“In a little while I’ll be drifting up an on-ramp,
sipping coffee from a Styrofoam container
checking my gas gauge with one eye
and twisting the dial of the radio.”
-Tony Hoagland, “Perpetual Motion”
There’s a Tony Hoagland poem I can’t get out of my head. I play the lines in my memory like a song: it seems I have the traveling disease again, an outbreak of that virus celebrated by the cracked lips of a thousand blues musicians. The drifting up the on ramp, the cracked lips of blues musicians, the radio: a disease caused by the lull of motion, a condition resulting in the inability to sit still. I quoted Hoagland as an epigraph to my graduate thesis and three years later I’m still hinged on the lines of his poem, a captive to a the condition he describes.
I repeated them to myself this morning in the bathroom, while I splashed soap and water onto my face. My partner Peter and I had been pondering where to spend Thanksgiving. We’d thought for months of going to Portland to cook dinner with our mutual friend Cecilia but her neighbors left their kitchen sink on, saturating the wall and floorboards of their apartment, filling the complex with the smell of wet wood and molding drywall. Cecilia felt unsure about hosting company with her home in such a state--so we were left adrift and without plan.
We could stay here. Peter suggested. We live in a remote village in the Cascade Mountains where there will be festivities and free food, snowshoeing, and star-gazing--not a bad place to spend the holiday. But my gut surprised me. Left to my own devices, I thought, I would celebrate Thanksgiving on the road. I would eat lunch at the taco truck, wander markets, talk to strangers, cook Thanksgiving dinner in a hostel, and wade in the sage brush on the side of the highway, drenching myself in gratitude for a world this big and wide.
Travel’s a hard habit to shake. I’m not talking about vacation. I’ve taken very few vacations as an adult. I’ve been a teacher and a writer, a college instructor and a naturalist and none of those professions afford much expendable income for hotels, international flights, or restaurant meals. What I have instead is time, flexibility, a dog-eared atlas, and friends so scattered around the country that there’s almost always a couch to crash on.
If there were a movement for slow-travel the way there is for slow-food, I’d make brochures about encounters with strangers and roadside fruit stands. I’d picket for back roads and blog about buying lemonade from the neighborhood stands of seven-year-olds. I’d praise garage sales and promote stopping to swim in rivers.
This summer I spent five weeks on the road and two on the trail. I learned how to herd sheep, graft trees, care for chickens, and build shelves. I ate venison and horse, elk and bull testicle. I bottle-fed baby goats, summited a 13,000 foot mountain. I made my car a kind of home: a raft that carried me down two lane highways between small towns. Even on un-showered days when my sleepy bag had become sticky from sweat and wear and my back stiff from sleeping on floors, I felt lucky to be able to witness so much, to look out my windows and watch the land change shape.
In college I took an environmental writing class.
On the syllabus my professor listed two quotes:
To be rooted is perhaps the most important
and least recognized need of the human soul.
Why have I always been glad to leave?
~J. B. Jackson
In a radio show about road trips, This American Life host Ira Glass observed, It’s hard for an American to just hit the road without some expectations--we all still bind to the cliche about road trips...a road trip stands for is hope. Hope. That somewhere, anywhere, is better than here. That somewhere on the road I will turn into the person that I want to be.
At twenty-seven I have an idea of who I want to be--I've a writer and a thinker, a teacher, a runner, a walker, and a wanderer. I love the smell of earth and the scent of sawdust. I want to sit on my porch on summer evenings, to read out loud to the person I love, to walk barefoot through the grass. I want to cook on cast iron, shop at the farmer's market, and eat long lingering meals with friends and family. I want a home lined with bookshelves and a clothes line stretching across my backyard. I live as close I can to these desires. I take small steps to draw them closer. When I daydream it isn't about money or cars, clothing or sex. It's about home: a place where my piney heart can put down roots.
I’m in love with a man who has spent most of his life living in the same place. Peter grew up on a farm in Decorah, Iowa, a college town laced with rivers, farms, and limestone cliffs. He went to college ten miles from the house where he grew up and didn’t live outside Decorah until he moved to Holden Village, the retreat center in the Cascade Mountains where we both work now. Peter is careful with words and gentle with his hands. When we hike, he pauses to watch ants or to palm the bundles of lichen that cling to Douglas Firs. Sometimes he makes bouquets, collecting ferns and firs and flowers in artfully arranged bunches which he places in jars on the windowsill when we return home.
