The idea of the road trip — a person, a car, endless possibility — is beguiling, but the actual act of being on a road trip is decidedly less so. Jacob Hoerger, in The Point, pens an essay on cars, road trips, and how they force us to create our own meaning.
After chatting through the term they’d just finished up and going over plans for the summer that lay ahead, our conversation eventually reached the stage I call “If You See Something, Say Something”; that is, when you reflexively read off every road sign that passes by. “Lakota Motel: American Owned and Operated.” “Welcome to 1880 Town.” “The Gutzon Borglum Experience.” You hope to find some grounds for commentary or questioning—any kind of entry into another communal utterance. Every once in a while I’d slyly check my email on my phone, hoping there’d be something there for me to think about.
These dead hours of a trip put one in an unfamiliar state of suspension: all your lower needs (to borrow from Maslow’s framework) are met. The only thing you have to do is sit there. Yet you are unable to reach any higher capacity, any self-actualization, because all you can do is sit there. Your thoughts fold gently back onto themselves.
One day, about 12 weeks after blowing up my whole life and moving my family to what seemed like a very hostile environment, my son and I decided we would go to the cinema and see The Great Gatsby to cheer ourselves up and feel less homesick. We did what we sometimes did at home — skipped dinner to have popcorn for dinner instead. Already flummoxed by having to preorder our tickets for assigned seats on a Dutch website (none of these were cinema-hurdles back home where you’d just walk up and buy a ticket), we arrived at the cinema. We bought the largest popcorn (which is in fact a product they sold — we didn’t bring our own trash barrel and ask to have it filled) and settled in to enjoy our treat. I felt a tap on my shoulder, which was strange since I knew a total of three people in the entire country. I spun around, startled, and the Dutch man sitting behind me said, “Are you going to eat all of that? I see why you are so fat.”
Politics at the Kafeneíon. The table started with three voices and grew to fourteen, a loose confederation of Greek, French, Australian, German, and American. We discussed the world’s backslide into panicky jingoism rather than tackling the lunatic mythology of late-stage capitalism. As an American, I felt an acute strain of the familiar sensation of being mortified by my country, the urge to apologize to everybody in advance. Some said this rise in nationalism was a blip, a minor rip in the fabric of democracy which could be easily mended. I stayed quiet and envied their optimism.
I spent a good deal of the 80s and 90s wandering the globe. A left coast American, I was continually asked about Reagan, Bush I, and Bush II. I heard less of this during the Clinton years though I do remember a nice Austrian woman asking me if we did not have dry cleaning in the US.
It’s that time abroad answering for Republican politics — a topic I was utterly unqualified to comment upon — that made this piece resonate for me. It wasn’t my job. And yet.
Yet this was no mere matter of poor design: It was always in airports’ very nature to welcome, shepherd, and display such collective action — passengers routinely clump up and board together, linger around baggage carousels in masses, and cluster and fume together when there’s a hiccup in the system. The protests were like a major wave of airline delays or cancellations, but instead of domestic flights in question, people were responding to entire ontological trajectories suddenly put on hold.
Travel writing is where I cut my teeth as a blogger and how I found my way as a writer. An early adopter of blogging, I benefited directly from the shift to a focus on independent voices. I never quite made the leap to full on commercial blogger, though — my heart lies elsewhere and I figure we’ve all got enough marketing in our lives. That’s just the context behind why the wonky part of my brain loves this piece at Nieman Storyboard about what travel writing is:
It wasn’t until I discovered the notion of writing about “place” during my early years as an undergraduate studying journalism at the University of Missouri that I realized that perhaps travel writing isn’t what I want to do for the rest of my life. I want to travel, but I also want to tell stories. I want to get to know people – what brought them to their spot on the map, how they shaped that spot and were shaped by it.
What makes a work a piece of “travel writing”? Where do we draw the line between writing about “travel” and writing about “place”? I turned to a few writers who have straddled this line to find an answer.
Ten-plus years in the field makes me think there’s:
Marketing: projects underwritten by travel brands who what to promote themselves via content.
Vacation writing: Guide books and how-to articles that help travelers plan.
Travel narrative: Stories that aren’t just “What I did on my summer vacation” style reporting.
Journalism: Reporting and deep dives about place, regional food, history, culture… the definer “travel” is optional here.
