Longing for the Road to Nowhere

Last spring, when deciding where to vacation, I lobbied hard for a road trip. My girlfriend, however, wasn’t having it. She wanted to visit Boston, where she’d gone to college and, in many ways, remained mentally stuck. Boston this. Boston that. I had little interest in the city, but to keep things simple I agreed. I hadn’t traveled much in nearly a decade. A day trip here, a weekend there is all. So the prospect of spending a week in Bean Town was palatable on those grounds alone.

Boston, it turns out, was just how I imagined, a city that in spite of its history and reputation is about as pretentious as they come. Granted, I wasn’t there as a transient, but as a tourist, shuffling through the Paul Revere House, buying overpriced candy in the Hay Market and strolling along Newbury Street, with its romantically lit sidewalks, outdoor restaurants and high-end boutiques. Each day after seeing the sights, I returned with a yawn to the hotel room and watched television.

While it was nice to be somewhere other than home, I found myself each day waiting for something to happen, some random event or encounter to whisk me off the pages of the Visitor Bureau brochure and lead us to something fun, strange or unusual. Where was the excitement? Where was the adventure? Where was that sense you’re in a moment that can never be replicated? More or less, it was a weeklong stroll down my girlfriend’s memory lane, visiting her favorite college hangs, record stores and the building that replaced the one in which she once lived.

In the end, I left Boston thinking a visit to its Wikipedia page would have been every bit as fun. I should have fought harder for that road trip, but our visit wasn’t all for naught. Though nothing memorable happened, Boston, it turned out, was the catalyst in a cascading chain of events that cleared a path of new opportunities for us both. Sometimes it takes a whole lot of nothing for something to happen.

During the train ride home, as the conductor made boarding calls in each of the little seacoast towns we passed through, I couldn’t shake my road-tripping memories. Nearly a full decade had passed since my last highway hurrah, which involved me hitchhiking down the Pacific Coast, from Portland, Oregon to Arcata, California. Seated in the quiet car, and as my girlfriend napped, I began daydreaming about waking up on a beach or hiking for days into the backcountry or watching the sun rise and fall over the mountains while on some indefinite journey. I longed suddenly for the open road, imagining myself on an indefinite cruise toward the sun-washed horizon spanning an endless distance. Day trips, as great as they are, were no substitute for the carefree vagabonding I once enjoyed so immensely.

I didn’t have any good reason to hate on Boston; it just wasn’t my kind of trip. For me, travel never meant making reservations, marking routes and mapping itineraries. I’ve always preferred camping to hotels, vans to trains and the beaten paths to the ones most traveled. Maybe it’s because I’m poor or just have a high tolerance for discomfort, but destinations I like keeping loose and negotiable, with curiosity as the driving force behind each day. Pleasant daydreams they were, but in their wake was the ache of knowing those days had passed. And honestly, given the chance to again wander for months on end, I wondered if I’d even have it in me. Yet the embers of the savage wanderlust that once consumed me completely continued to burn. Just as my girlfriend was stuck mentally in her college years, I, too, was just as hung up in a past life I would never fully reclaim. I developed a bad case of the unhappies, with no remedy but to let the existential angst run its course.

As the train snaked south toward Connecticut, I couldn’t – and still can’t – recall making the decision to abdicate the transient life. It just played out that way. College, girls, friends, career, and any number of other things conspired to keep me planted. I suppose that’s what adulthood is, the submission of dreams and passions to events. At some point the ambitions of youth become trapped in a tangle of responsibilities that grow only more malignant with age. At last, we arrived home in Philadelphia, and it was back to life as usual, with its many routines, chores and problems.

But then, a few short months later
, something extraordinary happened. My relationship erupted like Vesuvius then collapsed like Port-au-Prince. Poof! Just like that. Boston had crystallized the longstanding fissures in our union, becoming an umbrella for countless other differences we’d done our best to bridge. It was painful, as disasters always are, but in the ruins I saw my chance. It was a little glimmer of a possibility that the following summer the universe would align in such a way that again I could take to the road. As the dust settled, I eyed a summer of driving, discovery and delight. That was eight months ago. Here I am today, living out of my van, writing, traveling, as I never believed I would again. I still had it in me after all.

2 Comments

  1. Jesse says:

    Obviously you went to Boston with the wrong person. We used to leave my hometown in Connecticut at 10 p.m. and drive until we arrived a little after midnight. We’d find a park and share our cheap wine with Bostonian Scholar Bums in the parks. We’d navigate the back alleys and find illegal punk and ska shows. In later years the punk and ska would be replaced with goth/industrial parties in basement apartments. You saw the Boston portrayed in the Mighty Mighty Bosstones “They Came to Boston.” It isn’t Faneuil Hall, the Swan Boats, and the Freedom Trail (for sale). It is the dingy bars, the coffee shops, the off beat clubs, the overeducated homeless, the dirty water. You missed the real Boston. I’ll come back East. I’ll take you to Boston. I’ll show you the cracks in the tourist traps you need to climb through to find the real city. 

  2. Nathan says:

    Thanks Jesse! Sounds like the trip I was hoping for precisely. I’ll look forward to your next trip east. 

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