Unfolding the Map
As we pass by the river towns of Ohio, it is pretty clear that William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) is ready to get home. His pace of travel leads me to think about the stages of our journeys and put together an admittedly non-scientific, not really well-thought-out framework of journey stages. It'll have to serve as a starting point for something more developed later. At right is the state seal of Ohio from Wikimedia Commons.
"The old riverbank towns - Franklin Furnace, New Boston, Portsmouth, Friendship, Manchester, Utopia - now found the Ohio more a menace than a means of livelihood, and they had shifted northward to string out along the highway like kinks in a hawser. I had no mind for stopping. God's speed, people once wished the traveler."
Blue Highways: Part 10, Chapter 4
There are times on a journey when one is caught up in the travel. One looks forward to each new stop along the way, and even seeing the places in between where one doesn't stop. There is a natural rhythm and flow in journeys at that time.
In fact, I see journeys as having definite stages.
1. Pre-journey: This stage involves the preparation and planning. It is filled with much anticipation, some worry, and some guesswork. Or, perhaps not. A very organized person might look forward to the journey while perhaps worrying a little about the details and trying to troubleshoot any possible problems. Will I forget anything, will I hit some obstacles or roadblocks along the way, will I see everything I want to see? Of course, there are those who don't plan much - they have a destination and otherwise let some element of chance determine what will happen. For me, I like a combination. I like to be relatively prepared but I want to be able to have some flexibility to deviate from the course. LHM doesn't really allow us into his preparation for his journey. We know that he was having some life troubles and doubts, and suddenly he is on the road. I'm certain that he did some planning, but he also seems to have given himself some latitude to improvise on his way.
2. The start: Not much to say about this stage. One gets in the car, or gets to the airport. Of course, with my wife and I, there is usually a trip around the block and then we realize that we left the back door unlocked or forgot something essential. When it's a car trip, we have had a myriad of reasons why we have started anywhere from a half hour to two hours behind schedule. Once, just as we were preparing to leave on-time for a driving to trip to California, a large stray dog fleeing a hot air balloon ran into our driveway and vomited in fear, and then took a dump in our parking place. We corraled the dog and then waited for Animal Control until we could start our trip. But once the trip is started, and you're finally on the road or in the air, you can sit back and breathe a sigh of some relief.
3. Settling into the journey: The first few hours are usually a mix of cautious relief and anticipation. Traveling alone, I find that I'm taking in my surroundings, happy to be where I am, but at the same time I'm somewhat hyper-aware of things. For instance, in a car I'm getting used to the car and road noise and what it might mean. In a plane, I'm looking out the window or at my fellow passengers. I'm basically adjusting to the new environment that I find myself in. I also get used to the routines and the demands of traveling on my body. When will I get hungry and need to stop for food and drink? How long can I sit in a position before I need to get up and move around? Eventually, these questions will resolve themselves into a set pattern that I can get used to. A subset of this stage might be a sort of resistance to the process. In wanting to get a few more miles, I might push the gas gauge a little farther toward empty than I should, or get a bit tired but still drive to the next town. When I'm traveling by car with my wife, we usually go through a routine of listening to NPR until we lose reception, and then we settle into a mix of reading to each other and watching the scenery.
4. Journey zen: After the settling in comes acceptance that one is on the journey. It is a stage that some will not reach, but which I strive to. It is only when one reaches this stage that one is able to accept what the journey will give them, and recognize opportunity even in the face of adversity. To be able to reach this stage usually takes a combination of travel experience and a willingness to cede control to the universe. I remember once talking at a conference with a Baptist pastor who had traveled extensively, and arrived at the conference a day late because of air travel difficulties. I asked him if he was annoyed. "Not really," he replied. "I can't do anything to change it so it doesn't pay to get angry. I just caught up on reading that I hadn't been able to get to, and met some interesting people who were in the same situation as me." I think that LHM truly reached journey zen after a rainy day in Corvallis, Oregon when he truly seemed to leave his troubles at home behind. I can only really count a handful of times, on all my journeys, where I've achieved this kind of state.
5. The return: At this point, we are in this stage with LHM. At some point on the journey, one knows it is time for the journey to end, as all must. Notice in LHM's quote that this is the first time that he has reeled off such a long string of towns with little to say about them, and that he had" no mind for stopping." This is a man who wants to get home. Of course, sometimes journeys end too soon. But on most, we just know that the journey has played itself out and that we're ready to end it.
6. The post-journey: This point of the journey is often an adjustment and acceptance in itself. I often feel like a journey has been an effort, and that upon returning I could use a vacation to recover. It is about settling back into routines, work, and home life. It is about reflection on the journey just ended, what we've taken away from it, and what we have learned. The interesting thing about Blue Highways is that even though LHM doesn't appear to allow us to share in this stage with him, he actually does. He wrote Blue Highways after his return, which allows his thoughts and reflections in the aftermath of his journey to influence his writing.
I have one more thing to write about these stages. They are not static, and there is no boundary line between them. We slip back and forth, in and out of them. Like many things in life, they are unpredictable, and we may not even experience some of them. They happen when and if they should.
I hadn't planned to use Johnny Cash again so soon, but I liked his version of this song, Banks of the Ohio. It's one of those nice gory murder ballads. If you'd like another version, try Bill Monroe and Doc Watson, Joan Baez, or even Olivia Newton-John. My favorite version, by Mason Brown and Chipper Thompson, is not on YouTube.
If you want to know more about the Ohio River towns
City of Portsmouth
Forgotten Ohio: Utopia
Ohio History Central: Manchester
Portsmouth Area Chamber of Commerce
Portsmouth Convention and Visitors Bureau
Portsmouth Daily Times (newspaper)
Roadside America: Utopia
Shawnee State University
Village of New Boston
Wikipedia: Franklin Furnace
Wikipedia: New Boston
Next up: Cincinnati, Ohio