrancy on the Sunset Strip, hitchhiked up the Pacific Coast Highway to camp illegally in Big Sur, and made our way to Golden Gate Park and Berkeley, where our acid connection awaited us. The “promised land of my people” I called the golden state of our travels in my senior-year creative writing class.
Well, I was even younger then than the Brit.
The Brit, Canadian and I explored Brindisi together, rode the Adriatic waves to Patras, and traveled from there by bus to Athens. We hunted cheap hotels, cheap food, and toured the ruins. Then our destinations led us apart as I took another ferry from Piraeus, the port of Athens, to Crete. We exchanged addresses, determined to write, and never communicated again.
“When you’re traveling, you are what you are right there and then. People don’t have your past to hold against you. No yesterdays on the road.” – William Least Heat Moon
On Crete, I walked for miles. I visited the Minoan ruins. I traveled by bus over the central mountains to the southern coast – mountains Julia would traverse twenty-five years later, though without the bus driver who crossed himself at every mountain’s-edge, unrailed switchback. At last, I landed in Matala, a former 60s hippie haven (the fossils still remained from when they shat in the caves) where the residents lived in cliffside shacks, the Greek Orthodox women black-robed from the head down in the still strong, late September sun. I set out to sit with my own long-mending heart. I checked into a pension for two dollars a night, and proceeded to shave, for the first and last time, the beard I’d sprouted on my return home from Berkeley at seventeen. I stared hard in the mirror at the man I had become since I’d grown it.
“All the pathos and irony of leaving one’s youth behind is thus implicit in every joyous moment of travel: one knows that the first joy can never be recovered, and the wise traveler learns not to repeat successes but tries new places all the time.” – Paul Fussell
On the beach each day, I lay staring out at the wide Mediterranean sky and the sun-speckled sea beneath it, saw under sail on an imaginary horizon the ship of Odysseus, he tied to the heaving foremast by his men that he might hear and withstand the sirens’ song. In the evenings I sat on the porch of the beach taverna indulging the short-lived taste for Retsina I had acquired in Athens, smoking cigarettes end to end and contemplating my life. The sky was star-shot and beating with an elemental pulse. Once, from the tavern sound system, “Light My Fire” vibrated in the ancient night around me.
The time to hesitate is through
No time to wallow in the mire
“Try to set the night on fire.”
The next morning, curious for news of the world, I walked the half mile up a dirt road to the kiosk for an International Herald Tribune. On the front page the images spread before me, the headline was bold: Anwar Sadat assassinated in Cairo.
I headed home to New York.
Most obviously, maybe most simply and surprisingly too, travel is about movement. It can be disorienting. A question for the traveler becomes how well he can accommodate, even welcome, that loss of bearings. In a motorhome, you maintain a constant living environment – you are taking your home along with you. So for a year, no matter where we were, at night particularly, the shades drawn, when we ate at the same table and slept in the same bed, wrote and backed up images and interviews – watched TV from our satellite – everything was the same. Outside might be the high Apache desert, suburban Atlanta, a Wal-Mart parking lot in Oxford Mississippi, a Virginia woodland, but inside – more than once, for a moment, I didn’t recall where I was.
To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world.” – Freya Stark
But for all I love of travel, I think I have come to appreciate nothing more than the actual motion of it. At just the right convergence of movement and what surrounds it, travel achieves a meeting of adventure and architecture. The adventure might be in sitting at the edge of the open cargo door of a small plane, a chute on your back, preparing to push yourself out on your first jump. It might be skimming the Baja coast in an ultra light or getting launched into the whispering sky in a glider, to soar and bank above the Green Mountains of Vermont. Pilots experience this all the time, ship’s captains in a different way, mountain climbers. It isn’t just the thrill of the risky challenge; it’s the motion on or over the earth. Architects do not, of course, just design constructs: they conceive spaces in which to be and move, and part of the success of the design is in the experience of moving in that space, in relation to what contains or abuts the moving body.
“For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” – Robert Louis Stevenson
To stay confined to the grid of one’s town or at the bottom of high metropolitan canyons is to lose the sense of one’s bodily relation to the sphere one so remarkably lives upon. Climb above it all, withdraw from a part of it, as from a continent, speed over it with little or nothing of the human in your way, as the sphere itself turns, without regard to you, and you perceive your relation to the earth, the universe, in a different way. I recall the night lights of Brindisi fading in the distance, as they would have for Virgil almost two thousand years before, one land receding, a far one waiting, and all our lives, on all the ships, bobbing on the water. I can still recover to my senses the worldly stillness and silence of the upper Mekong River, in Laos, as we motored beneath the high banks, the lone fisherman on a skiff oblivious to us as we passed. The clouds that revolved around the peak of Machu Picchu as we climbed. The mesas that loomed and receded as our home on wheels moved on.
“Wandering re-establishes the original harmony which once existed between man and the universe”……Anatole France
The explorers and builders of civilizations who follow such routes of travel may feel emboldened by the enormity of the nature they reach to conquer; if they are wise beyond the norm they understand that the measure of their achievement is in the smallness of the conqueror.
“A child on a farm sees a plane fly overhead and dreams of a faraway place. A traveler on the plane sees the farmhouse… and thinks of home.” – Carl Burns.
Before we continue our travels here at home next year, we will fly in January to Buenos Aires and Uruguay. Julia will be teaching a photo workshop there. (It is a fun and seasoned group of travelers going, by the way, lovers of photography all, and there are still spaces open, if you are a photographer at any level who would like to learn from the teacher PhotoMedia Magazine named its 2008 “Photo Person of the Year.”) We were last in Buenos Aires in 2005, and though we had hoped to make it to Montevideo then, we didn’t manage it. This time Carnival Week there is part of the itinerary. The most scenic way to travel from Buenos Aires to Montevideo is by boat, an hour or three, all depending, across the Río de la Plata, as it opens onto the Atlantic. I anticipate it even now, the sense of great waters beneath me, and of an ocean ahead, our boat breaking the waves as the wind tears up my eyes, and I squinting for the first sight of a new destination, standing, for all my life, in the utter joy of moving in its direction.
“The map is not the territory.” – Alfred Korzybski
Photography by Julia Dean