words by Michael Kearns | photographs by Matt Steffen


“The moon and sun are eternal travelers. Even the years wander on. A lifetime adrift in a boat or in old age leading a tired horse into the years, every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home. —Bashō: ― Matsuo Bashō, Narrow Road to the Interior

Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well, yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more, perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless. Paul Bowels- The Sheltering Sky

For eons there have always been those of us who live to travel, whether through this still vast country called America, or abroad. There have always been those willing to endure untold hardships, dangers and even death to walk unknown roads. As Basho further noted in The Narrow Road to The Interior: “There are a great number of ancients, too, who died on the road. [yet] I myself have been tempted for a long time by the cloud-moving wind — filled with a strong desire to wander.

And so, like the ancients before us, we seek to wander. Unfortunately, travel can be a tremendous pain in the ass right now.

Much of the heartache can be boiled down to too many people, understandably, wanting the same thing. We’ve all been locked in our Covid cages for way too long and we need out.

And yet, the difficulties associated with travel reveal themselves in 100 additional ways on the road.

Flights and highways and National Parks are all overcrowded to the point of restrictions and exclusion.

Train workers strike canceling your long planned trip.

Some of the world’s busiest airports have limited the number of people who may pass through their facilities each day.

Hotel rooms are hard to come by and the cost for them has doubled and tripled over pre-pandemic rates. I recently booked a room for two nights at a very mid-level hotel in Seattle- the taxes alone for those two nights exceeded $80.00.

Travel between borders has become complicated and limited as, in some cases, countries impose additional restrictions above usual visa and passport requirements.

Understaffed restaurants struggle to keep up with demand for their services.

These difficulties are complicated by labor shortages; and are further complicated by those who would willingly abuse the situation.

There are far too many people, both at home and on the road, exercising far too little consideration for the overworked.

Once reliable and excellent travel options, like Airbnb, have become corrupt and all too often indifferent to the needs- and sometimes even safety- of its customers. To make things worse, they’ve become indifferent to the concerns of the customer base who have built their business over the years.

Airlines intentionally oversell flights on a regular basis.

In addition to these headaches, there are additional realities which have little to do with travel but can make travel even more difficult.

Covid continues to plague us all.

Extreme worldwide weather conditions limit if not prevent travel in many places.

Forests fires, soaring temperatures, droughts and dropping water levels further restricting travel possibilities.

Crime and poverty are realities which can force us to reconsider our plans.

Politics has stirred the vile stew of hatred: misogyny, intolerance and racism in ways not seen in this country for decades.

One is forced to ask, is it a good idea, let alone safe, to travel?

Yet despite these real and substantial headaches many still yearn to travel.

For many of us, there appears to be a basic desire to travel coded in our DNA; and the numbers of us who would hit the open road seems to have only climbed since the end of the plague.

There are those of us who want, as Kerouac said, “Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.

There is also, unfortunately, a sense of urgency compelling travel, as Bill Bryson has noted: “…an awfully large part of travel these days is to see things while you still can.”

All of these factors seem to combine to create in many a pressing bedrock desire to be elsewhere- in spite of all these complications.

Why do so many us want to go so badly? Why do so many consider travel an inalienable right; essential to their happiness?

As you already appreciate, there is no single answer to these questions. As you undoubtedly realize, people travel for a great many reasons.

Moreover, this love of travel is expressed in a myriad number of ways and is especially ingrained in the American psyche.

Everyone, of course, the world over, loves to travel. In America, we have, arguably, transformed the road trip into an art form.

Some of us fly to the mountains, some drive to the beach and yet others venture cross country by train.

Need and circumstances can dictate our choices on occasion, but traditionally, the road trip has been about spontaneity- about picking up on a moment’s notice and heading out into the night; heading out to who knows where while transforming strangers into friends.

The road trip- whether for a weekend or a month has always been about adventure- venturing willingly into the unknown.

And while this need for travel is universal; for most of us who yearn to go, traveling equates not only indulging our need to move, but having our desires met in very specific manners.

Still, no matter our destination, no matter how we chose to travel, most of us travel with the hope that we will not only have a great time, but that travel will enrich our lives, give our existence greater meaning.

I recently ran across the following sentiment in an excellent cookbook (The Native Mexican Kitchen: A Journey Into Cuisine, Culture, and Mezcal by Rachel Luke Glueck with recipes by Noel Morales ).

In the introduction, Ms Glueck asks:

“What do you travel for? What makes you seek out new cuisines, new chefs, new flavors? Is it-could it be – you’re wishing for something to wow you? Could it be that beneath the guise of adulthood, you’re longing for that sense of wonder that filled your everyday as a child? Maybe we’re all extraordinarily bored as adults and food and travel our way of reconnecting to the mystery and magic that flooded our childhood with a sense of adventure and possibility.”…

Adventure and possibility- yes that’s it. Travel- and in particular the American road trip has always been about possibility.

About whom one might meet, about where we might end up- about what is beyond that distant curve in the road.

Of course, not everyone is a foodie and not everyone travels in search of the perfect mole- but no matter what we’re looking for- the perfect mole, the perfect beach, a perfect day in the mountains- consciously or not, I think the vast majority of us are searching for the magic and mystery about which Glueck theorizes.

Is this right- and more to the point- in light of all the realities discussed above- is it still possible to travel with such hopes, such expectations?

In other words, in a nutshell, in 2022, is it possible- especially in America- to still find happiness, to trigger one’s sense of wonder through travel?

I’m going to attempt to answer those questions while I indulge my own preferred means of travel.

Which is to say that I will be circumambulating America’s highways, looking for the happiness, the wonder the excitement I found as a youth, while asking the question, is happiness through travel still possible?

“Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?”

Can we, in America, in 2022, reconnect to the mystery and magic which flooded our youth with adventure and possibility?

Stayed tune and we’ll give you our thoughts in the days and weeks to come.