A Recurring Theme

The most recent ember, I think, was the Crystal Bridges museum exhibition, The Open Road: Photography and the American Road Trip. The exhibit features more than 100 photos taken by 19 photographers as they traveled across the USA from the 1950s through today. Those photos didn’t light the flame that led me to want to know more about my homeland and its people, but they certainly stoked a fire that, perhaps, had begun to run out of fuel. We visited Crystal Bridges again last week; on the way there, and on the return trip, I felt pangs of wanting to keep going. Almost every farm and small town we passed seemed to present missed opportunities to find out what’s really happening in places we don’t really visit but, instead, only slip through on the way to someplace else.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve held an admittedly romantic notion about hitting the road. The epic road trip of my imagination takes me beneath the cosmetic skin of the continent, riding along the veins crisscrossing this country and probing deep into the viscera where I can study its heart. My adventure would not stop there. I would delve deeper, exploring the psyche of the land so that, finally, I might understand—even if I could not agree with—the motives that drive its most benevolent and malevolent behaviors. And then, once I see and feel and taste and smell the motivations, I would attempt to write a treatise explaining who we are and, more importantly, how we can become who we wish to be. I am sure books and music inspired my romantic quest, at least in part: William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways, Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Simon and Garfunkel’s America. A part of one stanza of that tune remains inexplicably emotional to me (as I’ve written, perhaps too many times, before:

Cathy, I’m lost, I said though I knew she was sleeping
And I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why

I doubt the books and music bear full responsibility for my dreamy vision of making my own pilgrimage. But I suppose I look on them as validations of whatever it is inside me that makes me want to indulge my own inquisitiveness and my romanticized version of wanderlust.

Various writers have argued either that travel is the best way to learn about the world or, instead, is a fool’s errand in pursuit of knowledge that one leaves unexplored in places left behind. I don’t know. I tend to think absolutes hide too much truth to be believed, so I suppose I am inclined to agree, to some extent, with both assertions. I don’t know what the hell good that does me, though. I’m still stuck with the wish for an epic road trip, while feeling the comfortable anchor around my ankle, stopping me from doing something foolish.

It’s not just the travel. It’s the sense that exposure to different places and different perspectives might lead someplace, internally, that’s more comfortable, more tolerable, less impossible to love.

Ach. The Buddhists’ attitude that life “is what it is” and is best accepted on its own terms is the best attitude, I think. And so I’ll try my best to experience each moment as its own destination on a road that will take us where it will.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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