Late morning, clear day. The sun is shining, the wind is whipping fast; I’m sitting in the bed of a moving truck on a little-trafficked backroad in Molalla, OR, thirty-and-some miles outside Portland. There’s a dog in my lap. A local couple had done me the favor of picking me up as I walked back into town from the campsite; I think one was wearing a cowboy hat and for a moment my brain moved through time and memory to place me in Texas again. Hardly any questions asked or formalities traded, they told me to hop in, and when the partitioned conversation we had through the open window was cut short by the sound of the wind as we gained speed, I found myself outside of time again in an isolated peace that was all mine for the remainder of the ride. This memory has a glowing haze around it; it’s burned into me because of the quiet reflection bought with that moment of silence. Hair flying. Road receding. The light doing that flickering thing it does when overhanging leaves pass before the sun.
The most present and contented I’ve ever felt. Free of context. No past or future.
When I’m hitchhiking or backpacking, all that matters is what’s happening in that exact moment. I become hyper-aware. Life is boiled down to only the most essential - a regard for safety and a vague sense of destination (plus the fun puzzle of scheming to figure out how I’ll get along to the next location, wherever that may be, punctuated by growing urgency as the sun goes down) - and otherwise I’m only cognizant of my physical being and surroundings. It’s strange that I notice so many more details, and commit them deeper into my psyche, in these moments. It’s odd that just sitting in a truck bed could feel the most like living, and that these memories recur to me more often than the “exciting” times. I remember admiring the livestock during a random afternoon of hiking adjacent to miles of farmland on my way to Stormville, NY, and the curve of those uneventful grasslands. I remember the two concrete miles from my hostel to Venice Beach. I remember the silhouette of a man and his dog, my only company on the vacant shore of Illinois Beach State Park at sunset after a stressful day of hitching from Chicago (until I met a folk band from Kentucky camping nearby, who shared their beers and smores with me before plunging into the ice-cold lake at midnight).
In Molalla I’d spent the last few nights at a free riverside campsite I found on freecampsites.net, my first stop out of Alaska on my route to Colorado. I was running out of money and energy and thought I’d lay low for awhile, set up my tent in a secluded place and just spend a few days reading, sleeping, and swimming. But it turned out I was too antsy to read, sleep, or swim, so I only spent one night before I decided I wanted to see Portland. It’s a common theme, apparently - the liberation of staying in transit.
The couple dropped me near the main town, where another woman pulled over to deliver me to a bus stop that would bring me the rest of the way to Portland (“I wasn’t going to stop until I got closer and saw that you’re a girl” - at least we get one perk). I stayed at the HI Hostel in the Hawthorne district, which has won sustainability awards for their rainwater collection and water reuse system. I did explore the city, as far as I could get on foot (it reminded me of Texas again; this time of Austin, specifically), but out of everything, for some reason, I most enjoyed reading in the massive, inviting backyard of the hostel. I’d have my respite yet.
I often wonder why it takes all of this movement in order to find solace in an environment that could technically be replicated back where I started. I could have read in my tent in Molalla. I could have read in my apartment back in Brooklyn, for that matter. But in those instances, I had unrest. I had no focus, I bit my nails, my eyes darted.
I often wonder why I enjoy hitching and camping when I do experience moments of paranoia - always unfounded, but strong nevertheless. When Jen Rose Smith wrote about the “nighttime head trip”, I recognized myself in her experiences and identified with her struggle between what she knows to be true logically and statistically, and what her rapid heartbeat and goosebumps argue in return - until the next morning, when it’s all forgotten.
One explanation could be that, in most daily interactions, we’re only half conscious, our brains filtering out unnecessary information so as to be more efficient. When I'm camping or hitchhiking, I’m focused on every sound, every shift in the wind, every change of light. Even if that comes from fear occasionally, I prefer it to sleepwalking my way through life 24/7. When I used to smoke cigarettes or drink more regularly, I was enhancing my experiences, perhaps attempting to reinstitute some of the details and emotions by brain chose to exclude. Otherwise I could be completely bored and unstimulated in a crowded room, at an event intended specifically for entertainment.
