Monday, March 27, 2017


From the first time I read Robert Frost’s iconic poem, The Road Not Taken, when I was still a young boy, I was captivated by both its imagery and its message. From a very young age, though powerfully attracted to my own town and its surroundings, I yearned to travel. It was almost as if I had strong memories of being a wanderer in some former life, so fascinated was I by the idea of striking out in any direction and seeing what was over the next rise or around the next curve.

I did a lot of that already while I was growing up. First on my bicycle on which I explored every inch of Wapakoneta, my home town in Ohio, and then the surrounding countryside, from Fort Amanda to Owl Creek and from Glynwood to Grand Lake Saint Marys. And later, once I bought my own car at age sixteen, I began clocking more and more miles each month, not only in my job as a relief drummer for any jazz band that needed one, but also just for the heck of it, driving in my down-time between gigs and school to visit any Ohio town whose name struck my fancy: towns like Lebanon, Russia and Cairo, Washington Court House, North Star and Columbus Grove, ones with names eccentric enough to pique my interest, eventually racking up some two thousand to three thousand miles a month between work and recreational trips.
 I was, as well, from my early childhood, an unrepentant non-conformist, one of those weird kids who have no interest in doing “what everybody else does” or in being “like everybody else is” or in echoing the interests, thoughts and trends of my own generation unless they just happened to coincide with my own. So the words and deeper meaning of that poem of Frost’s really resonated with me:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Nevertheless, there was a time, decades ago, when I used to feel there was something wrong with me as a traveler. I mean, I felt perhaps it had something to do with my rather natural tendency to procrastinate (another trait that, way back then, I took as a quirk, a malady, a bad habit, but which I now accept as “part of a process”). I wasn’t at all sure why I did it, but there seemed always to be something drawing me to dawdle, to get distracted along the road, to keep the “final destination” at bay, as if preferring the magic of setting forth and the surprises I encountered along the way to the reality of “arrival”.
The dream of a natural born traveler: a car of one's own.
I recall once a return drive from Wapakoneta to Miami to take a plane back to my home, at the time, in Buenos Aires. I’d spent close to a month with my family, and as usual, my younger brother Jim and I had renewed our close bond as we usually did, having a jog or a walk together each day, drinking coffee and engaging in long talks at the kitchen table, or spending beery late afternoons and evenings bellied up to local bars bending our elbows and each other’s ears. So when I got into my rented car in the driveway of our parents’ house in Ohio, after we’d given each other a hug, and I was about to head south for another year or two before I’d get back that way, he leaned down at the driver’s side window and said, “Hey, buddy, give me a call when you get wherever you stop tonight, okay?”
“Sure,” I said, and made a mental note to keep that promise.
A little over eight hours later, I called Jim from my hotel just south of Atlanta off of Interstate 75. I’d made the decision after seeing a roadside ad for a bar and steakhouse that looked inviting at this early evening hour and the directions at the bottom of the sign suggested that the place was located next to a major hotel. That cinched it—a bar and grill next door to a hotel with an indoor pool. I flicked on my turn signal and took the exit.
“So where ya at, bud?” my brother asked when I got him on the line. “I mean, you’re still on the road, right?”
“Just south of Atlanta, and, no, I’m not still on the road. I’m sitting on the bed in my hotel room in my swim trunks about to go have a dip before I go to supper.”
Atlanta?” he cried. “Are you freakin’ kidding me?”
“What do you mean?” I asked, bewildered.
“I mean, is that all the further you got, you wimp? Last time I drove from Ohio to Florida, I drove from Lima to Ocala straight through in under thirteen hours! And you’re still in freakin’ Atlanta?”
“What’s the hurry?” I asked. “I have almost three days before my flight out of Miami.”
“I don’t know,” he said, “I mean, you could’ve stayed here a day longer, for instance. But even Dad drives to North Florida in a day!”
“Yes, and I wouldn’t want to meet up with him on the road after the first seven hours or so,” I said. “Look, let’s just compare for a second. I imagine to do a marathon drive like that you end up drinking gallons of coffee and fighting to stay awake...”
“Red Bull, actually...and it works!”
“...eating junk food on the road and feeling like crap, and then when you get there, wherever there is, you’re zonked out for the whole next day because you’re so exhausted from the drive, right?”
“Pretty much, but at least I get there fast!”
“I, on the other hand, have had a plenty long enough trip as it is for one day. But not long enough to wear me out. Now I’m going to do a few laps in the hotel pool. Then I’m going to dress in fresh clothes and walk across the parking lot to the bar and grill next door. I’m going to sit at the bar, order a beer and a nice steak, and strike up a conversation with the bartender and whoever else feels like telling me their story. And when I’m done drinking beer and chatting, I’m going to go back to my room, get a good night’s sleep, have another dip in the pool and a good breakfast in the morning and get back on the road at a reasonable hour. What part of that sounds worse than driving like a maniac through the night guzzling coffee and Red Bull to keep my eyes open?”
