A Student of Travel: Road Trips and Tablecloths

I’ve traveled a lot. And I hope that never changes.

The world beckons with a kaleidoscope–a smorgasbord–of wonders and breath stopper vistas, if only I leave the comfort of home and routine. Jaunting about, whether just outside my neighborhood or halfway across the earth, expands every horizon: cognitive, physical, emotional, and spiritual.

From an early age, my parents trained us to travel; we discovered what gems hid amongst the rolling green hills of Pennsylvania: Caledonia, Greenwood Furnace, the Poconos, Laurel Highlands and Lake Erie, to name a few. I still remember the ache in my leg bones walking into Greenwood Furnace Lake.

On the first “real” road trip, my brother and I clambered into the backseat of a Chevy, separated only by two paper grocery bags filled with picnic food. My brother counted the rows of stitching in the cloth seat, divvied them up, and drew the battle line. I had my Rubic’s Cube, a few library books, and a little nest all my own since the paper bag’s serrated edge battled my line of vision. I was fine with that, since my brother was in that line. Let’s just say we scrapped like healthy American kids.

We drove from Pennsylvania to Yellowstone National Park in three days, eating at rest stops and crawling into clean, hard beds late at night after Dad achieved his destination point. A mathematician and surveyor by birth and trade, he plotted our entire two-week vacation on 3 x 5 index cards. I feared them because, even at the naive age of ten, I sensed they were ambitious.

“Get your head out of the books, kids, and look around! You might never see this again.” We barely lifted our heads through Ohio and the plains, but as the elevation lifted, I discovered one of my first and lasting passions: the American West.

We stared at the speeding, unfamiliar landscape, devoured books, and shoved the paper bags back and forth until Mom’s hand swatted the air as a warning. We competed to recite first the hundreds of signs on the way to Wall Drug in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where we pocketed our wooden nickels and drove on. Then, the Badlands and Mount Rushmore appeared and disappeared.

My mother is one of the most industrious people I know and vacations were no exception. In fact, she created her own fast-food restaurant for us, filling a cooler and the paper bags to the brim with peanut butter, Oreos, Fig Bars, Middleswarth BBQ chips, bologna and cheese, Campbell’s soup, and apples. We’d pull into every rest stop as soon as we crossed a state line. My brother and I ran round yelling and playing while Mom spread out the 1970’s “patchwork” table cloth and prepared lunch with the Coleman Stove.

We’ve added sister-in-law Chen Yu’s culinary creations to the tablecloth.

At every picnic table, Dad would spread the map over the patchwork tablecloth between the fig bars and chips, draw a line with his thick finger from point to point, and exaggerate the mileage we’d cover before our next stop. I usually squalled and my brother sulked, and for some reason, Dad would smile. As the bags crushed and their contents dwindled, so did the gap to our final goal: Yellowstone.

Should I call my obsession with travel an addiction? I do see raised eyebrows sometimes when I’m asked about my next trip. Or can I say that, for me, it is the pursuit of the world’s street knowledge and of scenery that startles and moves me? Of time apart for silence and thinking? Stock piling my tangibles and intangibles for skole? (skole, Greek: a very simple definition is “free from the necessity of labor” or “enlightened leisure.”)

And my grownup go-to answer to most questions like these is: (D) All of the above.

Like my mother, I find myself smoothing out a familiar tablecloth and munching from a cooler on road trips. I plot out my route, printing maps from randmcnally.com and storing details in my Tripit ap on my iPod. The apple has not fallen too far and I thank my parents for planting this seed. I’ve programmed it successfully into my own children’s DNA. I am happy that they will discover the world, and alongside that, understand others and themselves a little better.

I value what travel affords me: time and space to reflect and ponder. So, I think that makes me a scholar of travel. One who values contemplation in the natural world. And a study of the human spirit goes hand-in-hand.

Up close, a distant, unfamiliar land and its people are more humane than foreign, more enlightening than alarming. Like ourselves. In the grind of everyday, concerns can pile up like a Jenga stack until it’s almost impossible to deal with an issue without toppling the whole delicate structure.

Grabbing the bull by the horns is one approach to puzzling out problems, but more times than not, I find my bull materializing into a greased pig. When that happens, I stretch out my feet and push a little distance between myself and the grind. After time apart, inspired silence, and hopefully, a fresh landscape, the kaleidoscope drops a lovely mosaic into focus.

It is good to go away and be still.

Next stop: Nashville, some writing, and a dear friend’s back porch. Payoff: time to stare at the Tennessee hills and find the sweet spots in my life.