Like most moments in life, senior year of college is one of those times you wish was over while it’s happening, but yearn for when the moment finally runs off. By senior year, you ache for the real world, for an end to faux responsibilities and to the pressures you’ve never really understood anyway: tests, papers, meal plan counts.
In a strange blitz of time, my collegiate era came to an end this past May. I found myself standing precipitously on the void of “reality,” bearing my degree and a flag emblazoned “adult,” that I am to carry for the rest of my days. Due to unforeseen circumstances, I did not stand jubilant. I yearned for the immediate, simpler past of studenthood, deeply dissatisfied with the career paths offered by my degree. And faced with the very real danger of unemployment, I had a choice to make. The easiest step would have been to simply give my degree and my sophomore year interests a chance, allowing them to make their case even if something within me deeply distrusted the things they had been saying. I did not choose such a path. Instead, I did something far simpler: I googled “wine jobs” and applied to every result that I could find.
Bizarrely, with no history, no credentials, nothing beyond a deep-seated love of “earth’s answer to the sun,” I was awarded a job in Napa, California at a boutique producer of primarily Cabernet Sauvignon. As incredible as I felt, the offer precipitated an upheaval of my life as I knew it. My family had always lived east of Texas, and I myself resided in the state of Alabama, a hearty 2300 miles from my new workplace, as the car drives. In fact, incredibly, I had never been to the American West. For me, deserts and mountains existed in abstraction. Lands of rock and dry heat were things I knew to be real intellectually, but could not, at the core of my being, comprehend.
Had circumstances been slightly different, I could have continued to neglect that geological education. I could have flown myself to Napa, gone from a land defined by viscous, dripping humidity to one defined slightly more poetically by vineyards and slow, contented sighs. Essentially, I could have cheated. But my piles of stuff, the true sign of any American, necessitated a far more laborious adventure. So a friend and I (or rather, my mother, patron saint of packers) packed the car, and set off on what amounted to a 3100-mile journey across the span of America.
And that’s the beauty in leaving and coming back. Not the nostalgia, not the friends, but the mythical and human ability to jump through time.
There’s something deeply entrancing about the act of being in motion, something that seems to speaks to humans universally. Small children press their faces against windows as miles peel by, and every young adult professes “travel” or “adventuring” as a hobby. In spite of this human fact, something within me was unsettled by the thought of a several-day road trip. Some of that feeling came from a lack of experience with such incredible scales. Compared to the journey that lay before me, it felt like my life had been lived in miniature. Road trips I had endlessly complained about lasted 10, maybe 12 hours. Now, I would spend 10 hours just in Texas. I’d always suspected that the US was too large, but planning the trip confirmed it.
Whatever my trepidation, the trip had to commence, and even below the nerves, I did harbor excitement about the prospect of seeing the west for the first time. The beginning of my journey was mundane, very much of the “every journey begins with the first step” mold. My friend and I made it through those states no one really wants to be from without incident. It wasn’t until Dallas at the end of the first day that I really began to feel the gravity of the situation.
That gravity wasn’t necessarily the trip’s fault, so much as the fault of my own past. I lived for 3 years in Dallas back at the end of middle school, but like all of the locations I chanced upon in my youth, I left quietly and thought the wind of the road would never bring me back. The city, the streets, they had receded into my mind as wispy vestiges, vague impressions of who I used to be. It’s odd to say, but I defined my world through the lenses of these places. My middle school days were Dallas. My elementary days were a choice blend of the northern midwest, Indiana, and Michigan. My college life, and who I most recently was, cannot be extricated from Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
Returning to Dallas felt like returning home, but not in the rural, comforting way. I drove through the heart of the city, miles from the actual house of my youth, impeded for many minutes by construction and change that made me almost question my memories. The texture, the taste of the city was the same, but the minutiae had changed. Roads that cut through rock in my mind now soared through air, making way for new passes, new people. I felt at once acutely aware of time. I had two living images of Dallas, separated by years in my mind. And that’s the beauty in leaving and coming back. Not the nostalgia, not the friends, but the mythical and human ability to jump through time. Passing through again on the way to my new life left me unnerved. It was like my cumulative selves lined the road, waving me off as I rode into the west, starting something unknown, unrecognizable.
