Interlude

“I discovered long ago in collecting and classifying marine animals that what I found was closely intermeshed with how I felt at the moment. External reality has a way of being not so external after all.”

We hope our readers will be patient with an editorial blog this time. We’ll include random photos periodically, just to keep you entertained!

You may have noticed that we’ve posted less over the past few weeks. (If you haven’t noticed, that’s ok, we’ll forgive you!) This is partly due to circumstance, just the general busy-ness of life getting in the way, and partly a conscious choice. We’ve discovered, as much as we love this blog, that it changes the way we travel. Let us explain.

It’s become accepted wisdom that virtually everything in life is subjective. We can argue about questions of “historical fact” or “truth” or “faith,” but when it comes to something like travel writing, I think we can probably agree with the postmodernists, who tell us that what we see depends on where we stand.  In our case, we’ve discovered that what we see also depends on what we happen to be holding in our hands or on our laps at the time.

If I’m looking at a scene through the viewfinder of my camera, I see different things than I would without that lens. If I’m observing something with my laptop open in front of me, or even with a pen and notebook (the kind with paper, not a keyboard) in my hand, then I approach it differently. Instead of losing myself in observation and letting go of self-consciousness for a split second or, if I’m very lucky, for several minutes, I’m constantly in my own head. I’m thinking about how to put what I’m seeing into words. I’m narrating. It’s like the difference between genuinely listening to someone speak, and just nodding along while you formulate your next reply. It not only changes my reaction to a particular scene or situation but influences those aspects that stand out to me, how I remember events later, even my basic perception of what’s happening in front of me. It changes everything.

Recently, Alissa has been cheating on Steinbeck with Annie Dillard. Since Steinbeck’s been dead for almost 50 years, she didn’t think he’d mind too much. In any case, one thing she read in Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek really smacked her upside the head.  Dillard says that self-consciousness hinders our experience of the present moment. The second we become aware of ourselves observing something, looking over our own shoulders, the thing we’re looking at disappears.

She describes herself watching a muskrat on the banks of Tinker Creek. “He never knew I was there. I never knew I was there either. For that forty minutes last night I was as purely sensitive and mute as a photographic plate; I received impressions, but I did not print out captions…And I have often noticed that even a few minutes of this self-forgetfulness is tremendously invigorating. I wonder if we do not waste most of our energy just by spending every waking minute saying hello to ourselves.” (198)

We think this is hugely perceptive. One of the reasons we travel the way we do is to escape exactly what Dillard describes here, that constant inner monologue that inhabits us as we go about our daily lives. Writing this blog is wonderful in that it allows us to share our experiences with like-minded people, to have conversations and get feedback that would otherwise be impossible. It’s an amazing thing in that respect. But it also changes our travel experience. If we’re zipping along a two-lane country road and Matt whips out a notebook to write down something we’ve seen on a sign or record an impression he’s just had before it slips away, then he might miss something while he’s bent over the page. That’s a risk we’re willing to take, but it is a hazard all the same.

So we’ve taken a break over the last few weeks. We’ll be back on Saturday with more travel notes and (hopefully) witty observations, but for today we’re just going to leave you with our musings about blogging. And also with this photo, which we hope you’ll enjoy!

The Best Laid Plans

“A dog, particularly an exotic like Charley, is a bond between strangers.  Many conversations en route began with ‘What degree of a dog is that?’”

Our dog is the one on the left.

Like many thirty-something couples with no kids, we have a dog. Like Charley, our pup is exotic, and she has definitely created bonds for us with neighbors and strangers alike. It is not unusual for burly, tattooed men to get down on their knees in the street and gush over how cute she is. People tend to speak to her first, and whoever happens to be at the other end of her leash second, if at all. However, she is Scottish and requires a passport to travel, not to mention the cost of a doggie ticket on a trans-Atlantic flight. So she spent her vacation with a friend of ours in Scotland. Our point of contact with strangers en route would have to be something else.

It turned out to be the car. It’s a Mazda RX8. Wide and low, with sweeping Ferrari lines, 18-inch rims, and a rotary engine. It makes a sound like a jungle cat, and appropriately is also jungle green. It handles like a racecar, and the great temptation is to drive it like one. Whether you’re doing 90 miles an hour or 20, the car gives off the sort of full-throated roar that turns heads and slows traffic. Other drivers let us pull out in front of them. Men at gas stations unfailingly strike up conversations, always beginning with an appreciative, “Nice car!”  The car is our way back in.

Steinbeck named his truck Rocinante, after Don Quixote’s fabled horse. His journey was a quest, and he felt that his steed needed an appropriate moniker. Our journey is perhaps slightly less epic, but in similar style, we wanted to give our chariot a name appropriate to its temperament. We’ve nicknamed the car Kit, after the artificially intelligent supercar in the old 1980s American television show Knightrider. We named the RX8 after the car in the show because it has a mind of its own.  Set the cruise control for 72 miles an hour, and it slowly creeps up to 73.  If you don’t correct it, pretty soon you look down and it’s 77 miles an hour, then 82.  When you tap the brakes, it groans as if in disappointment. Kit wants to move. The car is as excited about this journey as we are, and it wants to get there faster.

Our plan was fairly simple. We’d fly into Seattle, borrow Dad’s RX8, and drive. We’d circle the American West, through Idaho and Montana, down through Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico, and then west across Arizona. We’d finish by swinging up the coast back to Seattle on Highway 1, one of the most beautiful routes in the world. Along the way we’d see some of the key tourist spots we remembered from childhood, and some new ones we felt were important. To afford all this, and meet more people along the way, we’d spend most nights camping, descending on friends and family at strategic intervals to take advantage of showers, comfortable beds, and washing machines. In a little over a month, we’d cover 5,000 miles.

Our very first day on the road, it was clear that we had failed to take into account the fuel consumption of our borrowed hot rod. We drove east on I-90 out of Seattle at 7am, entering the Cascade Range and Snoqualmie National Forest just as the sun was erasing the long shadows of the fir trees from the highway. The first morning of a long road trip is always exhilarating; a thermos of coffee, a full tank of gas, and the early morning open road in front of you. Our spirits were high. But it only took a hundred miles or so for us to realize that all the performance advantages of the RX8 come at the expense of an appetite for gas that would put Steinbeck’s big truck to shame. We want to relax and go with the flow of the road, but we’re also going to have to count the miles between gas stations and tourist destinations.

So our plan was immediately shot full of holes, just like the road signs in Montana. (Apparently this is a tradition in Montana: if you can’t find a moving target to practice your marksmanship, the next best thing is to be moving and try to hit something standing still. There must be legions of people with guns hanging out of car windows, aiming at those big green signs by the side of the road. An example of American ingenuity at work.) But as Steinbeck knew, any travel plan is potential prey to circumstance. We’ll just have to let the trip take us.