A trip

January 31, 2011

photo by Chelsea Alling

photo by Chelsea Alling

“A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys.  It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness.  A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike.”

– John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley

Last week, I went on my first real road trip, and I wish I had brought this book with me. I read it years ago, maybe even before I could drive, and loved it.

Steinbeck’s trip was very different from mine. For starters, his only company was a poodle, and I got to travel with three wonderful girls. His trip was almost 10,000 miles; ours was 2612.1 miles (the distance from Los Angeles to Portland, Oregon and back).

Over the course of our trip, Julia, Chelsea, Tracy and I held a two-week-old baby, witnessed a Dungeons & Dragons game, explored an abandoned theme park, ate bacon doughnuts, and, like Steinbeck, had our fair share of bite-sized interactions with strangers.

At one point in his book, Steinbeck is saddened by an encounter with a waitress who “wasn’t happy, but then she wasn’t unhappy.” He says,

“I don’t believe anyone is a nothing. There has to be something inside, if only to keep the skin from collapsing. This vacant eye, listless hand, this damask cheek dusted like a doughnut with plastic powder, had to have a memory or a dream.”

I have noticed in me a temptation to collect people like I collect experiences. On our road trip, I don’t think we came across anyone even close to “a nothing,” but I sometimes had the urge to instantly understand and even categorize those we met. I’m not quite sure how to combat this, but I know it involves humility.

There should be a sort of wonder in meeting a new person, probably not unlike the wonder of exploring a new place. But over the trip, sometimes I forgot that most people we encountered (waitresses, shop owners, homeless people, relatives, friends) have lived longer than I have, and all of them have a story just as meaningful as my own. There is not time to hear everything (or anywhere close to everything) someone has to say, so sometimes to remember that each person I meet is a complex, mysterious being, and that my perception of them is embarrassingly incomplete, is enough.

I am arrogant when I assume I know how the drug addict sprawled out on the streets of San Francisco got where he is, or why the waitress was so rude to us; there is so much I don’t know even about the girls I travelled with. In fact, one of the richest parts of the trip was learning bits and pieces of why my friends are the way they are. That, and pulling over every few hours to smell the salt-soaked coast or stand next to a redwood.