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We gotta get out of this place.
Cabin fever, wanderlust, and dreaming of the road.
I’ve been thinking a lot about hitting the road lately.
Surely it’s a product of lockdown fever; as my daily sphere has shrank from a city to a suburban neighborhood, my daily commute from 12 miles to around 30 feet, it’s natural that a degree of wanderlust would set in. Every day at 5pm, for the last six and a half weeks running, I’ve finished my workday and joined with my family on a half-mile walk out to the last stop sign in the subdivision and back. Walk the dog, say hi to a couple neighbors, get the kids away from their screens for a while, walk back.
That’s it; that’s the frontier.
I bet some version of this story holds true for you, too; I just can’t help thinking about where I want to go when this is all over.
I’ve always been like this, though.
The first set of books that I truly devoured (aside from Calvin & Hobbes compendiums) were a set of world atlases. I loved poring over maps, puzzling at the unfamiliar place names and guessing what life might be like there, seeing how one road could connect you from coast to coast, following the land as it curved and dipped and dwindled to the edge of the flat blue sea.
As a dorky teenager obsessed with baseball — it was Cleveland in the 1990s, and this was a good time to be such a thing — I became infatuated with the idea that one day soon, I would take one of those trips that people take to see every Major League Baseball stadium in a single, summer-long swoop. I’d see historic ballparks like Detroit’s Tiger Stadium and the old Yankee Stadium along with dated-futurist visions like Seattle’s concrete-topped Kingdome and Montreal’s Stade Olympique, winding my way around the US and Canada in a grand game of connect-the-dots. I’m not sure how I ever intended to fund such a venture, usually the province of well-to-do retirees, but I certainly sketched out enough versions of the map, tracing an outline of the country from my atlas and planning the best possible routes over and over again.
In college, the dream went global. I watched The Motorcycle Diaries in the theater and was immediately taken with its portrayal of Che Guevara’s youth — less his revolutionary politics at that time and more the continent-spanning adventure of his circumnavigation of Latin America. (The opening guitar strums of Gustavo Santaolalla’s wonderful soundtrack still send me pining for the Atacama, a place I have never been.) I fell asleep to episodes of Lonely Planet countless nights, and did some wildly flawed guidebook-based calculations of how much it would cost to backpack around the world, again not fully comprehending that the primary funding mechanism for such ventures seems to be “made high six figures before having a personal moral crisis about it.” Still more traced maps, but now I wasn’t dreaming about the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, I was thinking about Angkor Wat and the Silk Road.
Of course, I got out of college and realized that my entry-level salary wasn’t going to save up as quickly as I’d projected. The dreams didn’t die — they just changed. I ran my first marathon in grad school and became obsessed with endurance, with seeing how far I could go under my own power. I biked the length of Long Island in a single day, and swore I could go farther. Even at twenty-four years old, I was already preoccupied with racing the sunset, as though even getting the slightest bit older was something I would have to rage against starting right that moment.
All of these dreams, in retrospect, were framed around a belief that seeing more of the world would change me. I’d go somewhere else, and I’d find some other version of me that I liked better in another city, another country, at the end of a very long road. That’s the fundamental dream of travel, the same one that bubbles up virtually every time I spend more than 24 hours in a new place and find myself daydreaming about how different my life would be if I lived in Los Angeles or Minneapolis or Copenhagen or Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Things must work differently there. The people live differently there; I know, I’ve read about it, I’ve seen it on television.
I would be different there.
One of the surprising lesser casualties of our ongoing international nightmare is, for me, this belief. When places the whole world over experience the same problem at the same time, you can more easily disabuse yourself of the notion that things are fundamentally different in other places, that people are fundamentally different. That you would be different. No matter where I pan on Google Maps — and I do this a lot, I find it very soothing in These Uncertain Times — I keep encountering the same annotation over and over. Whether it’s Paris or Parsippany, Alabama or the Alhambra, it’s there in small but stark print: “TEMPORARILY CLOSED”.
It’s a reminder that jars me out of my grass-is-greener daydreaming: things aren’t different there. The trees might look different and the signs might be in another language, but life carries on much the same way.
(Brief side rant: the mantra “we’re all in this together” is an empty platitude for corporate feel-good ads and people who wish to discount the reality that some people are much more gravely impacted than others by a pandemic that’s playing out over familiar lines of socioeconomic unfairness; a celebrity recording would-be inspirational videos from their fountain-dappled peacock garden is not, in fact, in the same boat as a grocery store worker or city bus driver being lauded by society as a hero while put up by it as a sacrifice, and they would do well to stop suggesting otherwise.)
The belief that you can outrun a problem, that you can outrun yourself, outrun time, reality, pain, banality, boredom or the trappings of everyday life, is exposed as a fantasy when the same thing happens everywhere as once.
That doesn’t kill the dream of the road, though. It frees it. I still want to see the world; I still want to discover the unknown. I like where I’m at, both in life and in suburban Kentucky, but when this is all over I want nothing more than to be anywhere else, if only for a short time. I want to appreciate the joys of new places without burdening them with the impossible expectation that they will change my essential nature.
I am who I am, and as soon as this is over, I’m going somewhere.
I’ve even started drawing a map.
— Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)
Are you having wanderlust dreams right now, too? Where do you want to go when this is all over, whenever that might be?
Tell me about it in the comments below!