If I had to – really had to – pick one thing that explains my love of travel, I’d pick that … that thing that comes with passing through different neighborhoods of a city. Thing? Well, there doesn’t seem to be a word for it. It’s ineffable (which ends up being pretty perfect since that is my favorite word of all time. I’m crazy about its meaning: impossible to describe.)
It’s a portable hobby. It works in small towns, home towns, major cities and world capitols, the glittering ones and decaying ones alike. Being in one neighborhood is fine, but this thing that happens depends entirely on crossing over invisible lines. The tricky part, though, is that you have to do it without judgment, opinion or comparisons. No ‘this is awful’ and no ‘ooh, sweet!’ No pity or envy or … well, you get it. This is about absorbing what’s there.
Last week, we drove to Northern California and although there are a few routes, we picked the one that crossed the central valley. It splits into the James Dean Memorial Highway and another one. We took the another one.
By the time we reached Highway 5, we’d been through vineyards, olive groves, cotton fields and plain old sun-scorched hills. We’d passed pretty pissed off political signage and herons hanging on the banks of the long, lonely aqueduct and dust devils tossing up field litter. Our iPod failed us, so we tuned into local radio. We got country music. There was plenty of uninspired, cheap crap but just as much good storytelling and swinging, let-me-tell-you-what-I-think poems.
Then suddenly, everything collected – the soundtrack, the landscape, the weather, the glimpses of people at work. And I got it. That … thing. Then it vanished. I fished for it and caught a corner. It wiggled free again.
Damn. It’s hard to do. And why wouldn’t it be? You’re only passing through. How much stuff sticks when you’re in motion? And just because the rules are ‘no opinions’ doesn’t mean the rules are easy to follow.
Still, I’ve done it enough to know that even though it’s hard and disappears way too quickly, it’s worth the effort. For those incredibly brief moments, I am feeling it. Feel.Ing. It. A story. A history. It’s a lot like the shortest movie ever.
Before I realized I couldn’t think of a word for this experience, I wanted to say it’s empathy. It’s not, though. Empathy, the real kind, needs more detail. No, this is exactly how I described it. A moment I have to work for, a moment of feeling in the world. The big ass world, not just my little version.
Yah, it’s my favorite thing about travel. And it happens even when you’re just passing through neighborhoods.