It’s been a long summer. That’s not a bad thing necessarily, but in my case that statement is true in a number of ways. First, I’m in sort of a liminal state; I’ve concluded one significant step in the timeline of my personal evolution and now I’m sort of in a holding pattern for the next step, which in some way is largely out of my control. I’m at the mercy of the market. Yes, we’re starting off intentionally vague, but clarity will come around. Another reason why it’s been a long summer is because I’ve made it so by my decisions on how to spend my time. I do a lot of reading (and no, it isn’t all comic books and romance novels), I do a lot of writing (which requires a lot of revisions, most by others’ request), and I’ve been doing a lot of traveling. That last one, you might say, doesn’t sound so bad. Some might assume I must live in the lap of luxury. Well, that’s not quite true. Most of this traveling has been by necessity of my trade; an attempt to extend my knowledge base.
Between roughly May 18 and August 10 I’ll have crisscrossed this country numerous times. If I have the time, I always prefer to drive over fly for numerous reasons; chief of them that I can bring my dog with me and that I at least have some modicum of control over when I’ll get some place. The whole cattle aspect of flying is just not appealing to me. And I’m not an anxious flier but I do always assume that’s how I’m going to die. It just seems fitting for some odd reason. And yes, it takes a LOT longer to drive anywhere, but for the most part you can be on your own schedule, traffic jams be damned. But I digress. This is not the point right now. I’ll have driven about 10,000 miles during those roughly three months. Clearly I care about the environment! But seriously, I’ve been as far northwest as Bellingham, WA, and as far southeast as Clemson, SC, mostly all for a project I’m working on about the history of the study of leisure in this country.
I have covered twenty-two states on my trek. Some downright breathtaking, many downright boring. I don’t feel that I’ve gotten to know anyone or anywhere any better, but maybe I’ve gotten to know myself better. That’s a lot of forced time to spend in your head. And while I spend a lot of time trapped up there bouncing off the walls of my cranium, I at least usually have some healthy distractions to allow the bumps and bruises of my brain to heal. 10,000 miles of solitude does not afford such mental protection. It causes you to confront your ever-changing reality and all the issues you’ve cultivated yourself into. And sometimes it causes you to just turn off, much like the dial on the radio I get sick of after about 10-12 hours of trancelike pseudo-entertainment on the highway.
I’ve seen some of these roads too many times to count (that’s you Wyoming and Kansas) and some of them not nearly enough (the backroads of Eastern Pennsylvania and West Virginia come to mind). And perhaps what I learned is that I greatly appreciate originality. I got sick of seeing McDonald’s and Subway’s dotting the interstates. I loved seeing the mom and pop offerings of the backroads. I understand and appreciate convenience as much as the next guy, but too much of our country has become a static regurgitation of corporate culture. We lack soul, so it seems. I’d rather gamble on a BBQ joint in rural Georgia then the sterility of canned, corporate “food” (which is oftentimes just as much of a potential dilemma as anything cooked by a guy named Skeeter).
One time when I was in the central part of Michigan I asked someone what some of the best restaurants in town were. She replied that they had all of the chains, anything I could want. I think she missed the point. As do too many people. That whole “buy local” campaign really is an important notion. The more we feed big boxes, the more our communities will look like cloned copies of places no one ever wants to go. So maybe that’s what I learned on this summer “vacation”; that there are still some places that pride themselves on originality, tradition and bucking the easy way out. I was in rural northern Maryland and I drove through this tiny town. The main street had some antique stores, some used clothing stores, a few bars and a diner. It was quite obvious that these people appreciated their slow, off the beaten path way of life. But too many of us would look at these little idyllic villages and cast them away as scared of progress. Well, what has progress done for you? A 59¢ hamburger and a clothing store stocked full of cheap Chinese-made garments meant to last about as long as the swipe of deodorant you put on in the morning? “You get what you pay for” means a lot, and not just in quality of product, but also in quality of experience. In quality of memory, too. And perhaps more importantly, in quality of future action. There’s not much to look forward too if Friday night always means dinner at Chili’s and beers at Hooter’s, and Home Depot provides the extent of “personalizing” your home. But when you go off the grid, you just might be reminded that life can be novel and that our experiences are our lives.
I have a friend in her early-60s who is living life. She’s done well for herself and has amassed enough money to start to appreciate it. She has spent most of the summer going to various concerts and festivals, seeing friends, exploring new places. She told me about how her now ex-husband has chosen to spend his time watching reruns and going to the driving range. Now this isn’t a value judgment (well, yes it is), but I hope I opt for her use of time when I’m in the position to afford to do so. These travels of mine have reminded me that different people value different things, and that there is a wide range of how people spend their time. I drove by secluded cabins, posh resorts and cookie-cutter housing developments. Where we choose to live (dependent on our access to resources) says a lot about what we value, but that’s not entirely in our control. Some don’t stray too far from their place of birth, some don’t accumulate enough wealth to live in anything aside from a small apartment, and some don’t have friends or family to show them life outside of the big box world. Some get their reality in too large a dose of TV.
I was asked why I had to drive to all of these established faculty members’ places of residence to conduct this project. For me it was never an option to do anything but that. I’m a qualitative guy; I value the experience. But my answer to this question was that it showed not only my commitment to the project, but also my respect for the individual. Also, I was asking for nearly two hours of their time. It’s a lot easier to get that in person than over the phone. Additionally, it showed that maybe I’m more forward thinking than I typically am; one of these people just might give me a job someday. If I’ve met you, and you made a good impression on me, then I’d like to think there has been a foundation established for future interaction. I’m a Luddite in that I shun social media (though I recognize the utility). I’m old beyond my age in that I still write handwritten thank you cards to people. I’m romantic in that I think there is a lot to be learned from the things you are not seeking to learn from. Case in point would be these 10,000 miles of road I traversed this summer. At times grueling and dreary, they served as a literal roadmap for my experience and personal development. Indirectly those 10,000 miles showed my commitment and my aspirations for my future. Those expansive hours on the road housed my respect for friends, family and a field for which I hope to soon be gainfully employed. Every time I filled up with gas, every time I groaned at McDonald’s and smiled at another Colorado plate in Virginia or Washington State, I further refined myself and what I hoped lies ahead. Those 10,000 miles were only originally understood to be a means. Who knew they could also be an ends?
No Good So-and-So