Today, I conclude my three-part series on going home again. As you’ll recall, I traveled back to my alma mater in Wisconsin last week to give a reading. Being a poor author on a budget, I didn’t have money for a plane ticket. That meant it was time to invoke those two magic words: road trip!
The road novel/film is a time-honored tradition in American literature, and I felt I was living it as I wound my way from Kansas north to America’s Dairy Land. Somewhat spontaneously, I decided to document my journey. I took pictures that I posted to Facebook and I live-tweeted the journey.
(I should note here that I neither tweeted nor Facebooked while I was driving. I stopped each time I posted something — in fact, I posted things while I was stopped. That added to the length of time it took me to drive, but I put it down to this being a great adventure and didn’t worry about what kind of time I was making.)
As the road stretched out before me, I found my mind opening. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and the sights along the side of the highway drew my attention and fired creative ideas. I started looking for things to document. I would tweet what CD I was listening to. Cruising through Iowa’s farmland, I was reminded of how I joked in junior high that farm silos were missile silos, and I actively searched for a good one to photograph, so I could post it to Facebook and repeat the jest. When I made it to Wisconsin, I stopped on the side of the road, so I could take a picture of the state’s picturesque welcome sign to make my arrival.
I was effectively live-journaling — blogging, if you will — as I drove along. I wasn’t just taking in the sights; I was actively engaged with my environment.
Revisiting the Past
My trip to Green Bay provided a lot of opportunities for reflection. When I set out, I knew this would likely be the last time I would ever make this journey. I’m sure I’ll visit Wisconsin again in my lifetime, but given that I’m moving from Kansas to Ohio this summer, this was sure to be the last time I would drive through Missouri and Iowa to get there. I’d been on this route numerous times in the past and knew it well. This was the final time I would traverse it.
That led to a lot of thinking about what I saw on my drive. The rolling hills and quaint farms throughout Iowa and Southern Wisconsin filled me a sense of tranquility they hadn’t before. The change from rural farmland to industry as I reached the Fox River Valley delineated two Wisconsins very clearly. The variation in the quality of the roads between Missouri and Iowa — something I’d observed many times before — filled me with a sense of wistfulness.
I had made arrangements to stay with an old friend from college — Tom Harter — who was still in Green Bay. Tom’s one of the best guitar players I know, and we collaborated on an album while we were in school. In anticipation of seeing him, I alternated listening to the album we did together, solo projects by each of us, and popular music from our days in college (and in some cases high school). I sent my mind down a musical Memory Lane, and analyzed what we had done right and what we had done wrong from a creative point of view. Not only did my truck roll northward to Wisconsin, it traveled back in time to an era when Tom and I were less experienced, less accomplished, and completely ignorant of our own naivete.
The trip back to Kansas wasn’t as fun. Going home after a vacation never is. But I continued with my documenting the whole excursion. I photographed myself at Schultz’s Cheese Haus in Beaver Dam purchasing a seven-year-old cheddar. I logged my stops for lunch with my brother in Madison, in Dubuque by the Mississippi River, and in Des Moines as I bought my final tank of gas at the QuikTrip I’d been visiting on these treks for 23 years.
I also listened to a lot of Tom’s new music. I traded him copies of my novels for several of his most recent albums, and one in particular — Soteris — really inspired me. I listened to it three times on the drive back. And again, I rotated in music from the 1980’s I listened to in high school and college.
As I was driving home, I was already planning a blog about the whole experience, and I realized I could not contain it all in one entry. I would have to write several installments. There was just too much to say about this 72-hour trip, much of which was spent in the car.
I came to believe on that drive back to Kansas that a road trip is an essential piece of a creative person’s repertoire. The creative process, whether it is literary, musical, dramatic, or visual, requires solitude. No matter how extraverted or attention-seeking an artist is, he or she must have quiet, alone time to fire the imagination and create the work in question.
A road trip is an excellent means to accomplish that. Somehow, the physical experience of traveling, opens a mental journey that taps the wellsprings of creation. The longer I drove, the more the gears in my brain turned. I was exhausted when I pulled into my driveway, but I was also alive with possibility. I was ready to write . . . after a lot of sleep, that is.
The most interesting thing about this strange journey into my past, was that it refreshed me. All the stimuli I received from my travels ignited the kind of creativity I depend on for a living.
I’m not sure how I’ll manage this, but I intend to make road trips a regular thing for me. This summer, it’ll be easy. I’m moving cross-country. There will be road-tripping.
After that, I’m not sure. But I’ve already spoken to St. Norbert about guest-lecturing one afternoon in a creative writing class, and another of my college friends is a high school teacher who has asked the next time I come up to speak to his students. So there is impetus and opportunity for me to do this again.
I don’t know what it is about physical journeys inspiring mental/spiritual ones, but I am convinced that traveling forces the kind of reflection that is positive for the creative process. I intend to take advantage in the future.