Life in Motion
the Urge for Going
See the geese in chevron flight flapping and racing on before the snow
They've got the urge for going and they've got the wings so they can go
~ Joni Mitchell, “Urge for Going”
I was a shy and timorous child. Exceedingly sensitive, so easily hurt, like the sheerest membrane in air or water I silently trembled from the invisible wounds of every atmospheric tremor. Awash in a pool of feeling, I drifted in daydreams. I felt safest in the cocoon of my family, where I was the youngest child by five years. To move outside the family home, out into the world, was risk, which I accomplished with relish if secure in my family’s care. My independent emergence from that chrysalis of home and family into the greater world – which I felt, in time, compelled in pain to achieve – thus began my urge to travel, with my experience in self-development.
To travel is to see the world afresh, to become fresh, if one is open to the experience, openness serving as the dependent hypothetical of every experience. Travel – starting with leaving the home, like leaving the womb, that first trepidation – opens one to chance: the charged edge of every instant, in possibility. That’s being alive itself, but travel elevates the charge.
The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page. – St. Augustine
Travel compels thoughts of destiny. We try so much to plan and shape fate; we see so often how much it arrives as happenstance.
Among the fascinations with human life shared both by travelers and lovers of literature – so I am doubly blessed in what absorbs me – are the varieties of those destinies, and the more one travels, the greater number of different kinds one encounters. There are the people, the larger number of us, who lead settled lives. Some barely move from that place in the world where they entered it. My partner, Julia, hails from a small, west Nebraska town of three thousand people. Many of those she grew up with still live there. Julia, a photographer, who received her first camera as a gift from her parents as a child, soon after learned of a neighbor who had actually been all the way to Switzerland, Europe, and Julia’s different destiny was determined.
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness. ~ Mark Twain
Then there are adventurers, explorers, risk-takers, players in the great games of power and progress, who come and go, away and afar, and return to go and come again, a way of life in motion.
Another kind of life in motion is that of the travelers who make their way over large swaths of the earth over long periods of time, most from starting points different from your own, some smaller number even choosing to remain where the journey has taken them. In cozy mountain villages in Laos, rambling seaside retreats along the South China Sea, in Roman train stations or filling up the tank, you cross trajectories with so many random destinies, just as you randomly happens to others. There is talk of coming and going, a beer in a café at sunset, guidance to places you should not fail to see. And if nothing else, there is one thing you all have in common: a place exists in the world called home, in whatever language, and none of you are there. You are each held out into the unfilled space of what still remains to unfold in your life, as are all, but more palpably because of the freshness, each step, of the ground beneath your feet and the unfamiliarity of the space that surrounds you.
There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign. ~ Robert Louis Stevenson.
To cling to the familiar. To venture into the unknown. A preoccupation of my life. Two years ago, I was working on a long poem, “Devotions and Departures,” through which to explore the theme. I wanted to examine the life close to home, the distant traveler who returns, the traveler who never does. I had settled on Marco Polo as my emblematic figure of he who returns and composed those lines. I sought fresh ideas through research for my third component and explored different possibilities, including moving away from Eurocentric cases. But I’ve long been fascinated by 17th-19th-century sailors who were marooned or jumped ship in the South Seas and never left. My reading took me far over the Pacific until I stumbled upon some sources on Ferdinand Magellan. At the time, I knew about Magellan the little I presumed most generally well-educated Americans knew, from elementary school, merely that he was the first explorer to circumnavigate the earth. I was wrong, to start. He died along the way. (I later learned that most people knew even less. An explorer?) But it is a story of stunning, tragic adventure and consequence, and it includes a person who was marooned! But rather than finish my poem, I was launched into the next two years, and counting, of my life, and my novel in progress, The Dream of Don Juan de Cartagena.
Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.
~ Cesare Pavese
Of all the elements of travel, the first freshness is in the elation of setting off. In 2008, I was scheduled for a year’s sabbatical. Julia was then completing a decade of near constant work since founding The Julia Dean Photo Workshops (later to transition to the nonprofit Los Angeles Center of Photography). She needed a break. We originally planned over the year four month-long stays in favorite cities, Paris, Buenos Aires, Hanoi (yes, Hanoi) and Rome or Prague. But one day, months before that year would begin, I had, of a sudden, a new idea. Among the ties that bind me and Julia, beyond our creative lives, are our mutual love of travel and of change and our openness to the ideas of the other about how to live. I had long nurtured the memory of a two-week motor home trip I took in the years before we met. Julia had done much travel before me, too. What do you say, I said one afternoon on the phone while getting my car serviced, we buy a motorhome and spend the year traveling across the country, working on a project about contemporary Native America?
Julia said, okay.