Peter talks of farming in the future--a plan that both excites and terrifies me: to root your fate to the land beneath you and to map your years by the patterns of weather. It’s a life different that the one I grew up with, living in suburban Metro-Detroit, and a life different that the one I’ve made for myself in my twenties, moving every year or so to a different state, a different mountain range, a different job. But there’s something about the life Peter imagines that calms me--I picture grass growing high around fenced garden plots, dirt-caked boots askew in front of a storm door, and a pantry brimming with mason jars of fruit jams and pickled vegetables.
My first year living in Washington, I got lost in loneliness. I’d get anxious about the future and nostalgic for times when I could quell my worries with coffee dates with my friends, post-teaching pancakes with my housemate, or home-cooked dinners of carrot soup and oatmeal stout with my then-boyfriend. Without family or friends nearby, I’d wander in my car on the weekends. I’d drive three hours to the Pacific Coast. I’d walk among sea stacks and listen to the sound of ocean slapping shore. I’d scramble the rocky shoreline and press my fingers against the aggregating anemones. I’d balance on driftwood and stare at the line where the sea and sky came together, losing my bearings in the swath of blue and gray stretching further than I could see.
I don’t know what it is about movement that calms me. I don’t know why standing on the edge of the ocean eases my loneliness or why I feel so smitten with highways I haven’t traveled or why, on some days, my car feels more like a home than anyplace I’ve lived. But I know that travel fills me with hope, reminding me that I’m still on a journey and that I don’t know what my destination will be.
When Peter and I travel together, we imagine what it would be like to live in the towns we pass--what it would mean to stay in the places we stop. Last weekend we road-tripped around the Eastern slope of the Cascades. We stayed at a hostel and in a camper at the farm where Peter had interned this fall. We cooked squash, shopped the farmers’ market, and stopped at our favorite shops for coffee. We walked the high desert roadside and ran our hands along the hand-hewn wood fences that lined cattle pens.
Peter and I are not married, we’re not engaged, we’re not even moving in together--but we’ve decided that when we leave the Cascade Mountains we’ll move to the same city. It’s simple--no certificates or ceremonies or leases--but it’s the furthest I’ve ever gone with someone.
I’ve been on my own for most of my twenties. Even when I’ve been partnered, I’ve made plans alone. I’ve moved cross country by myself than once, unpacking my belongings into a dwelling I hadn’t seen before moving into it. For a long time, I glamorized the freedom of flying solo, but recently, walking hand-in-hand with this gentle man, I’ve wondered what it would be like to move somewhere with a person and a plan, to put down some kind of roots, to begin to craft the kind of book-shelved home I’ve always wanted but never strived toward.
Last weekend, on our road trip, Peter and I scrambled cliffs that overlooked the Canadian border. We traversed through brush that left burs clinging to my socks. When we reached the north side of the cliffs, we came across a wooden cross with a girl’s name on it and the dates 9/11/2005-9/11/2005, a baby who died the day she was born. Peter went to work. He walked the surrounding area gathering flowers and grasses, winding them into a bouquet too intricate and pretty to buy in the store. He didn’t rush--he ambled, selecting exactly the plants he wanted. I watched Peter’s thin frame in the late afternoon light, feeling so much love for this man who moved with precision, selecting flowers for a baby he’d never met. When he finished, he placed the bouquet underneath the cross then sat down beside me until the sun dipped below the hills and shadows started to streak the valley below.
When I confessed to Peter the feeling I’d had about Thanksgiving: the restless want for wandering, he told me that he wouldn’t feel unanchored traveling around like that for the holiday. We’ll be together, he said, we’ll be grounded in each other.
It feels cheesy to write about: this contentedness. It’s hard to tell an unfinished story--particularly a happy one. Narrative arises from conflict. Peter and I have dozens of questions but we encounter them with our feet on the trail and our eyes on the horizon. We have next to nothing. We hold onto hope, vulnerable on a road that will wind and twist.
It seems I have the traveling disease again. Only this time, I’m by someone’s side and we’re walking together, smelling of sage and letting the autumn wind whip our faces under a sky too big to see the edges of. We go forward in gratitude. We make muddy footprints on the matted trail we’re breaking through the brush.