“What draws me in is that a trip is a leap in the dark. It’s like a metaphor for life. You set off from home, and in the classic travel book, you go to an unknown place. You discover a different world, and you discover yourself.” – Paul Theroux
My father is a college professor, and he spent many years doing research in the mountains of Wyoming and Montana. The fact that he had children didn’t mean that the work stopped, so each summer we would all be loaded up into the Dodge Grand Caravan, with a custom built camp kitchen in the back, to head west for some period of our summer vacation. Along the way, we would stop to see family, friends, historic sites, national parks, and many of the different eccentricities that make this country great. While the hours in the car were agonizing for kids (iPads hadn’t been invented, of course), I’ll never forget the rush of excitement that came with backing out of the driveway, setting the nose of the car down the road, and feeling the horsepower start to carry us onward toward destiny.
We are extremely blessed to live in an age when it’s easy to move toward that destiny. There are high quality roads, GPS systems to direct us, cars that can travel almost unendingly, and a network of places to fuel and maintain both the cars and the passengers. It has reached a point where it is almost too easy to travel. Part of the appeal of a road trip is knowing that there will be challenges along the way. That moment when you realize that you forgot something. Ending up on a random back road because you turned left when you should have gone right. These are all part of the richness of the experience.
When things go wrong, that is when we grow. It’s the difficult situations that make for the best stories and greatest experiences. If someone were to return from a drive across the country and said, “We started driving, kept our schedule perfectly, and arrived at our destination without incident,” you would likely be bored. On the other hand, if someone in the same situation says, “Oh boy! Have I got a story for you,” you know that they really experienced the trip.
Challenges are opportunities in disguise. They are opportunities to learn, to grow, to question your assumptions, and to experience new things. When your phone is spitting out directions automatically and you are lost in the latest episode of your favorite podcast, the world slides by. We have become a society that is focused on reaching our destination with minimal fuss and Instagrams of the most noteworthy things that we can see from the main road.
A few years ago, an iPhone app developer started a project to track his movements using his phone. From that data, he created maps that offer impressive insight into our daily habits. You can see that he has very well established paths of travel to and from his normal locations. We all do, and I’m not challenging that it is an efficient way to travel — but it makes me wonder what we might be missing that is just off of our beaten paths. What’s on the next street over?
In a world of high energy prices, crowded roads, and busy schedules, it’s hard to embrace the idea of wandering. It feels like we need to arrive so that we can start doing whatever it is that we are going to do. I challenge you to embrace the journey as part of the end goal; furthermore, I challenge you to put away the GPS and venture into the unknown. Find a genuine paper map, pick a spot that you know nothing about, plan a route, and go. I’m sure that many of you are reading this and thinking that it sounds stupid: “If I’m going to plan a route on a map and the GPS would do the same thing, but more quickly, why does it matter?” The answer is because you are going to have an opportunity to make choices that will determine your experience. Do you want to go over the mountain or around it? Highway or back roads? If you become part of the planning process, then you control your destiny.
When I was 18, I drove to California solo to study to be an automotive technician at WyoTech in West Sacramento. In fact, the images in this post are from that trip. There was nothing but the road, my 2003 Honda Civic Si packed with my belongings, boxes of Cheez-Its, and Harry Potter audiobooks. On the way out, it was a fantastic week of my life as I got to see the rich bouquet of our landscape. On the way back, I drove for 36 hours straight from Sacramento to Warren, Ohio.
As I crossed Nebraska during the middle of the night, I got caught in a thunderstorm. Lightning was streaking across the sky and illuminating the endless expanse of farm fields. It started to hail, and I was forced to pull over under a bridge. There was one other car there as well, and I felt a kinship with this person, though we never spoke, because we were both experiencing the same power of nature. Shortly after that, I needed to get gas and was forced to exit at a very small town.
I pulled into the one gas station that I could see, terrified that they might not take credit cards, and parked at the pump under the one flickering fluorescent light. The credit card was accepted and I stood fueling my car as I looked at the stalks of corn dancing in the darkness, only twenty feet from my car. I couldn’t help but think of horror movies, and I wondered if something was going to emerge from the darkness. I was happy to get back in my car and on the road.
These are the stories that define our lives. In a world where we have done so much as a species to conquer nature and to control our destiny, we, ironically, find the most meaning when we are not in control. I urge you all to stray from the well-worn path. Set your phone aside, grab a good friend (who will become a great one), load in a mix-tape, and pack your favorite snacks. Look to your car, which will become more like a partner than a machine, and say to it “Bring me that horizon.”