I never dreamed of being a traveler.
For many years, for most of my life, the idea of journeying far beyond my comfortable plot of North Georgia land stirred little interest in my heart. Truly, I’d have rather sat on my porch and sipped scotch beneath the evening clouds. I’d have preferred to garden in the sunshine, to build fires and roast marshmallows, to work in my quiet studio well after the rest of the world fell asleep.
It wasn’t the idea of leaving home that troubled me. I’d long ago journeyed to beaches, to deep forests, to faraway Swiss mountains. I’d already been to most of the places I desired.
To be honest…it was getting to these places I didn’t love. It was the long car rides. The planes. The trains. The stretches of sitting, waiting, and sitting again. And always, as is my nature, I did these things alone. Always feeling like a stone slowly sinking into the bottom of some fathomless lake. Until at last I arrived at wherever I was going. Until I could blink away the haze of driving for endless hours and breathe again.
I figured I’d always be likewise. Not exactly a homebody. Not exactly set in my provincial ways. But surely not one of those people you’ve seen. You know the ones. The world travelers. The walkers of every corner of civilization. They’re more exciting than ever I’ll be. They’re probably in Hawaii right now sipping pina coladas from coconuts. And honestly, I’m fine with that.
As all things must do…
It began about twenty months ago. At the brink of summer. Unexpected, but maybe predestined. A chance, a real reason, a need to travel. I won’t tell you what this reason was. You’ll just have to guess. But for me, it was the rarest of opportunities. All I had to do was drive. Fly. Ride a train. Ride a bus. Then drive again. All in one day.
Sounds fun, right?
You’ll have to trust me. It was for the most worthy of causes.
You see, for most of my life, I’ve never been much of an adventurer. The simple things have always defined my existence. A day of wandering around my yard. A wet paintbrush dangling from my fingers. Something simmering on the stove. A hug (and maybe even a sneaky gut punch) from my young son. I’ve never really needed much excitement. Truly, all the adventures I need live inside my imagination. Who needs the great blue beyond when one has a endless ocean of daydreams sloshing in one’s head? I’ve always felt this way. I just close my eyes and I can be anywhere…and anyone…I desire.
But on that summer afternoon, something happened. A journey lay at hand. It was something I had to do. Same as breathing. Same as every other important thing I had to do in my life, only greater.
So I did it.
The first journey was, in hindsight, the hardest. I woke early on a Tuesday morning, hauled my truck (which was perilously low on fuel) down a long stretch of angry Atlanta highway. These were the pre-Covid days, and by the time I reached the airport, it was stuffed with thousands of people. And by thousands of people, I mean thousand of not-nearly-as-enthusiastic-to-be-at-the-airport-as-me human beings. And of course there were lines. And vigorous security checks. And me, the guy who wears more jewels than an Egyptian pharaoh, enjoyed his first (but hardly last) full-body pat-down from the local beefy TSA security dude.
Eerily calm, and still bejeweled, I boarded a plane for a far Midwest city. Chicago, as it happened. To the land of my childhood.
Ninety minutes later, I landed in a world I’d all but forgotten. My first return home in a decade.
It was at that moment, upon landing in Chicago just after sunrise, I felt a sensation unlike anything in my adult life. It was as if my eyes snapped open from a dream of which I hadn’t been fully aware. I stepped off the plane, drove a few miles away from the airport, and then, wandering bleary-eyed out my car, I stood beneath the familiar sky and stared at the clouds, who stared back at me like old friends.
This journey was but the first of many. Twenty-seven, as it happens. Or, as I see it, fifty-four, if we’re counting the return trips home. Little did I realize it at the time, but each of these trips, whether coming or going, became its own existential moment, its own indelible memory weaving things into my heart which I will never forget.
During these journeys, in which I was always alone until reaching my destination, I felt as if I somehow experienced more than in the previous thirty years of life.
Which is of course impossible, but not really.
And I’ll try to tell you why…
If you’ve ever sat on a plane at night, the only wakeful soul among a hundred dozing people, and looked out at the full moon shining atop the clouds, you might know my feeling.
