Three months. That was our longest road trip. When I was a kid, we traveled a lot, but never more than the summer my dad took his sabbatical. Our trailer became our literal home on wheels as we crossed from California to Massachusetts and back again. My parents wanted to grab at the last shreds of time where it would be possible to travel as a family. In the hazy memories of my mind’s eye, it was the best summer of my life. Some memories have faded considerably, but a few important things remain.
I’ll never forget the feeling of starting out on a trip. We would always leave 2 hours later than our planned departure, courtesy of my mother’s pack rat tendencies. But once we were out of the city, on a stretch of open, unknown road, that’s when the true adventure began.
Road trips can get tedious, but I don’t remember ever being bored back then. We’d play games and listen to stories from my parents. Most of the time, simply looking out the window at our surroundings was enough.
I suspect that I wasn’t the only one with an attraction to water, because we often drove alongside rivers and lakes. We set up camp by the water and spent hours playing and swimming. As a West Coast native, when I finally saw the Atlantic Ocean, I rejoiced because it was calm, nothing like the swelling and moody Pacific.
Not all my memories are so peaceful. We traveled through hailstorms, outran tornadoes and sped past blazing prairie fires. None of that compares to the horror of the bull, which has become a Wanser family legend.
We camped in an Arizona forest for the night, only to be awoken by lowing from what we later found out was a bull (my dad does a formidable impression to this day). The next morning, my mom told me not to wear a bright-colored shirt. Of course, I disobeyed and put on a hot pink shirt before walking outside. I rounded the corner of our trailer, only to come face to face with the bull. Convinced I was about to be attacked as punishment for my rebellion, I jumped inside the trailer and screamed, “MOM, THE BULL IS BACK!” Luckily, we were spared from his wrath; contrary to folklore, bulls are color-blind and not enraged by the color red. We later found out there was a watering hole right behind our campsite.
I learned more from these trips than to obey my parents. What struck me about America, even back then, was the sheer enormity of it. I’m convinced that you could travel to 50 different countries without running across the same diverse beauty that is integral to the identity of the American landscape.
Travel is about embracing something bigger than yourself. It’s listening to the wind whistle through the car windows, not choosing a radio station. It’s standing in a barren prairie and trying to understand what the people who crossed it 150 years ago must have felt. To travel the vast expanse of the United States is to know that we don’t just belong to the bubble of the city we live in.
Emerson once wrote that traveling is a fool’s paradise. I think he meant this as a comment on the importance of accepting reality and not wasting time looking for some magical existence, the metaphorical “greener grass.” He may be right about this. But sometimes it is essential to break from our own reality to learn something about the world. Some people travel to find themselves. I travel to find the world; in doing this, I find peace.