Another is that it requires one to trust, and to interact with hopefulness and gratitude. In most areas of life, I aim to control everything as much as possible. On the road, I’m putting my faith in other people, and leaving what happens next up to the Powers That Be. To have so many wonderful people respond to that call by helping me out, asking nothing in return, is rejuvenating. This is different than the way I interact with people on my commute, or in my cubicle, or anywhere else, really (the real challenge is to institute this mindset in all settings, to bring it with me wherever I go, but the people I speak with on a daily basis are not necessarily people who would pick me up on the side of the road. Our levels of receptiveness to the idea of being present in a moment together are not always equally matched; people are busy).
It could be the need to “earn” your relaxation, or “earn your oats”, as my family says. There is little reward in a meal or a break indulged in after a long day of low effort, of simply going through the motions. Not in a Catholic Guilt kind of way, where one feels undeserving; it’s more of an animalistic notion. Maybe, somewhere deep in your nervous system, as a result of never needing to venture too far above your resting heart rate, the fibers of your being know that a proper day’s work has not been done. You’ve barely lifted a finger, and so the risk of being unprepared for your next meal, or for winter, has increased - how can you be at leisure now?
The disconnect is that, by camping or hitchhiking, we’re not truly accomplishing anything that ought to alleviate such symptoms of unrest. We’re not hunting, we’re not earning money (in most cases), we’re just being. Being on the road, being out in nature. Walking. I could tire myself out in a gym as easily (although that often feels like idleness, too - another hamster wheel). The rewards are mainly spiritual, yet somehow this is enough. Why?
Search the term “are humans meant to be nomadic?” and dozens of scientific studies and navel-gazing articles (like this one) will attempt to answer the questions I feel in my bones, but can’t articulate. Is my discontent, my constant searching for greener pastures, potentially something instinctual and not just a millennial ungratefulness?
“Are we fighting thousands of years of evolutionary history and the best interests of our bodies when we sit all day?”
“…in order to live healthily in this world, we don’t need to exercise more, per se. We need to cultivate the sensory awareness – the attentiveness to our own movement making – that can guide us in participating consciously in all actions and areas of our lives in ways that keep us moving.”
“If agriculture is more work than hunting, shortens lifespan, increases disease, doesn’t prevent famine, and reduces personal freedom, why would anyone do it? I can think of two good reasons, and together they form the heart of our culture: fear and coercion.”
Are these all just a bunch of new age hippie bullshit theories designed to make us feel better by intellectualizing our commitment issues? Will I feel differently as I age?
On a train ride from New York to Chicago, the man sitting next to me spent the trip sharing his obsession with maps and atlases (literally, not the band). A boyish glimmer shone in his eye as he flipped the pages of an impressive atlas he’d furnished from his backpack. On the Pacific Coast Starline from Los Angeles to Seattle, a woman told me of all the places she’d lived throughout the last few decades of her life, always moving, always meeting new people (she knew Janis Joplin, and wrote a book about her). I overheard another man tell his friend train-hopping stories. A second man shared a beer with me while imparting advice that I must camp on the deck of an Alaskan coastline ferry to get the ultimate starry night sky view. He’d invented a mobile, collapsable Pod living space that could be transported anywhere and set up like a house.
When you’re wearing a backpack and look like you haven’t showered with a socially acceptable frequency, you draw people to you who have certain attitudes and lifestyles themselves. But they’re people of all ages, of all creeds. This feeling, it’s not a young person’s game, a naive person’s game. It’s not a game at all. It’s human, and it’s living deliberately.
We all feel a restless, inexplicable urge to move, a driving force we must try to channel, lest we risk spiraling into madness; climber Emily Pennington aptly describes it as “a rash of misplaced energy moving up my spine that needs to be released”. I’m not sure that everyone recognizes it as such, if they can point to that nagging feeling within themselves and say “that’s why”. We often turn away from it. I say, look it square in the face. Take it on.
Sometimes when I need to remind myself, I look back on these words of encouragement from friends I never met in a Seattle hostel, and I extend the same to you: “No fear, guys. Live the life!”