On the lam in Europe in the early '70s
Jim was silent for a couple of beats and then he said, “Know what, Big Bro? As usual, you’re right.”
That night I did exactly what I told him I was going to do and, in the process of eating a fine sirloin strip and wetting my whistle, met a part-time bartender who was working on a master’s in history and explained to me the intricacies of the vicarious Civil War that the South continued to contend with the North, and to a woman who was an environmental engineer and gave me a fascinating lesson on Florida’s natural aquifers and their vulnerability to human encroachment.
Virginia on the road in Patagonia in the 1980s
And “stops along the way” continue to be some of the most memorable stories in my repertoire. Like a lunch my wife, Virginia, and I shared as young newlyweds living in Europe, an impromptu picnic of wonderfully overcooked rotisserie chicken, floury shepherd’s loaf bread, ultra-dark espumante wine and deep red sangria oranges that we enjoyed while sitting on a park bench in a steep-trailed park overlooking the ancient city of Genoa, on a day that seemed to us like a piece of heaven. Or a few days when I played hooky from work on a trip to Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship and we took a bus from Santiago down to Viña del Mar and strolled on the beach and stayed a couple of nights in an old family hotel, lodged in a room overlooking the patio, where they brought us French bread, butter, jam and coffee for breakfast in bed and where dinner was served by the owner in a small dining room downstairs—a quiet corner where we could briefly forget the horror that was taking place in that country and across the Andes in dictatorial Argentina.
A daunting tunnel carved and blasted in the limestone
Then there was the time Virginia and I were driving south through the Patagonian desert between the Welsh-founded cities of Trelew and Puerto Madryn and saw a broad, well-graded gravel road stretching off toward the horizon on our left near the tiny settlement of Las Plumas. On a whim, Virginia said, “Let’s see where that goes.”
“Well, certainly not to Madryn,” I protested. “Madryn’s that way,” I said, pointing straight ahead.
“So what?” she insisted. “If we don’t like what we see, we can always turn around and come back.”
Villa Ameghino
And so we took that road less traveled and began the twisting turning descent along an ever narrowing ribbon of gravel that eventually took us through a daunting one-lane tunnel carved and blasted out of sheer limestone that, on the other side, rewarded us for our daring with a view of a veritable Patagonian oasis, a shimmering green valley hollowed out by the marble green Chubut River where it flows swift and deep beneath the Dique Ameghino hydroelectric dam. From above, on the high desert where the road began, this was an invisible world. And down here, that coarse dry world above was just as invisible. From where we stood now, you would have thought you were in a mountain landscape, so high were the steep cliffs on all sides. But instead, it was a deep gorge sculpted by the river, with the clear china-blue sky arching high overhead, the water lined with willows and alamo poplars and with hundreds of flamingoes and black and white-necked swans riding the milky green, lime-laden surface as it rushed toward the sea a hundred and fifty kilometers further downstream.
A place of peace and beauty
There on the banks rose a small village, Villa Ameghino, where many of the couple hundred residents still had Welsh names—Reynolds, Jones, Williams or Davies—but where the lingua franca had long since become Spanish. Friendly people who were quick to chat and to welcome us to camp on the stony shore, people whose existence depended on jobs with the National Highway Department, or on exploitation of the kaolinite mines from nearby caves for use in the ceramics industry, or on the tiny shops and bakery that sold us our provisions while we were there.
Such was the peace and beauty of this place that for a few days, we forgot all about our “final destination” and camped there by the river to bask in the fantasy of a hidden paradise.
And like these experiences, there are countless others I could tell in which I’ve turned an unexpected layover, a chance encounter, or a stop to admire the scenery into a surprising and fulfilling event. The trick is never giving in to the human tendency to ask, “Are we there yet?” when the question that can give birth to a wealth of experiences is, “What sort of surprises and adventures will this journey hold?”
When I manage to push the pause button on the busy pace of an everyday working existence, I realize that life itself, in the final analysis, is one long—or not so long—journey. But there’s no verifiable way to know for sure why it starts where it starts or ends where it ends, where we came from or where we’re going. And nobody issues us with a roadmap when we start out. So it apparently isn’t about that. Life isn’t about “getting there”—which is, in the end, an ostensibly counterproductive option—but about all of the side-trips we make, all of the places and things we see, all of the observations we collect, all of the fellow travelers we meet and all of the stories we hear, tell and enact in between.
Life is about going or staying, and about the experiences that we absorb along our path. It’s almost surely more about choice than about destiny, no matter how conditioned we may be not to think so. But it is definitely about the main roads and the side-roads that we decide to take or not to take, and about how we deal with those choices once we’ve made them.


Anonymous said...

OMG, what a choice! Life!

Dan Newland said...

Exactly! Many thanks for reading it, Fabio.