Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Travel Urge in the Dead of Night

It's late. 2:37 to be exact, though I think it feels closer to midnight. That's because I slept way longer than I had any reasonable excuse to sleep today. Six hours. And that's after the six hours of proper sleep I got between Friday and Saturday.

I didn't mean to, but my saturdays trend towards a lot of sleep. I don't know why. Perhaps because I'm so chronically sleep deprived during the week. I know the rule is that you can't 'catch up' on sleep, but your body does accrue sleep debt. And I somehow doubt that my body would accept a deferred payment plan or a government bailout for my sleeping schedule.

I have the urge to climb into the car and take off for parts unknown. I get these urges from time to time. Especially now that the weather is reasonable. I've had my window open all day and outside of the rise in noise level, one couldn't tell. Which means that winter is officially dead and gone, at least for another handful of months when it comes around again, an uninvited guest that always comes at the wrong time and stays too long.

I won't go anywhere, not the least reason being I have nowhere to go. Where do you go at 2:40 AM when there's nowhere open and no destination in mind? When you're by yourself, nowhere. You just look out the window at the street lights lining an empty road and your mind dreams up warm meadows of grass moving in shadow where you could be if you weren't here listening to music in the same room that you live in even when the weather is terrible.

You know, somewhere away from the cityglow, where you could maybe see some stars. It's bad enough around here that I couldn't tell you if the night were truly clear or not. Too many lights. Maybe I would go out several miles from town and there would be nothing. No stars, no moon, just the heavy ceiling of the air keeping me from the heavens. That kind of darkness would be absolute. I'm pretty sure I've scared myself off of traveling.

The most substantial roadtrip I ever took was with my family one year to South Dakota to see Mount Rushmore. I suppose that 'family' isn't entirely accurate. I went with my great aunt and my mother and brother. My father was never big on family vacations. His opinion was that he had spent his life travelling the world and had settled where he was, and he didn't see any point wasting a lot of energy going back out again.

I didn't see much effort in going out simply because I wasn't interested. I brought along a book. It was Stephen King's The Stand which I checked out of the library even though I was only a tyke and the book was clearly labelled adult. I'm pretty sure that the librarian was grateful that there was a child interested in reading more than she was in what was 'proper'. This was before the Harry Potters and Twilights of the world. Childhood literacy was a bigger concern. I imagine it still is, but nobody's paying as much attention.

I remember the van eating up miles as I lay stretched across the back seat (even then I was nearly too tall for that, the idea of doing it now seems laughable) delving into worlds beyond anything I had ever imagined before. Looking back, locked in a car with my family was probably what made that book so magical to me, reading about people moving across the topography of our country even as I was doing so. But now, with the urge to travel nipping at my mind I wonder if I missed my enjoyment in the activity.

Probably not. I was always a terrible passenger.

I didn't appreciate travel until I started driving. My brother goes to high school for another month in Gretna, a small nigh-rural town on the outskirts of Omaha. To get there, you can take the interstate most of the way but it eventually exits onto a two lane state highway that cuts through fields where horses are penned and corn grows and other fields that simply grow wild grass because nobody farms them. I used to, for a very short time, live in this small town. I have no fondness for it, but that's how it was.

But driving from that little place into the city where everything I cared about was became an experience. Cars have taken on, over time, a transformative quality for me. They are more than simple tools for transportation, but are the conduits of our urging for freedom and change. They turn will into action with little more than the hinge of our foot and the turn of our hands. We don't even have to get up and we can fly across any land we dare traverse. Is this not marvelous?

These were the times when I was a creature of darkness. Not so melodramatic as that, perhaps, but I was often out until all hours of the morning. And I became quite adept at night driving, watching my car eat the miles between one place and another, the road unspooling out of the narrow field of view of the headlights. This is out where there were no lights, where there could be anything out in the road that you couldn't see. Where the darkness felt a little more real and your movement through it a little more important, an island of technology driving through a sea of wilderness.

But the driving bug isn't the travelling bug. See, there are two different ways to experience travel. Travel by yourself is about the satisfaction of an act done mindfully. You exist, you have a goal, you make it happen through your action. Driving requires a certain minimum of engagement that keeps you aware of what you're doing. The Buddhist way prescribes being aware of the present moment as the highest form of meditation. To drive in an engaged way is to meditate in motion.

But a trip. A trip is a more ephemeral thing. A trip is about a companion and the experience. What you're doing is irrelevant. The driving part is only because it's the easiest to take. A trip is about being with someone and going on this shared experience away from both people's comfort zones. It's about the connection that forms when you GO with someone.

It doesn't matter if it's a friend, really. It helps, certainly, but so long as the person isn't insufferable a sense of bond will form between the people on a trip. It can't help but do so. Because deep down, people on trips all know that the trip itself is a unifying ritual. People go, people experience in tandem, and what comes up between the people on a trip is a result of the bond that forms due to shared experience.

One time I was travelling into the woods to go camping with some friends. We were young and it was late and my friend's father was driving. It was another night when the darkness was absolute. The beat up old truck was tearing through the night and on the radio came Little Red Riding Hood by Sam the Sham and the Pharaos. And we all sang along and it has a togetherness and bonding that still carries with me to this day. When I hear that song, I feel the night and the summer wind and the darkness and the vibrations of a battered old vehicle on a forgotten road.

I remember the time I was on a church trip (back when I did such things) and the annoying, hyperactive brat of a kid one night decided to pick on me, the quiet studious one. We were at a lake in Iowa. The night ended with me throwing him into the water. People cheered. I remember sitting on the sandy beach and feeling everyone's satisfaction that the act was done and their shame that it wasn't them doing it. I had just reacted without thinking. I remember being concerned about the mosquitos. But I also remember that he didn't bother anyone quite so aggressively again.

I remember walking through a closed open air mall in Tucson just last year with a dear friend of mine. The air was drier than it is here, so it felt cooler. The mall at night, with the lights dimmed, felt like a graveyard. We stood at a balcony that overlooked the city, on an elevation that had the rest of Tucson spread out in front of us. And serendipity, that magical force that turns the ordinary into the miraculous, summoned a fireworks show in honor of something (we still don't know) over the dim city lights. I remember standing with my arm around her and watching the fireworks and feeling a transient feeling of contentment. One of those moments where the universe brings all things together.

I remember walking through downtown Lincoln with my roommate at the time, the dead of morning when we made our way through the historical district. We were talking about the supernatural on a day devoid of life. We were feeling the power that moves through buildings and the tingling feeling that comes when you feel like a place is haunted, whether you believe it or not. We both looked on a building that I, to this day, would not go near in the darkness and would hesitate to enter on a busy day. And not just because of some of the stories I've heard about it.

These are journeys. Going. Doing. Sharing. Existing in a space with another person, bouncing off of one another. Energy is the vibration of atoms, brushing up against one another. People act the same way. The force of our bonds, the lives that we share, are enriched by our own vibrations, the energy that's released when we come into contact, even if we repel each other.

Often especially when we repel each other.

Long roads. Some day I'm going to make my trip, but I lack a destination or a companion. I don't need both, but I need one of them. Until then, I'm going to look and dream and wonder at the roads. The possibilities. What will the sky be like when I finally go? Will there be someone sitting next to me to take it all in, to share in the experience? Or will it be me and the world as the unknowable machine driving it all, the window open and the music up?

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