October 9, 1998
It has been 15 years since I started out on my first trip around the country, filled with equal measures of excitement, apprehension and longing for new adventures after some major setbacks in my life. That trip opened up the country to me, from the spring-fed rivers of the Arkansas and Missouri Ozarks, the sandhills of Nebraska, and the Powder River valley of Wyoming to the immense grasslands of eastern Montana, the Yellowstone River and the Palouse hill country of eastern Idaho and Washington. I started in May 1984, got to Seattle and worked there that summer, and returned in August. It was my first big open road quest, the trip that altered my life as any grand new experience will.
The following spring I did it again, in the months before I was to start graduate school. I had saved up money from a dead-end job, was reaching another low point, and couldn't wait to have miles of open, two-lane "blue highways" up ahead of me to the horizon. I couldn't think of much else for weeks prior to the start of the trip. Each night during the ensuing trip I filled my journal with entries chronicling the day's experiences visiting national parks, historic sites, small out-of-the way towns, scenic river drives, museums, state capitols, and colleges and university campuses. By late afternoon I was so filled with exuberance and the wonderful exhaustion of just packing each day full of new experiences that when I stopped for the night, I fell into a kind of reverie, reliving the days events. It was like it could go on and on and never end. By about the fifth or sixth day, I had settled into a kind of back-roads-explorer role so thoroughly that I could neither contemplate the end of the adventure or imagine doing anything else. Surely this must have been what William Least Heat Moon felt as he made his way across the country in his van, "Ghost Dancing", and began the great saga that led to the classic road book Blue Highways, the inspiration for my travels.
When I think back on those journeys today, or read journal entries about them, there's a slightly unreal quality about it all. Once upon a time there was this person, me, who had as his major responsibility getting a job and settling down somewhere, but who blundered into and out of one disastrous job and school situation after another, through no fault of his own, and who sought the open road to escape from the downward spirals of life. The road opened him up, infused new life into his tired 30-something-year-old psyche, and gave him hope and courage to try new things.
Now I am securely situated in Charleston, S.C., with a nice place to live and a job I mostly like because it involves helping other people. I have financial and personal obligations I never had before and see absolutely no big changes on the horizons. When traveling and jobless, all I could focus on each day was newness and change and the incredible feeling of literally never knowing what each day was going to hold.
When you are firmly attached to a place, it's as if you have somewhere to call "home" even though you weren't born there. My ancestors were born and raised in Charleston, so it's where my deepest roots are. I never realized this, or thought about it much, when I was younger. I think this is why I feel so comfortable here, and I can't imagine why I never thought of trying to live here before now. It's only been four years, but it feels like I never lived anywhere else.
This area on the coast of South Carolina has the natural beauty I seek, the ocean, the salt air, the marshlands and maritime forests, and the seabirds I delight in watching. I was born and raised in the lowlands of Louisiana. Now I'm in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. Full circle.
So, I can put my restless travels in the context of a quest that we often embark upon in our youth. I saw beautiful places and gained wisdom I'd never have had otherwise. In Cody, Wyoming on May 3, 1985, I wrote these words in my journal. I had just traveled the Wapiti Canyon Highway from Yellowstone National Park to Cody through a landscape so striking and unusual as to seem otherworldly, and I was just transformed, floating on air: "Yesterday, in the midst of natural beauty everywhere, I had the very peaceful feeling of knowing this world of ours has greater gifts to bestow than we can comprehend, but which we are meant to know and experience. I felt harmony within myself and within my surroundings, a feeling that here everything was in right order, in balance and perfectly capable of enduring as long as the earth endured. This gave me great hope. Also, people are so friendly. They, too, share this bond with a great and open country."