I am by nature a traveler. A mover. I like to be in motion—on a bus, a train, in a car, on a boat, even on a bicycle or walking. Perhaps it was my father, who used to take me on weekend driving trips when I was little, who nurtured this tendency in me. Or perhaps it’s a function of the innate desire to escape wherever it is that I am—a discomfort with my own skin that is blind to the fact that going away from wherever I happen to be won’t take me away from me.
Whatever the reason for the urge, I feel most comfortable, most okay with myself, when I am moving. When I’m going somewhere, I have a purpose, a destination—and sometimes, as the old saying goes (and I can’t remember who said it), the journey is the destination. I have crossed this country by bus, train and car (if you count going from Texas to LA in a stuffed station wagon as crossing the country, which I sort of have to because Texas lasts forever). I have backpacked and bussed it around New Zealand and traveled through pokey little towns in Eastern Europe with ten other people in a spitting and whining hired minivan. Aside from the trip to Eastern Europe, the majority of my distance traveling has been done alone, and I prefer it that way. There is a feeling I get from traveling—even short distances, like the bus trip I’m currently taking from Boston to Woods Hole—that I just don’t want to share or have interrupted by other people.
Although I am capable of relaxing in other ways, for me there is no more pure relaxation—unfettered, unstressed, reflective—than sitting on a bus or a train and watching the scenery go by, either listening to music or simply to the engine. Sometimes I read or write; most times I just sit. Though I often stay awake, I find that when there are wheels beneath my seat, I can fall almost instantly asleep, which is not the case on stationary ground, as many of you know. It’s as though the moment I board a bus or train, I leave the anxiety of everyday life behind me on the platform, and it can’t possibly catch up with me until I’ve reached my destination.
Occasionally I’ll find myself gazing lazily out the window and thinking of the departure scenes in a number of movies, where the main character gets on a train or a bus (usually in the rain, which I also love), sits down and begins to think about what they’re going to do to change their life. They are leaving a lover or heading toward one, leaving a place which holds them down or taking a chance on a new place they’ve never had the guts to go to. They are running away, or they are going home. In film, buses and trains tend to represent beginnings or ends, fractured happiness or the pensive first steps of self-reconstruction. Often in the scenes I’ve just mentioned, the main character winds up staring out the window of the bus, crying. I’ve done this before, and on the few occasions when it’s happened, it’s been perhaps the most cathartic, simple release of emotion that I’ve experienced. Crying alone is awful, even more depressing than the catalyst for the tears has been in the first place. But crying alone when you’re in motion somehow doesn’t feel so bad; for me, it’s like a cleansing. Sometimes—and I’ve done this, too—the character will be looking out the window and a big, uncontrollable grin will spread slowly across their face–a satisfied, triumphant look–a look of confidence bordering on invincibility. Sometimes a smile can be just as cathartic as tears.
I do not drive. I’ve never driven, really, so I don’t know whether I could achieve the same sort of peace behind the wheel, or if part of the magic is the ability to let go and not think about the logistics, to let someone else drive. I imagine that it would be both better and worse—better for the freedom to veer from the chosen route, to speed up or slow down or stop at will; worse because driving is often stressful and requires undivided attention, which leaves much less time for rumination and renegade bouts of tears.
Also, I despise traveling by airplane. I am not afraid of flying—though I was for a time—I just do not like the entire process. From the check-in charade to the fluorescently lit waiting areas to the well-dressed, time-neurotic yuppies that pepper every airport from here to Timbuktu, air travel is just plain uncomfortable, even before you get on the plane. There are just too many people, and they’re all in too much of a goddamn hurry. Smashed between dodgy-smelling strangers on a vehicle that [I believe, contrary to most people’s opinions,] doesn’t make nearly enough noise, it’s quite impossible to attain my little narcissistic nirvana. Simply put, on an airplane I just can’t convince myself that the rest of humanity doesn’t exist because it’s so close to me that I can feel its collective anxiety pressing in on me and it’s crushing.
I am one of a rare breed of people who actually enjoy traveling by bus. I have even managed to enjoy parts of a bus trip from Phoenix to Dallas on a Greyhound bus whose air conditioner was a bit shy of fully functional. And I love train travel. If I had my way, I’d go everywhere by train. I love the backward lurch just before the train starts moving forward, I love the clickety-clack, I love the melancholy announcing whistle. When the train’s going fast enough, it rocks side to side like a boat, and I love that, too.
Somehow, when I’m in motion, on wheels that are controlled by someone other than me, I feel for a moment or an hour as though when I get off at my destination, I will emerge as an ideal: the wild girl with wild hair, big heavy boots and a guitar or a knapsack slung over her shoulder, ready to take whatever the world might want to dish out. And for a few minutes after my feet touch the ground, I walk like that girl—independent and unencumbered—and people notice. I notice. Which is, perhaps, why I keep repeating the process.