Ever ephemeral, my friend and I only stayed a night in Dallas. Our next morning carried us further and further from my past. Passing Wichita Falls on my way out of Texas was met with an inner fanfare – I was officially the furthest west I had ever been. To my surprise (and chagrin), the grass did not fade away to endless stretches of rock and sand that swallowed the horizon. The immediate “west” looked much like the east I had just left: grassy, rolling, tired. It was naïveté, of course. Obviously, the climate systems of the world did not categorize themselves neatly into the record of my travels. It would have been even more peculiar if they had, or if along the way in my youth I had driven right to the edge of the desert, behind me the grassy plains of the midwest, in front the rock and spurs and romance of the west and said, “not yet, desert sun, perhaps another day.” Regardless, I couldn’t help but be a bit surprised. West Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, none matched exactly the picture in my mind. Sure, eventually the grass could stand the heat no longer, but it took hundreds of miles to find the desert.
And with no sounds to draw me in, nothing to read, debate, learn or hide behind, I realized that I was in one of those rare moments in the modern age: I was here, and nowhere else.
There’s some modern sense in the western world that most people have outgrown survival, at least on any day to day scale. Sure, we all fail in the end, but in any given day, survival is not a concern for most people. Barreling down Highway 40 in the heat of New Mexico and Arizona confirmed such a sense. With startling regularity, we passed tiny towns, lives and communities carved into the sunburnt rock. Each was miles from what I had considered “real civilization,” or seemingly, water. I’ll admit, my friend and I were often confused. “What a life they must lead!” we’d say, over and over, traveling by peculiarly tall horse rather than by weighted car.
And yet, there they were, leading those lives. Hundreds of people in every town, some at the highway, some receded from it, closer to the hills that had begun to creep ominously higher. Looking down from the road, it was difficult to discern residential from commercial, and in some towns, I’m positive there was no real distinction. Storefronts and houses looked the same – weathered, white buildings whose plainness stood in contrast to the reds, yellows and blacks of the ground beneath them, the hills that framed them. We could see cars and people going about their days, forgetting to care about the thousands of ghostly people riding through their home behind them.
It was almost easy to feel self-centered at such a moment. The default history had always been these “highway towns,” small communities and towns built to service the needs of travelers through this unforgiving land. But that story trivializes these towns, makes them about me, the traveler, instead of the very real, dreaming people that wake up each morning in Somewhere, New Mexico, to live another day in the life.
Driving along the highway felt itself like a copout. Like I was not giving all of the span of America its due. Like I was indeed only passing through, on my way to bigger and better and lusher things. While the sentiment was accurate, strictly speaking, I could not help but feel guilty. There is no grand romance in a tiny, desert town, but there are a people who do more than survive.
As I passed through these little towns, it struck me that the western notion of survival is incomplete. Survival has evolved, transmuted. No longer is western survival about the individual. It has grown to encompass the locale. In the west, there did not seem to be mystery as to whether or not a human could conquer the heat or the drought or proclivity of paint to fade in the sun. They were bound to, every day, until some internal clock ran out of battery. Instead, the mystery that stood unsolved was how the town would fare – the living, breathing network of edicts and tired streets.
And some fared better than others. My traveling partner and I stayed in a small New Mexico town, bordered on either side by towns that had lost the game. As I pulled off the highway and turned onto Historic Route 66, I could not help but feel a sort of glee. For once in my days-long journey, something looked exactly how I expected it to. The town was colored with a knowledge of art gleaned only from elementary school classes, a basic grasp of complementary colors. The blue neon and orange rust framed 1950s regalia, and ancient signs begged us to come in and purchase Native American or melancholy-themed souvenirs. There was a certain weight in the air, a palpable slowness that one could feel in the sagging traffic lights and the just-too-long pauses between sentences of the receptionist at our hotel desk.