The writers interviewed here — Lauren Quinn, Paul Salopek, and the new to me Mark Johanson — don’t need “travel” appended to their work to make it sing of places that are not home. That’s the stuff I like best.
I stood on a corner under my $11 umbrella, glad it wasn’t a $5 umbrella. I laughed out loud. What else could I do? After about five minutes, a teenage girl emerged from the mist. She was wearing headphones and a surgical mask. Surgical masks are very popular in Japan. They are supposed to be all about protecting yourself and other people from disease, but they’re also worn to indicate a lack of sociability, with which I theoretically sympathize but at this particular moment found inconvenient. No fool, the girl started to cross the street before she reached me, and I shouted “Excuse me, excuse me” and then even ran after her. She did not break stride. She did not even move her eyes.
If you have utterly humiliated yourself but no one is around to witness your humiliation, is it possible it has indeed not taken place? Asking for a friend.
In 2016, I published my New Year’s resolutions on Longreads. As 2017 dawns, I thought I’d check in with my old self, dust off 2016’s goals and set some new intentions.
1. Alas, I never did make it to Iceland, but I did a lot of domestic travel in 2016. In Washington State, I touched the Pacific Ocean for the first time and slept on a sailboat. In Asheville, I got a new tattoo and swooned inside Firestorm Books & Cafe. I saw friends and family marry in Richmond and Chautauqua. I saw Deaf West perform Spring Awakening and the one-weekend revival of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater in NYC. I even visited Foamhenge! (That’s me in the photo above.) I’m returning to Asheville in 2017; beyond that, I have no concrete travel plans. Feel free to sponsor me on a trip to the ends of the Earth and back! I’ll write about it! For now, I’m seeing the world via the following essays from 2016:
Laura Yan | Longreads | July 2016 | 13 minutes (3035 words)
Three years ago, I quit my job in New York to go backpacking in South America. It was a blessed time, full of postcard travel highs: swimming in mirror-glazed lakes dipped in sunset, burning coca leaves for mystic rituals, falling in love with a hippie as we hitchhiked beneath the stars. I was 23, and learning to be wild and light and free. I spoke about my travels with an editor at The Hairpin, and wrote about it elsewhere. Sometimes readers emailed me asking for travel advice. They asked mostly innocuous questions: What should I pack? How do I save up to travel? Where should I visit? I tried to answer when I could. One girl asked if I’d ever been in serious danger.
Pico Iyer’s travel writing — whether he’s describing a long walk in Kyoto, a jetlag-fueled airport layover, or a quiet moment in a monastery — captures not just the physicality of places, but also the spaces within and between them.
In his essay “Why We Travel,” Iyer writes that he has been a traveler since birth: born in Oxford to parents from India, schooled in England and the United States, then living in Japan since 1992 (with annual trips to California). These seven reads reveal Iyer as a perpetual wanderer of both place and time: navigating spaces in flux or forgotten, meditating on finding one’s place in an ever-shifting world, and, as part of this journey, exploring that which is deep within us. Read more…
Our latest Longreads Exclusive is a series of travel journal entries adapted from poet and painter Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s forthcoming book,Writing Across the Landscape. It first appeared in The American Scholar’s Summer 2015 issue (subscribe here!).
I was part of that Greatest Generation that came of age at the beginning of the Second World War. As I worked in San Francisco, the days and years fell away into the great maw of time. America went through a sea change after that. San Francisco, which had been a small provincial capital, grew up. So did I, and I started voyaging. I was usually traveling to some literary or political event or tracking down some author whose undiscovered masterpiece I could publish at City Lights Books. I didn’t keep journals consistently, so some literary capers went unrecorded, such as when I visited Paul Bowles in Tangier to pry from him his Moroccan tales in A Hundred Camels in the Courtyard. This was agreed to, and then we sat dully in his high-rise apartment near the American Embassy. And when Jane Bowles suggested we turn-on, Paul said he didn’t have any hash. I was clean-shaven in a white suit, and I imagine he thought I was a narc. Paranoia, the doper’s constant companion! I wrote these peripatetic pages for myself, never thinking to publish them. It is as if much of my life were a continuation of my youthful Wanderjahr, my walk-about in the world. Rereading them now, I see a wandering figure in momentous times. …The war ends, decades whir by, there is a rumble in the wings, the scene darkens, and Camelot lost! Read more…