I remember reading Steinbeck’s travelogue when I was in my early teens. I couldn’t put it down. Travels with Charlie opened my eyes to a world very different from my suburban life outside of Chicago. This past week I have been taking my own version of travels, but without Charlie. I have driven from the West coast, going south to the greater Los Angeles area, then across the open expanses of the Southwest and now am finally adapted to the altitude and climate of Santa Fe, New Mexico.
I have written before of the benefits of travel. The changes in routine, the different stimuli that awaken and lay down new neurological pathways. The different sights, sounds, and (for me) tastes of local cuisine. All of which create sparks in the brain that renew cognitive functioning. Those benefits aside, there is also the remarkable transformation of routine going from autopilot in my daily existence at home to finding the rhythm of life on the road and a comfortable bed.
Over the years, I have traveled to different parts of New Mexico, Arizona and California by car, train, and plane. I think my favorite is the train. I am forever amazed and inspired by the vision and doggedness of those who originally laid down tracks and crossed this country. I try not to romanticize this, but find myself setting aside what must have been terrible suffering and sacrifice and just seeing the picture of those who met in the middle of nowhere and drove the Golden Spike connecting the country. Captured in a moment of triumph and realization of the potential that train travel meant.
My second preferred way of travel is by car. I come from a family of drivers. Back in the day when gas was cents a gallon, my grandmother used to take me for drives in the country in her 1948 Buick Roadmaster. These were adventures on back roads between Chicago and her hometown of Watertown, Wisconsin. There would be roadside stops to pick up flowers, buy sweet corn in the summer, pick wild asparagus from the roadside (not yet sprayed with chemicals) in the spring, and buy margarine in Illinois before crossing the stateline to Wisconsin where margarine was not sold because, after all, Wisconsin was the Dairy state.
I told folks I was planning to drive to Santa Fe and got the most amazing collection of responses ranging from, “What a great trip!”, to “Goodness! That is so far away! You’re going to drive that way all by yourself?” It never occurred to me that this might be out of the ordinary or something that people would not consider doing. After all, I am a child who grew up benefiting from Eisenhower’s vision of creating a national highway system that would improve commerce and serve as back up landing strips in times of war.
For me the benefit of driving by myself is that I get to be with my thoughts, uninterrupted. I am skilled enough in mindfulness practice to actually crave such uninterrupted time. I find my thoughts have much more space between them when I am driving than when I am sitting and meditating. I find myself laughing out loud in the car as some of those thoughts are so absurd. Somehow, I don’t notice them in the same way when they are scrunched together in my everyday life.
I do experience anxiety at times. I realize that as an older woman, traveling alone, I might be seen as a target. I try to keep aware of my surroundings and not venture into areas that subject me to harm. I like to think of myself has having good common sense as well as a sense of direction. This has changed slightly, as I rely more and more on GPS and less on maps and getting a lay of the land. This trip took me through parts of South Central LA that I had never been to due to rush hour traffic on the 210. Because I was relying on GPS, I had no idea where I was in terms of the neighborhood, but I was reassured as I noticed that I was in a caravan of sorts with others like me who were following the same directions.
There are many advantages to driving. I can take more comforts of home with me than when I take a train or fly. I can decide when and where I want to stop. And once I get to my destination, I can drive around, get lost, and then find my way back to where I am staying. I do my best to stay away from chain restaurants, but find them a calming influence when I am new to an area. I am not a big fan of Yelp, instead relying on reports from friends and family who know the local haunts, what places to avoid, and where the best coffee is.
Of course, the downside to driving is the cost of gas these days. While there are countless apps that can direct me to the cheapest prices, I still have to get out and pump it myself. The exception to this is Oregon which is one of the most civilized states in the nation, IMHO! When I am on the road, I find long-buried loyalties to brands of gasoline I remember from my childhood. I suspect that the gas is actually pretty much the same, but I am still under the influence of the symbols I know best, feel politically OK about purchasing, and are relatively close to the freeway.
Driving for hours across land interrupted only by distant mountains and clouds, I can easily imagine myself as a pioneer, walking no more than 7 to 10 miles a day, trusting that my guide would find us both water and a safe place to make camp. Crossing between Phoenix and Santa Fe, or driving from Denver to El Paso, the roads follow ancient trails laid down by the original inhabitants of this land. I am in awe of Native Americans who either evolved or were forced to adapt to the harsh and unrelenting demands of finding potable water and creating sustainable agriculture in this land that is inexpressively beautiful and without mercy. That these peoples did so and thrived, is a testament to their hardiness and adaptability. That I am able to travel these distances in one day by car, or just hours by plane is a miracle.
In a few days I will be returning home. My route will be slightly different, but still partaking of the hospitality of kind friends and family along the way. I will remember this trip for many reasons, in spite of having withstood the lure of taking pictures of my meals on my smart phone. Foremost of these is the gratitude I feel for living in such a remarkable country and having the privilege to take advantage of its many treasures and generosity of spirit.