Wanderlust and the God of Experience
“We need pray for no higher heaven than the pure senses can furnish; a purely sensuous life.”
Henry David Thoreau
Just think of gypsies, yogis, and wandering saints. There are reasons people give up the idea of home for a time, or forever. It is true that it strips a person. There is nothing to rely on. No safe place. No routine. You cut your own path. But also, you reach moments of exhilaration. You are sumptuously alert. Every apple is an apple or a bloodstone. Every day has its own smell and its own light. And there’s the simplicity: when it is quiet, you can hear so much.
It always comforted me to know I could fit everything I own into my car: my papaw’s old army trunk and a duffle bag of clothing, three boxes of books, one box of journals and photos, a plastic bag of CD’s and tapes, two quilts from my grandmother, a pillow, and a guitar. I like to fancy myself walking in the footsteps of light travelers like the Buddha and St. Francis, practicing non-attachment (you know, with a more moderate vision of asceticism, which technically makes it not ascetic at all). There is something about traveling alone and lightly that expands life into mythic proportions. It cracks us open and humbles us. It forces us to rely on grace: on both the grace of unseen forces and of our own mind, as it tries to make peace with the primordial twin fears of change and the unknown.
Some might argue that moving is not traveling. But in my experience, moving is the equivalent of a complete protein in travel terms, the most thorough approach to the quest that vacations and road trips often represent. Besides, when a gal grows up in a trailer park, sometimes having only a jar of pickles to eat for dinner, and then on top of that, finds herself at the age of twenty-two with a mind that only bends toward Joni Mitchell, Jack Kerouac, and sucking the marrow out of life, she might find herself on a hurt for cash. When a gal finds herself on a hurt for cash and with a head for Whitman, maybe she gives up on vacations, but she doesn’t give up. She saves, she moves, she gets a job. Save. Move. Job. This life of motion began when I left home at age fifteen, and carried on from there. I slept on beaches. I slept in tents. I slept on floors. It became a litany.
In 1996, during my second year at the University of Nebraska, I realized, the week before break, that I had enough money from plasma donations and my shifts at the library to leave town on my week off. My best friend and I had read about Taos, New Mexico and had visions of artist communes, the wild west, and personal revelation. Just a few days later, we set out on the original New Mexico pilgrimage, a two-day drive of loud music trances and sausage dogs. We met some people – a carpenter and his roommate. My friend and I spent a night with them drinking straight tequila in a honky-tonk bar in Espanola, and they offered to let me stay with them if I decided to move.
I can’t distinguish my original reaction to the land from the feeling of meeting someone I am attracted to immediately, when there is a part of me that is already thinking about what that slope from neck to shoulder would smell like close up. It is not a decision, but an instinct. It was the same with this place. I wanted to know it, to get close, curl up in all of its warm nooks, let it enter me.
After we returned to school, I received dream after dream of the hot, thin air, like bathing in clove tea. The mountains seemed to stand keening over me in my sleep, a choir of brown angels. In dreams I would talk to them, and then wake up looking for something. That first night in New Mexico as the stars came out, I had turned to my friend and said: “I’m moving here.” Three months after that first trip, I dropped out of school, drove to West Virginia to see my family, and was planning to be on my way.
In typical fashion, my drive from West Virginia to the west began with car trouble. The day I was supposed to leave, my car was in the Sears Auto shop in Huntington, West Virginia getting a C.V. joint, and needing, but not getting, back brake shoes. Hours of waiting slithered by. My mother waited with me. We went to the mall cafeteria to eat mashed potatoes, hot buttered rolls and green beans. We sipped cokes in the auto shop lobby and read issues of Country Living magazine from the 80’s. I read about zucchini bread and begonias. We laughed a lot, and didn’t talk about the trip.
At four in the afternoon my mother sent me off while crying and apologizing for crying, her face soft and crumpled. Even though I was used to leaving people and places, my heart still turned over watching her hand wave in my rear view mirror. She and the fluorescent Sears sign steadily became a part of my past, and my future was not known, and the present slid by underneath my tires.
It was June and very hot. Even in the early evening the bank clocks showed ninety-nine degrees. In that part of the country, humidity droops and floats in a low mist at all times of the day. Since my little red 1988 Ford Festiva was not equipped with air-conditioning, I drove with both windows rolled all the way down. The dense forest that lined the highway in West Virginia and the broad rolling farms that emerged in Kentucky flew along beside me. I envisioned the trees, the hills, and me as a flock of birds migrating together in a “V,” being driven on by the same something inside us that tells our cells to evolve. Go. Change. And there we were, flying along together – the hills, the trees, me, and the rising three-quarters moon. After a couple hours of driving, farewelling every highway sign and rest area, I went all tender thinking of all the places I had already left, and how many goodbyes I had said.
That first day, I drove right on out of West Virginia, through a light green Kentucky, into Indiana. On the plains states’ roads, real time does not exist. At first, the landscape blows by your door with the force of the wind, and then it comes to you in halted breaths. At some points, you feel as if there is a landscape painting taped to your window, and that you’ll never get out of Indiana.
Just when I began to suspect that the roads in Indiana had been laid out to form a circle, I burst into Missouri, and right over the border, found a place to stay for the night – the only place to stay – at a truck-stop hotel. There were nothing but semi-trucks, pick-up trucks, and motorcycles in the parking lot. The old man who reluctantly opened the door for me at one-thirty in the morning was nervous about the prospect of me staying in a room by myself at his establishment, but he escorted me around to a room, and extolled me to, “Be careful.” From my tiny wood-paneled room, I could hear men laughing, beer cans being snapped open, and motorcycles racing up and down the parking lot. Predictably, my door did not lock, so I jammed a large-backed chair underneath the handle. For a while, I tried to read my book and rehearsed preparatory kill tactics in my head until I became so aggravated with my fear that I went to sleep.
