We are at the Tennessee state line heading north. After a year and a half of travel, we are two states away from home. Grocery stores have begun to look Midwestern. They are clean and bland and as grating as our nasal twang. No fresh tortillas, boiled crawfish, tripe, pig lips or cane syrup. We still hear soft Southern cadences, but they are muted now. We rarely hear Spanish anymore.
We set out those months ago to take a look at America, but also to take a look at ourselves. It was time to clean house, to empty out the junk drawers and poke about in the closets where skeletons gather dust. We even dragged out the parlor furniture -- those fusty old habits and dearly held beliefs -- for a thorough dusting. This kind of introspection is the time-honored purpose of a road trip, and it was one of ours.
So. We've reached the end of the road. The moment of truth. We are reviewing the balance sheet that will tell us what we've gained or lost.
Was this trip worth it? Was it worth selling almost everything we owned, pulling the kids out of school and shaking up our settled lives to wander around the country? And after all this wandering, have we figured out what really matters, anyway? Do we know more clearly what's important? How we might want to spend the time we have left?
The door to those existential questions cracked open a bit in Nevada. Nevada is more than a place; it's a metaphor. Once you get beyond Las Vegas and Reno, Nevada yawns and stretches into a broad, desolate landscape. Sagebrush and pinyon pine dust empty miles. Distant mountain ranges cup broad basins in their rocky palms. Aliens are said to land here, and it must feel like home to them.
We were traveling west on State Road 50, dubbed the "Loneliest Road in America." I looked at this otherworldly landscape with its stark, expansive beauty and thought: This is how time feels to me now.
Time has been as spacious as Nevada on this trip. It has felt almost timeless. I have nowhere to go, or rather, I can go anywhere, so I'm never late, and I'm never in a hurry. I have time to wait in line and time to be nice to the clerk at its end. I have time to notice things: the sound of birds' wings beating the air, the graceful, swaying dance of fir trees in the wind, the way peace feels. I have time to read and think, to pray and walk, and to sit beside the campfire until it burns to embers.
This expanse of time may seem alien and even scary to a culture that has perfected the fine and complex art of scheduling. Only our very old and very young are allowed unscheduled time; the rest of us are expected to be efficiently productive. But I have tasted the forbidden fruit of unproductive time, and it is very sweet. It is delightful to wake up in the morning with a sense of purpose but no sense of constriction; no tightening of the throat, no leap forward from the starting gate. Instead, days stretch without boundaries to the horizon. Sometimes I forget, even, what day it is, although I usually know where the moon will rise and whether or not it will be full.
Time is one of the things that matter, but it does not come cheaply. In our case, it was the direct descendant of radical simplifying. In this unequal world there are good moral reasons to simplify, but our reasons were purely practical: We needed money for the trip. We could not have traveled had we kept our modest (by most standards) accumulation of worldly goods. We left it all, along with the commitments, projects and promises that had seeped unheeded into the junk drawers of our lives.
Simplifying, however, has unintended consequences. It begets time and freedom. Anything I own takes up physical and psychic space. It needs to be paid for, stored, used and maintained. On this trip, I was amazed at how little I need in order to live well. I don't need coordinated towel sets or place settings for eight. I don't need electricity or hot running water. I don't need a television or a computer or a telephone. I don't need a shower every day. (I once went for six weeks on sink baths.) The four of us plus the dog have lived contentedly in 240 square feet of space. In fact, except on rainy days, our trailer now seems pretty roomy.
I also learned that the best things in life are still free. What price can you put on days spent camping beside an aquamarine river that rushes from an ice field glistening majestically in the distance? Or on weeks in the warm sand dunes beside the Gulf of Mexico, falling asleep at night to the womblike whooshing of the sea and the quarreling of coyotes? All for free.
Simplicity is another thing that matters.
Yuma, Ariz., is a giant trailer park. It is one of the few places in the country that stays reasonably warm in the winter, although it has little else to recommend it. We were spending the night in a dismal park just west of town. I was in the office haggling for a shower key ($5), when an older gentleman stuck his head in the door. "Any mail for me?" he asked hopefully. He had no mail. His voice turned hard and sarcastic. "I guess they've all forgotten me. Well, boo-hoo."
I was struck by the bitterness of being alone in a dreary place waiting for mail that doesn't come. Family and friends -- the ties of love -- are the third thing that matters. I've stretched those ties across months and miles. They are frayed but still elastic, and they have drawn me back. It isn't enough to call my older children on Christmas with a cheery voice and a hollow heart. (That particular Christmas all four of them were at my daughter's apartment huddled like orphans around a candle flame.) Grandparents, aunts and uncles have held them close, listening to girlfriend troubles and financial woes, but it is time for me to complete the circle. Love is the only reason to go home.
It is also the essence of the fourth thing that matters. Since the trip was as much a pilgrimage as a peregrination, as much about soul-searching as sightseeing, I brought my angers and perplexities to the places we traveled through, to solitary places of unspeakable beauty. Every day I sat in stillness until the clamoring voices quieted and the angers leached away. Until I was absorbed in the stillness and beauty all around me. Sometimes guidance came and sometimes it didn't, but peace was almost always there. That, and the presence of God. So now I see a few steps farther down the path, and my inner compass is realigned to true north. Maybe this clarity of vision is what matters most.
We have all changed. The kids have passed through puberty, growing many inches and shoe sizes. They've learned to endure discomfort and to amuse themselves without electronic crutches. They've tasted a tremendous richness of culture and geography. They've experienced a world that is far wider than MTV and deeper than the Gap. This is what we hoped for them, but I have no idea whether it will be helpful when they are faced with the quizzical incomprehension of their peers. I, too, am preparing to reenter my own cultural vortex -- the insistent pull toward busyness and accumulation. I can't go back to business as usual. Too much is different now, and too many everyday concerns seem pointless. But I haven't figured out what to do differently.
Was the trip worth it? Was it worth the risk, the investment, the disruption? I recently asked some British travelers a similar question. They, like us, had been on the road for over a year. But unlike ours, their travel was just beginning and would last the rest of their lives. They had spent their entire careers preparing for it.
"When our friends were buying bigger houses and more furniture, we put our money in the bank," they said.
"After all the years of anticipation has it been what you expected?" I asked. They reflected for a moment. Then, almost reverently, they said, "It's been more."
Which is exactly the way I feel. It's been everything I hoped for, and more.