“People don’t take trips—trips take people,” wrote John Steinbeck about his two-month journey across the United States in a small truck he named Rocinante after Don Quixote’s horse. Plan all you want, Steinbeck wrote, but a journey has a personality of its own and it always finds a way to surprise you, to take you places you would have never dreamed of:
“Once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process, a new factor enters and takes over. A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness… And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless.”
Steinbeck’s road trip across America in 1960 had a clear objective: after spending over two decades dwelling in bubbles like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, he needed to once again get to know America, to “feel” it.
He wanted to know: “What is America? Who are Americans?”
On the outermost level, Travels with Charley in Search of America is a chronicle of this inquiry. But Steinbeck’s journey transformed into much more than a straightforward exploration of “Americanness.”
Driving with his dog Charley across the country through lands known and unknown to him, Steinbeck’s travels turned out to be a journey into himself: As he got to know America all over again, he reacquainted himself once again with his loneliness, his fears, his past, his curiosities…
Travels with Charley in Search of America is much more than a book about what America was like at the time Steinbeck drove Rocinante through it. It is the honest chronicle of a inquisitive writer’s psyche who launches a two-month experiment in solo travel to rediscover himself as an older man in the last decade of his life.
Reading the travelogue of one of my favorite writers, I identified with Steinbeck on various levels. My trip(s) over the last year and a half have taken me from Mexico to England, from Antigua to Istanbul, from California to Colombia… Most destinations I didn’t plan or even want to travel to. Cities I intended to just pass through I stayed a long time, countries I wanted to linger in for months, I stayed only days. Countries I intended to visit (my original plan was to actually start in Argentina) I never did.
Looking back to that time in the beginning of 2015 when I planned my trip across the world, I laugh at my naiveté in thinking I had even the slightest control over it.
The unpredictability of the anatomy of an open-ended journey— the intended versus the actual destinations—might be obvious to other adventurous travelers who buy one-way tickets. Yet the unpredictability of the personality of my journey… well I couldn’t have been more surprised of its power to take me places beyond my anticipation.
Turns out, my trip has been a journey in clandestine spiritual awakening. I call it clandestine for I had not idea of it even as it was happening until one day I woke up and started blessing my breakfast (no, I haven’t turned into a hippie or a God-fearing Christian but I did frequent a church in central London over the summer as my quiet meditation space.)
Apparently my journey was a guru in disguise, taking me from lesson to opportunity to further get to know my true self. (I don’t want to lose and confuse you with abstract phrases like “spiritual awakening” or “true self” but bear with me!)
Suddenly, I began to recognize all the stops along my journey that brought me here, from the healing silence of the Colombian forest to the traditional Mexican healer Telesfora who rubbed me with an egg, from screaming at the top of my lungs into the open Negev at the Desert Ashram to a 16-hour trip to Belize that ended abruptly due to panic attacks.
Funny enough, I haven’t shared most of these experiences on this blog even though some of them—like my hike to Ciudad Perdida or my first time meditating at a Yoga center in Mexico’s Pacific coast—have been some of the most memorable episodes of my travels.
So I have decided to write a series of posts in the coming weeks to connect the dots of the spiritual dance that my journey has performed. Taking Steinbeck’s advise to heart, as of the writing of this introduction of sorts, I haven’t prepared or planned any of these articles. I have no idea where this exercise will take me. After all, writing, too, is a journey.