From Missouri to Texas, the interstate speed limit is 70mph, and I kept it going steady at 80mph. I moved past St. Louis and Kansas City without a pause, solidly in automatic pilot as my mind created its own universe, and scenes from my life populated the land. I fell in and out of love again, spent a winter in Nebraska riding my bike through snow storms in five layers of thrift-store clothes, and talked to every dead person I knew– eyes staring ahead, body sunk into layers of time, years rumbling around like a dying storm. This second day of the journey remains in my head as one of those bloodstone days. You could call it a satori, a communion, a moving meditation or just a damn fine day. Mind and heart. Home and road. God and no God. Wandering and arriving. The possibilities lined up in front of me, and they were all true. All good.
Oklahoma and Kansas look and feel just like they do on the map-wide and tall. I could picture myself superimposed onto a flat sheet of paper, driving across the word, OKLAHOMA. Sitting in my car, it was easy to feel myself inside the square shape that is drawn in our atlases. The sky rises up from the horizon like a jeweled wall, and I got the impression that I was driving from box to box. My foot was heavier and heavier on the gas pedal, but my mind seemed to slow down.
With all this romance about the nomadic life, I wouldn’t recommend it to most folks. The seeker’s lifestyle requires a certain set of what most people would call dysfunctional qualities. Among these are a lone-wolf mentality and the attendant non-traditional expectations toward romantic love. The lure of adventure and the sort of knowledge that only seems to come from solitary hours always ends up trumping the promise of the normally coveted stability, security, and life-long commitment. After all, the God of Experience is also the consort. The lust and the movement are the same thing. It is Krishna and you are the young goat herder in bare feet, set ablaze in the great circling arms of life.
In the beginning, you must offer your sacrifices, and what you lay on the altar comes out of your own bones because the nomadic life demands intense loneliness, extended periods of isolation, and the inescapable feeling that you are nothing but a pendulum circling the random void of life and death (and maybe we are). But you meet the requirements of the path that you serve because, in the simplest ways, what you get in return fills you inside places you didn’t even know had been scoured out: maybe there is an old, abandoned house just off the road, surrounded by bright wildflowers, tall grasses, and swooping butterflies, with all the falling boards leaning at the most sentimental angles; two people riding by, the passenger sleeping open-mouthed and trusting, with one foot hanging out the car window; a sunset that turns everything purplish, even the sky, the road, and your face in the rear view mirror – and suddenly the blister around you pops. You are awake.
The eastern edge of New Mexico looks a lot like Texas. It is stark, spare. The only colors around are blue and brown, and I quickly forgot what green looked like. Feeling a great kinship with the truck drivers, my Sangha of the road, I would often pick a fast truck, glinting and haloed in the sun, and ride in his wake, using him to gauge my speed and as protection from the police. But this was a lost little back road, and almost without exception, there was not another traveler around. At about 4 p.m. I got stopped for speeding near Tucumcari on a stretch of highway that looked as though the paved road were a natural feature, and that no human had ever ventured into that sea of brown.
The police car swung around a curve and flew past me going the other direction, but then it whipped a U-turn in the middle of the two-laner and pulled me over. The officer emerged and appeared, squinting, at my window and drawled, “M’am, are you aware that you were doing 80 in a 50 mile an hour zone?” A saline bead of perspiration trickled from my armpit down my side as I blinked up at him. I wanted to tell him about lonely nights in trailers, pickles, the notebook on the floor beside me. My face exploded into a globe of hopefulness, sheepishness, and persuasion. “Yes, but, but, but, I’ve – sir – I’ve been driving for three days by myself and it’s so hot and I don’t have air conditioning, and I’ve kind of started talking to myself, and I just need to, I just need to get there. I’m sorry.” I gave him my best chapped smile. Luckily, the fates had dispatched a Bodhisattva in cop’s clothing. Once he checked out my West Virginia plates, my face drenched in sweat and the mysteries of aloneness, and my arm, neck and face burnt only on the left side, he graciously waved me off and wished me a safe journey.
So up and up through the pot-holed highways of Albuquerque, and finally into the long fingers of the Sangre de Christo Mountains. I had made it. The sky was vaulted and luminous, like a cathedral ceiling, and there were young, jagged mountains everywhere. I felt like the old wayward Zen monk, Ryokan, ambling up the goat path to his monastery. This monastery was called La Puebla, New Mexico, and it was just one of an infinite number of places to hang one’s robes, kneel for a while, and have a few adventures. Other places had also done the trick. And the road created its own winding prayer. It was there I had seen again how the legs of a seeker go through the motions on behalf of the heart. It was there I had known for certain what I had been coming to understand for some time – that every blood-filled body needs to wander, sometimes.
Cynthia Polutanovich is a Hertog Fellow in the M.F.A. writing program at Hunter College, in New York City. She has contributed pieces to No Go the Rickshaw, Half Drunk Muse, and Bloomsbury Review. She has done nearly every kind of job under the sun and is now working as a research assistant for a local writer on a book about Palestinian and Israeli culture, history and politics. She spends most of her free time working on a memoir of her wanderings, watching documentaries about the Medieval era, and becoming a city gal.