But our key cards worked and the water ran and as the sun faded and the desert wind took its place, I couldn’t help but feel like this town had won. Decades after its glory days (if there ever were such a thing), here it was, our home for the neon night, this small, oft forgotten American town in the crevices of New Mexico. It lived and breathed, however slowly. It soldiered on. It survived.
But it could not hold us. We were transient, disappearing again into the hills once the sun drowned the pale gold streetlights the next morning. It was time, destiny and American climate patterns decided, to see the true desert, to see true mountains. To see where the new, cycling life ends, and all that remains are the ancients – stone, dirt, cliff.
Having never seen such storied things, there was no choice better than to see the greatest that southwest America offers. We drove past the border to Arizona, past Flagstaff, past the gate that adorns the entrance but does not adequately convey the spirit. We turned our car down winding roads, up hills that engendered excitement and mild confusion. Surely, we missed it, right?
Of course, the sprawling, wondrous thing that is the Grand Canyon is impossible to miss. But it does not build. There is no precursor. It ambushes you, knocks you over, and breaks your sense of what beauty can be, the Grand Bully that it is. At once, your reality is redefined, scales redrawn, and your breath… your breath floats away and is swallowed immediately by the vastness, by the force of the years and the water that built this place. Dallas gave me a sense of time, but once again, it was in miniature. The Grand Canyon gives you something much more, paradoxically, celestial. It feels not-of-this-earth. It feels stolen, or perhaps left here by accident, a clerical error on the books of some higher being.
I was excited to see the desert to give an experience to the image in my head. To hang a moment on the word as I come across it. But now, I faced the opposite problem. What words was I to hang on such an experience? The name, Grand Canyon, always felt to me, sheepish. The place had to talk itself up, as if humans had named the newest record-breaking skyscraper the “Very Tall Tower.” Now, standing on the edge, it was obvious that the error did not lie in the world, but in us, and our ability to conceptualize such a wonder in a succinct term with these 26 inadequate tools. Grand Canyon was the best we could offer, for the earth makes fools of us all.
I could have spent weeks on the side of the canyon, trying my hardest to grab the words that floated around in the space above the river. But like all the places along the road, we had to pass through, had to become ghosts and vagabonds once again. We left, feeling slightly dissatisfied. Not in the canyon, or in the beauty of the world, but in the crushing mundanity of our everyday lives. What was this trip in the eyes of the Colorado River, in the eyes of the Supai Group, the Hermit Foundation, the uplifted rocks of the Cenozoic, the ancient, tilting lava of the Uinkaret volcanic fields? Human lives leave little time for existential introspection. If only we flowed on geological scales.
Along Highway 40, a long ways past yet another withered American town that had a name and a spirit and a dream forever ago, my travel companion fell asleep. It’s really the cardinal sin of travel companionship, at least as far as road trips are concerned, but she slept unperturbed so I imagine she did not feel overly guilty. Being the far more considerate companion, I turned down the music and the AC, filling the car with nothing but the sound of the miles and soft breathing. As it was evening time, hundreds of miles from bastions of traffic, we were one of the few people on the road. And with no sounds to draw me in, nothing to read, debate, learn or hide behind, I realized that I was in one of those rare moments in the modern age: I was here, and nowhere else.
It was a peculiar sensation, the act of being wholly in the world, forced to stare unendingly at the land as it passed before me. It gave me a strange, ancestral bubbling, a notion both comforting and not, that I had returned to how life used to be lived: unequivocally in this moment whenever it may be, as the great world spins beneath me. Out on the road, there was no escape, neither from my thoughts nor from the miles. No constant barrage of feel-good articles or social media to dull the mind. On the road, I felt once again a member of that first, daring human race, the one that could not stay and tarry. The one that had to be in motion to survive, but that had to know where they were, what surrounded them, what dangers they would face and overcome. The one where survival meant survival of the body in a very visceral sense. The one that was at once nomadic, and here.