We drew on our home equity, rented out our house, put 99% of what we owned into storage, bought a thirty-seven-foot motor home (oh, you thought we’d be living off the grid in a popup camper fishing Big Two-Hearted River?), attached a hydraulic lift in the rear to carry our two Yamaha scooters, and we set off.
Traveling over land by motorhome, picking up our home (not simply ourselves) and moving on when it suited us became a regularly reinvigorating joy. It reminded us each time, having rutted our wheels in a place we had stayed long enough, of the essential freedom of what we were doing. Julia would lock us down, I’d shift into gear as our dogs Homer and Penelope set their chins to the floor, and with the panoramic screen of our windshield looming before us, we’d count time, every time, into Willie Nelson:
On the road Again
Goin' places that I've never been.
Seein' things that I may never see again
“There is no moment of delight in any pilgrimage like the beginning of it,” said Charles Dudley Warner. In a motorhome, that delight can come every time you pull in the slides and draw up your levels. “I just can’t wait to get on the road again.”
Some of what you can understand through travel is as plain as the West Texas expanse or a Tennessee woodland: how could people living in those places, with their histories and their struggles, possibly see the world in the same way as someone from New York City or Los Angeles or Miami or Seattle? Why should they? It’s a wonder they all make up a single country.
If one travels for the profound reason a person should, to come to know the world and oneself, and not simply dip a toe in and shrink back from the different and the strange, one might reject a little less and abide a little more. Tolerance, rightly understood, is not a PC shibboleth, a guilt-ridden principle of holding no principle dear enough except the one of tolerance – it is essential humility before the immensity of experience.
The use of traveling is to regulate imagination by reality, and instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they are. ~ Samuel Johnson
One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things. – Henry Miller
In 1981, I traveled to Greece. I had just left my corporate life behind and was beginning, not for the first or last time, a different one. I flew first to Rome to make a courier delivery during an ill-timed, for me, hotel-worker strike, and later took a taxi to the Roma Termini railway station to catch a train to the southern port of Brindisi. From there I would travel by ferry across the Adriatic Sea, along the coast of still closed and mysterious Albania, to Greece. At the rail station in Rome, I encountered two young men, one still in his twenties, like me, a slight, long-haired and wispy-bearded Canadian, the other an athletic, red-headed eighteen-year-old Brit. With all three of us headed to Greece, we chose to travel together, and for a week were the fast friends that found traveling companions can become.
The young Brit was exploring Europe on a parent-financed escape from grief. His twin brother had died, and he was seeking whatever there was of recovery in the distraction and education of travel. The still hippie-ish Canadian had been living overseas for a decade. At about the Brit’s age, his girlfriend had left him, and left him devastated. He took off for Europe and had returned to Canada only once: some years of living and eating in North Africa had ruined his intestines, and he returned to Canada for surgery. Now, he was living in Greece on tourist visas, which he renewed by traveling to Italy every ninety days and then reentering the country. He had bowel problems that the Brit and I patiently accommodated while we remained a threesome.
The open road is a beckoning, a strangeness, a place where a man can lose himself.
~ William Least Heat Moon
The Brit, of course, considered the Canadian and me vastly more experienced older fellows, and was duly impressed to learn the Canadian had been at Woodstock.
The three of us explored Brindisi together, rode the Adriatic waves to Patras, and traveled from there by bus to Athens. We hunted a cheap hotel, cheap food, and toured the ruins. Then our destinations led us apart as I took another ferry from Piraeus, the port of Athens, to Crete. We exchanged addresses, determined to write, and never communicated again.
When you’re traveling, you are what you are right there and then. People don’t have your past to hold against you. No yesterdays on the road. ~ William Least Heat Moon
On Crete, I visited the Minoan ruins. I traveled by bus over the central mountains to the southern coast – mountains Julia would traverse twenty-five years later without me, minus also the bus driver who crossed himself at every mountain’s-edge switchback. At last, I landed in Matala, a former 60s hippie haven. The fossils still remained from when they shat in the cliffside caves where Joni Mitchel sang her songs to Carey. The residents lived in shacks on the opposite cliff, the Greek Orthodox women black-robed from the head to ankle in the still strong, late September sun. I set out to think about my life. I checked into a pension for two dollars a night, and proceeded to shave, for the last time, the beard I’d sprouted on my return home from Berkeley at seventeen. I stared hard in the mirror at the man I had become since I’d grown it.
All the pathos and irony of leaving one’s youth behind is thus implicit in every joyous moment of travel: one knows that the first joy can never be recovered, and the wise traveler learns not to repeat successes but tries new places all the time.
~ Paul Fussell
On the beach each day, I lay and stared at the sun-saturated Mediterranean sky and the light-speckled sea beneath it, saw under sail on an imaginary horizon Odysseus’s ship, he tied to the heaving foremast by his men that he might withstand the song of the sirens I wished, too, to hear. In the evenings I sat on the porch of the beach taverna indulging the short-lived taste for Retsina I’d acquired in Athens, smoked cigarettes end to end and contemplated my destiny. The sky was star-shot and pulsed with an elemental beat. From the tavern, “Light My Fire” reverberated in the ancient night around me.
