The harshness and discomfort of the road should be softened by short periods of comfort. A single night of sleeping indoors on a pillowed bed, taking a shower with soap, eating a dinner of meat and vegetables rather than the usual rice and beans, drinking good filtered water, and fueling up with a large breakfast in the morning can do much to offset the anemic and ascetic weariness that comes from depriving oneself of those pleasures for weeks on end. All you need is one night to relax and not have to worry about getting what you need. Without this sporadic comfort, you begin to lose sight of your purposes for traveling, one of which was to recover your joy and wonder at life. You get tunnel vision. Before going out on the road, you had worked a menial job, lived a humdrum existence, read books of adventure in your spare time, and hungered for the excitement of travel, the inspiration you’d surely feel, the soulful people you’d meet along the way. Now you just want it to be over, get to the end, be where there is no more road. You hunger to sleep in a warm bed. The road becomes something to complete, the journey something to be finished and done with. The path in front of you something to put behind you.
Besides your thirst for indoor comforts, you want to get to the end partly because you think the end will mean no more feeling like an eternal beginner. To live on the road is to exist as an eternal beginner. The vagabond has no profession to master, no trade to become expert in, or at least pretend to be proficient at. In each new town he wakes up knowing he must start over again, learn anew how to be alive, find some way to make it to the next town. He cannot fall back on old ways. There is no falling back; there is only going forward.
But when the man on the road starts to get tunnel vision, this idea that “there is only going forward” becomes distorted. He goes forward not to grow and be shocked awake by the new but simply to get to the end where he can sleep in peace, where he does not have to work hard for every mile, where comfort is a given, though taken rather than received with gratitude, and does not need to come as some kind of reward. He has lost perspective; he has forgotten that one fully appreciates what one has only after being deprived of it. Compassion comes not through happiness but through sorrow. Connection with other human beings is deepest not through daily and habitual interaction but when it occurs unexpectedly after you have experienced the depths of loneliness and isolation. You take most pleasure in the sweet and simple things of life not when you feel no pain but when pain itself has made your heart soft enough to appreciate those moments when it is full.
The man goes out on the road because he imagines that travel will fill his heart. Then, once on the road, he feels his heart empty, and instead of experiencing this emptiness, he rejects it as not part of his plan and imagines a life off the road where his heart will be full. He feels on the road, more intensely than he ever felt off it, his isolation. People see him riding alone on the side of the highway and perhaps are reminded of their own isolation, which they had tried to repress. They honk or curse or make rude hand gestures. By his mere presence, he has dared to call into question the solidity of their illusions, the unsturdy foundations of their fragile lives, of the fragility of all human life. But the honker is the exception. Most people are easily able to see themselves in the voyager, the pilgrim forced by a heart made restless by the intensity of his longing, to live with no home, close to the edge of being and non-being. Instead of rejecting that what they see in this restless heart is their own restlessness, these people welcome the wanderer as they would their own son. Having experienced his isolation deeply, the traveler is all the more appreciative of this welcome.
Even so, the feeling of rejection that comes when a car honks, as you pedal at a snail’s pace for miles up a steep grade, is enough to cancel out ten occasions of welcome and support. Aliveness quickly becomes deadness, aloneness turns to loneliness, and what had seemed purposeful almost instantly seems purposeless. You wonder what in hell you are doing, where you are going, why you put up with the frustrations that are part and parcel of life lived out of doors. And yet the frustrations are bearable. You chose to experience them when you left the comfortable house, where your frustration stemmed from feeling confined and constricted. Everywhere you go you face frustration. Now, outside the house where there was too much peace, you are frustrated that you can’t find any peace at all, that you can’t seem to be happy even though you are free.
Dreaming of what life could be always makes life as it actually is feel drab, without color, uninspiring. My purpose for living life on the road is to understand, by actual experience, what life actually consists of, what my life means to me. Not what I wish life could be, but what it actually is. To understand who I am, I must understand what life is. Just as I will never fully understand what life is, I will never fully understand who I am. To become whole is not to understand everything but to have the humility to admit that one does not and cannot understand all, to graciously come to terms with not being all-powerful, to rejoice at not being God.
I would rather be frustrated and free than frustrated and unfree. I would rather make the conscious choice to live on good terms with deprivation than take a lack of deprivation for granted. I must come to terms with all sides of myself. I am as much the cursing, pickup-truck-driving honker as I am the caring widow who shelters me for the night and cooks a hot meal for the two of us as the cold rain pours down on the roof. I am as much the hateful excluder as I am the peaceful protestor.
All that I experience must become my teacher. There will still be plenty of times that I don’t like what I’m experiencing and wish it could be different. I’m rather be warm than cold. I’d rather be connected than isolated. I’d rather be intimate with another than lonely. But on the road my resistance to what I experience does not have the same feeling of futile and hopeless rebellion. There is no sense of, “I should not be feeling this way.” The choice to go out on the road is the choice to put myself at the mercy of Life, and there is little point in resisting what Life gives me. When she opens her hand, why should I close my heart? When Life opens her hand, something new comes into the world, and I am on the road to come into contact with the new. Not only to come into contact with the new but to embrace it, to open my own hands in a posture of surrender and reconciliation and let Life put what she will into them, for embracing what Life places into my hands places me in the hand of Life, the only place where I will ever know what it means to be alive.