Like any born-and-bred American, road trips are in my DNA. Growing up, they were an integral part of family vacations. We never did any truly epic routes — the longest was Seattle to Santa Monica, with a $20 bribe on the line if my sister and I refrained from asking “Are we there yet?” — but there were numerous shorter trips. Bellingham, Oregon, Idaho. The Pacific Northwest was well-explored from the confines of an ’89 Honda Civic.
My parents were pros: a white plastic bucket sat in the middle seat between my sister and I, filled with entertainment. Most of the goodies were designed to draw our eyes outward, past the car window and to the world beyond. License plate bingo, “I Spy”, plastic-coated maps and dry erase markers so we could mark our progress. Inevitably, though, our eyes left the windows and turned to our laps.
“Stop reading,” Dad would say. “Put your book down and look out the window. You’re missing it.”
A terrible problem to have, a child who reads too much. We raised our eyes back to the world , but after a respectful amount of time — after we thought we could get away with it — it was back to the books.
Of course, the problem was that my sister and I were young, and we still had that capacity only truly understood by the young: boredom. Looking out the window was boring. The trees whipping by all looked the same — or maybe there were different, but it took far too long for them to change. Rocks, grass, dirt — we had all of this back home. Looking out the window, there was nothing to do but get lost in your own thoughts. My brain wanted focus.
In adulthood, there’s more than enough to occupy your thoughts. Boredom becomes a concept rather than an actual practice. Nowhere is this more obvious than on a road trip, when you’re confined to a small space with limited resources for hours on end. If you’re lucky enough to be in a stretch of the country that defies cell phone towers, you’re disconnected from internet, too. I now find myself sitting for hours, doing nothing but look out the window. What once would induce boredom brings on something new and foreign; you become unfocused. Not in the way we’re accustomed to in the digital world — not in the way of emails to be sorted through, of pings and dings to pay attention to, of I swear I was about to do something now what was it? That is frantic — a forced unfocus.
This is gradual, natural, a slow progression after days on the road. The smell of pelicans, the sun burning against an SPFed thigh. The very conscious movement of wind over skin, thick and strong as a wave drawn back to the ocean. The uncomfortable yet comforting thought that this will all be here, after we’re gone — changed, changing, but still here. The sea today will not be the same one we see tomorrow.
Of course this doesn’t appeal to a child, who lives in the present and feels acutely the whole wonder of the world. They have no need to gaze for hours at nothing in order to see everything.
Back off the road now, no more transience, I feel myself coming back into focus — edges sharpening, the line between body and air growing clear. Focus is good — it’s necessary to function in our daily lives. But I close my eyes and see the shimmer of air on skin, feel my mind slip loose and drift. We see clearer for being unfocused. Every once in a while it’s good to wander.