Robin said that I would relax the farther west I got. Day 13 on this journey and I find the relaxation coming to me in fits and starts. It’s imperfect, like life. I’ve been listening to podcasts in the car while driving. Sunday I drove through the panhandle of Oklahoma into New Mexico, 10 hours, over 550 miles. All to avoid Texas (Thank you Presidents Bush). One podcast was discussing the human search for happiness with one commentator simply saying that happiness is an emotion and as humans we aren’t wired to maintain any one emotion. Another stated that researchers have found that people are happiest when they are in the moment, not looking forward or back. And tying into that staying in the moment idea, another podcast, another state perhaps, talked about the subjunctive mood and it’s ability to provide us with worry, regret and sometimes hope. There are many languages and cultures where the whole “what if” mindset doesn’t exist. My upcoming Peace Corps service in Thailand will be one of those. Best I get a jump on the philosophy now.
As I’m driving west the land opens up and vastness overtakes: the vastness of the land and of the sky. Oh, the sky. I thought for sure that the plains and the prairies would bore me or frighten me. But I’m amazed by their beauty and richness, their severity and seeming simplicity. But the sky…
Driving through the panhandle, I was monitoring the clouds and weather systems to the west, the north, the south and occasionally to the east through the rear view mirror. There were storms to the south during my drive for a good hundred miles, then they blew away as I proceeded west and out of their sight. Then new storm clouds developed to the north and west as I angled toward the southwest. I watched the rains sheet down, some dense enough to be creating trouble somewhere, others wisps of gray, fading and disappearing before they made landfall. I thought that if I lived out here in isolation, I would study weather and know my clouds.
Growing up, my family had a patio off the side of the garage and we’d sit and watch the traffic on State Route 219 as it made a right angle to the north a few houses down from us. We lived in the foothills of the Alleghenies and didn’t see much weather approaching. We studied the stream of cars instead and kept an eye out for neighbors or friends passing by. On weekends in the summer most of the cars were tourists headed to or from the campgrounds or picnic grounds of the state park nearby or passing through on their way to exotic places in Pennsylvania or Ohio or Ontario. Some would stop at the dairy bar across the street for ice cream, most wouldn’t. I wondered what all these people were doing and where they were going. If I lived in the plains, I’d sit on my porch and watch the skies with the same intrigue and wonder, seeing the clouds as itinerant tourists. And I was happy watching the clouds and the sky as I drove. But don’t worry, I was also watching the road as it stretched on in straight lines into the horizon, scanning the grasslands for wildlife, staring at yet another dead armadillo on the shoulder and the vultures preying.
Ten years ago as I was contemplating turning the big 5—0, I seriously considered riding my motorcycle across the country. What an admirable goal, I thought. Fifty came and went and that trip across country is being made eight years later and by car. The posted speed limit on the interstates through many of the states I’ve passed is 75 mph. Off the interstate system, the limit is usually 70. That’s too fast for me. Now, the thought of driving on the motorcycle across Oklahoma, even at a speed I’m comfortable with, being buffeted by winds and trucks and loud, angry Harleys, leaves me cold. In my car I can crank up the podcasts and concentrate on what I’m passing through and what lies ahead.
On this trip when I’m in a garden or a park or simply watching the beauty of the land and the sky as I pass through it, I am happy and content. I am in the moment. It’s not sustained when I need to look for a place to lay my head or wonder what the next day brings; where I will stop, what I will do next. So on day 12 and 13 and now 14, I am asking “what if” less and seeking those experiences that put me squarely in the moment where I can feel gratitude and serenity. Robin was right.