If you’ve ever decided on a whim to drive seven-hundred miles through mountains, valleys, and endless Midwestern fields, you might understand.
And if you’ve ever zipped down a city highway which is normally jammed with cars by day, but is lamplit and empty at midnight, maybe you’ll sense where I’m going with this.
During these fifty-four journeys, I felt contentedly alone, vastly alive.
On a lonely night as the moon rose above the Kentucky hills, I once raced along a black highway. The moon chased me, but I was swifter, and won the race to the dark fields of Illinois at midnight.
On a black, stormy afternoon as my plane made a daring landing on a wet runway, I once sat in the rearmost seat, calm as stone even as my fellows pleaded with the gods not to let us crash.
In the deep haze of a predawn sky, I whipped through the fog in my trusty car, carving my way northward through farming villages whose names I’ll never know.
For twelve hours, I drove through a storm which seemed everlasting, whose clouds broke only when I stepped out of my car, weary and red-eyed, and wandered through the humid air into my silent home.
Dozens of times, I rode beneath the lights of the Chicago highways at night, my heart pumping calm, the crisp evening air washing over my face through the window.
Sometimes I took airplanes, sometimes I drove my trusty car, while at other times I piloted unfamiliar, borrowed vehicles, whose different smells and steering wheels I can remember as if I’d driven them only yesterday. At times I zipped down to the airport on Atlanta’s wobbliest trains. And I’ll never forget the Chicago buses, whose fearless drivers plowed down the streets with abandon. Those, I rode many times, and never once with the same driver or passengers.
In my many journeys, I traveled at night. At dawn. Through rain. Under the sun, the stars, and the moon. Through summer, autumn, winter, and summer again. Through tireless storms lashing the black pavement, down roads with numbers instead of names, between endless miles of cornfields, through the rock-hewn highways of Tennessee, beneath the vast wind turbines of central Illinois and northern Indiana, down Hwy 80 toward a little village an hour west of Chicago, down Hwy 75 in North Georgia, on which no one drives slower than the speed of light.
Always for same purpose, I made these journeys. Always for the same promised end. And yet, no two of my travels were remotely alike. The sights may have been familiar at times, but as you surely know, highways are different by day and by night, by season and by mood of the sky. What is at 2AM a dark stretch of desolate road becomes at 2PM a sunlit river of cars. What is at midnight a black field, seamless to the end of sights, becomes at dawn a grey and green marvel of swaying cornstalks. And of course there are the skies, which as anyone who drives long-distance take on colors and moods of their own.
During these fifty-four journeys, I looked as much inward as I did outward. The clouds, storms, fields, and cities I saw, and the ten-thousand cars I must’ve surely passed…they made impressions on me. Most people would say they prefer to meditate on a soft mat, in comfortable clothes, with calm music playing. But my meditations became born of the highway, of the too-small airplane seats, of the streetlamps at night, of the roaring wind, the slashing rain, the first glimmers of sunlight.
In these moments, I felt resurrected.
There are of course many pleasant things about traveling not alone, but with others. Whether it’s having someone to talk to or having a friend to take the wheel when the hour grows late and your eyes grow tired. But for those of us who have done it alone, who have ridden the black roads at night or stayed awake on an airplane and watched the clouds race by, we perhaps know there is something powerful at work.
Or maybe it’s just me.
Today, after so many adventures, the tides have changed again. I don’t know if there will be a fifty-fifth journey. Perhaps my traveling days are done. Or perhaps this is merely a lull before an entirely new era of travels, which I would welcome back into my life like an old friend.
I know only two things:
Every one of my journeys was worthwhile, no matter how difficult, no matter how long, wearying, and lonely. My travels were valuable not only because of where I was going, but because of the going itself, and all the little things composing the effort of crossing hundreds of miles.
If the chance should again arise, I will be ready. For though the world may change and people may wander, the highway will always be waiting. I know that now.
Perhaps one day I’ll see you out there. Riding the lonely night. Gazing out the airplane window. Meditating as you go from there to here and back again.
If so, I hope it’s the same for you as for me.
* * *
Farewell for now.
– J Edward Neill