The time to hesitate is through
No time to wallow in the mire
The next morning, curious for the first time in a week for news of the world, I walked the half mile up a dirt road to a kiosk, for an International Herald Tribune. On the front page the images spread before me, the headline bold: Anwar Sadat assassinated in Cairo.
I headed home to New York.
Most obviously, maybe most simply and surprisingly too, travel is about movement. It can be disorienting. A question for the traveler becomes how well he can accommodate, even welcome, that loss of bearings. In a motorhome, you maintain a constant living environment – you are taking your home along with you. So for a year, no matter where we were, at night particularly, the shades drawn, when we ate at the same table and slept in the same bed, wrote and backed up images and interviews on the same laptops – watched the same satellite TV – everything was the same. Outside might be the high Apache desert, suburban Atlanta, a Wal-Mart parking lot in Oxford Mississippi, a Virginia woodland, but inside – more than once, for a moment, I didn’t recall where I was.
To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world. ~ Freya Stark
But for all I love of travel, I think I have come to appreciate nothing more than the actual motion of it. At just the right convergence of movement and surrounding space, travel achieves a meeting of adventure and architecture. The adventure might be in sitting at the edge a small plane’s open cargo door, a chute on your back, preparing to launch yourself for the first time into the bottom falling out of you. It might be skimming the Baja coast in an ultra-light plane without fuselage, the motor behind your head, your shoeless heels on footrests flying through the air, or getting released in a glider into the whispering sky of Vermont, to lift and bank above the Green Mountains. Pilots experience this all the time, ship’s captains in a different way, mountain climbers. It isn’t just the thrill of the risky challenge; it’s the motion on or over the earth. Architects do not, of course, just design constructs: they conceive spaces in which to be and move, and part of the success of the design is in the experience of moving in that space, in relation to what contains or abuts and feels to move around with the moving body.
For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move. ~ Robert Louis Stevenson
To stay confined to the grid of one’s town or at the bottom of high metropolitan canyons can be to lose the sense of one’s bodily relation to the sphere one so remarkably resides on. Climb above it all, withdraw from a part of it, as from a continent by ship or ferry, speed over it with little or nothing of the human in your way, as it all turns, itself, without regard to you, and you perceive your relation to the earth, the universe, in a different way. I recall the night lights of Brindisi receding in the distance, as they might have for Virgil almost two thousand years before, one land drawing back, a far one waiting, and all our lives, on all the ships, bobbing on the water. The other-worldly stillness and silence of the upper Mekong River, in Laos, motoring beneath the high banks, a lone fisherman on a skiff all we encountered, oblivious to us as we passed. The clouds revolving around the peak of Machu Picchu as we ascended. The mesas that loomed and receded as our home on wheels moved past.
Wandering re-establishes the original harmony which once existed between man and the universe. ~ Anatole France
The explorers and builders of civilizations who follow such routes of travel may feel emboldened in their self-estimation by the enormity of the nature they reach to conquer; if they are wise beyond the norm, they know the measure of their achievement is the smallness of the conqueror.
A child on a farm sees a plane fly overhead and dreams of a faraway place. A traveler on the plane sees the farmhouse… and thinks of home. – Carl Burns.
Flying at Night
~ Ted Kooser
Above us, stars. Beneath us, constellations.
Five billion miles away, a galaxy dies
like a snowflake falling on water. Below us,
some farmer, feeling the chill of that distant death,
snaps on his yard light, drawing his sheds and barn
back into the little system of his care.
All night, the cities, like shimmering novas,
tug with bright streets at lonely lights like
In 2006, two summers before the motorhome trip, for its eightieth anniversary, Julia and I flew to Chicago to drive the length of Route 66 back home to Los Angeles, where the road ends. “The American Road: Route 66 at 80” was published in the final, Winter 2007 issue of DoubleTake magazine. It traces the history not only of Route 66 but the whole history and mythos of American Westward travel as well. It celebrates, too, what is perhaps my favorite form of travel: road travel. This is its close.
There may be troubles behind and uncertainty ahead. But there is possibility too. And while your destination lies before you, for now there is the journey. Winds come up, and they cease. Islands of white cloud hang suspended in the blue. Fields go by. Towns go by. Rivers and bridges. Mountain. Valley. Mesa. Butte. In what seems a dream of life, and not life, which is to say life at last, and not a dream, the rhythm of the road, the quick of perception, both lull you and drive you on. You are individual and alive, and everything that passes catches the sun.
The map is not the territory. – Alfred Korzybski
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