Friday, November 20, 2009

Real travel means letting a trip take us someplace

“We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”
John Steinbeck, from Travels with Charley

For years I’ve embarked on outdoor trips such as trout fishing, hunting, backpacking, skiing, and canoeing/kayaking with good reasons for going. I’d plan the trips down to the last detail, even though I knew they wouldn’t turn out the way I envisioned while sitting in my den.
There was always gear to buy. Always more gear. I would check it out to make sure I knew how to use it properly. I’d pack my bags in a way so that I was certain to find the gear when I needed it.
As we all know, those plans veer off course when we encounter our objective, just as we do when we’re hunting for grouse in a new woods. Over the years, I’ve given up the idea of staying on course, although I still make my detailed plans in the den. It’s a habit by now.
I’ve come to the realization that getting lost is a good thing. And being by yourself makes it a better experience. For once, you can’t blame your spouse for the mess you’re in. It’s only when you’re lost or when nothing goes according to plan that you actually learn something.
Of course there are different kinds of travel. No, you don’t want to get lost while going to grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving dinner, the kids will get bored and relatives will be waiting to eat, and you’ll have to embarrassingly try to explain how you got lost when you’ve been there hundreds of time.
As for business travel, you’re shuttled from airports to hotels, and back again. That’s not travel at all. There are also the packaged trips on cruise liners or to a destination resort. You’re usually with somebody, and there’s little chance to wander by yourself.
Real travel is when you have no timetables, obligations or routines to maintain, for it is only then that you can slow down and really look around.
One late winter I had the urge to see the South, the South I knew as a kid during the 1950s, and used the excuse of attending a relative’s wedding in Arkansas, so I packed up my Jeep, and hit the road alone. I got off the freeway and zig zagged through the Ozarks, and found a bit of what I remembered.
At one point during the day, there was a dog standing in the middle of the road and it wouldn’t move until I honked my horn several times. There was little traffic on the maze of Ozark roads which tend to follow valleys, and don’t stick to the normal north-south, east-west grid, so I could drive slowly and check out the mostly abandoned farmsteads. These days we see out buildings of farms as quaint, but in reality each had a specific, practical purpose, and I wished my father, who was from Arkansas, was with me, because he knew their uses.
I saw a few mules in a barnyard, and later a man walking a lonely high country road carrying a cross that said: “Jesus Saves.” I wondered who the sign was aimed at, as there was no traffic. Was I the only sinner around? I took it as a message aimed at me.
Another time while fly-fishing in the Upper Peninsula, I crawled out of a remote spot on the Fox River and saw a truck parked near mine. They were the only two vehicles around.
Its owner was looking at burned pine stumps, of which there were thousands in the cut over, burned out forest land of the central U.P. I’ve wondered why the forests didn’t regenerate over the nearly hundred years since they’ve been cut. The stumps still have the axe marks made by long-dead lumber jacks.
Midwesterners aren’t an effusive people, particularly the Finns who populate the U.P., and who tend to look at their feet when they’re forced to make conversation. Whether the guy was a Finn or not, he followed the model, and we exchanged a few words. He was from Escanaba, and was wandering around looking for a particular stump that he and his step-father used 20 years ago to cook a meal when fishing.
We chatted for a while, and he went on his way, looking for more stumps and I headed back to the stream for more fishing. I thought about his seemingly impossible task, and the futility of it. Was he telling the truth? Why was he really there?
Then as I made my seeming one hundredth cast into the bend of a river, hoping for a trout to rise and thought: “What am I really doing here? I’m no less ridiculous than the man looking for one stump among thousands.”

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