There is something beautiful and uniquely American about a road-trip. Call it what you will–manifest destiny, wanderlust, the hunger for adventure. Every day on a road-trip feels like a new opportunity to explore the world, like opening a book and pointing at random to what you will experience that day, what you will experience in your life. It’s engaging with the world, with the landscape, in a different and more openhearted way.
While it is tempting to view the road-trip as a metaphor for life, however, it is more like a fun-house mirror, a way of seeing yourself as you could be. Road-trips help me be the person I wish I were, and help me to see that I can be that person if I let myself.
Here I Am, On the Road Again
I grew up in a road-tripping family. One of my favorite road-trip memories was on a trip to South Dakota when I was 16 and saw the words “Independence Rock” on the map of Wyoming. We had places to be, but no imminent need, and so we pulled over to see what it was about.
The short hike from the rock covered in Oregon Trail graffiti to see deep ruts carved into the hills by wagons over a century before was humbling, a reminder of how small I am in this world, though I felt somehow more actively engaged in it that I had been before. I hadn’t even known I hadn’t know about Independence Rock, but now I can’t imagine my life without having seen it.
That’s what road-trips give you: the opportunity to see what you don’t even know you need to see. And so, for this fourth of July, I packed up my little car and set out on the road–to Taos, NM, because it seemed as good a place as any.
Here I Go, Playing the Star Again
I am obviously not the first person to observe that road-trips are a useful metaphor for life. I follow in the illustrious footsteps of John Steinbeck, Jack Kerouac, Bob Seger.
And like Jack Kerouac, I find that I am actually better equipped for life on the road than I am for “real life”:
I live in the moment. I enjoy the scenery immediately around me without thinking about the scenery in the past or in the future, because I might not ever see this scenery again.
I maintain perspective. When you have 700 miles to drive, there’s no point in stressing about a single traffic jam. One more hour of driving when you have two more days to go is so obviously not a big deal.
I am patient with the people around me. Is there a late merger slowing down traffic? I don’t know where I’m going, either, and I don’t mind letting the person in. We’re all just doing the best we can to not kill each other at high speeds.
I put my phone down. While I use it to stream music or listen to audio books, I don’t babysit it because I can’t, and I don’t stress about social media or emails or texts.
I handle stressors with aplomb. Getting a flat tire, something that would normally “throw off’ my whole day, becomes an opportunity to slow down. In fact, it gives me the chance watch the sunrise, talk to people I wouldn’t otherwise talk to, and get recommendations about things I wouldn’t otherwise know about.
I’m open to opportunity. In fact, I’m on the lookout for new opportunities, and excited when new things present themselves.
I don’t get upset when plans change. Plans are just a spreadsheet enthusiasts’ way of pretending she can control the world. On a road-trip, I’m in the driver’s seat regardless of whether or not I’m following the original plan.
I connect with people with no expectations. Knowing that I may never see someone again, but still wanting that moment of connection, allows for there to be no expectations or needs or fears of being let down. There is just an open-hearted point of contact and offering of self.
I let go of “shoulds.” There are no shoulds on the road. There are needs (I need to get gas) and wants (I want to find the best yoga teacher in Dallas), but there are no shoulds.
I don’t bother following the crowd. People may say that if you go to Amarillo, you should try the 72-oz steak, but instead I do things like finding a delicious Indian restaurant and eating vegetarian for the day.
I am curious. If you’re spending the night in Tucumcari, NM, anyway, you’re going to do your best to discover the good things about this little town. You might as well, you’re here for the night anyway.
I am thoughtful. When it’s just you in a car for six hours a day, you get the chance to think through some things in your life, with the additional benefit of the clarity that comes with distance.
I am grateful. Having been on road-trips that included PB&J sandwiches and frequent vehicle break-downs, I am grateful that I am in a place that allows me to afford acai bowls and Airbnbs.
I remember the good things. In my everyday life, I generally forget to take pictures… which means I often don’t have physical (or digital) reminders of the good times I’ve had. When I’m a trip, I take pictures of the things I discover and make a point to remember the experiences, reminders that I am living the life I want to be living.
I’m by myself because I chose to be by myself. Surprisingly, there’s no loneliness on a solo road-trip. Aloneness is different than loneliness.
I am excited. About the present. About the future.
There I Go, Turn the Page
It was only as I got closer to home on my way back that I could feel these positive traits starting to fade. I got a speeding ticket in Wichita Falls for being in a hurry, and a thirty-minute delay in Dallas traffic pissed me off. I started to feel impatient, for some reason in a rush to return to the life that had so recently felt confining. And now that I’m home, now that the road-trip has become a collection of stories, I find myself grasping at who I was on the road and wishing desperately I could be that person here. It’s hard to be zen, however, when you have deadlines and bills to pay.
On the other hand, maybe I can be that person. I do feel subtle changes–I’ve started exercising more, having enjoyed the daily yoga and hiking I got in while on the road. I’m eating healthier–when you’ve proven to yourself that you can eat well when offered the limited options on the road, eating well with the luxury of a grocery store and full kitchen seems like no challenge. And I’ve started meditating at night before bed, something I never thought I’d do, because I’ve proven to myself that being alone with myself isn’t scary.
And so it is that I have seen the possibilities, both of the world and for myself, and started to rise to meet them.