My journey began two years ago, also in the dead of winter, only it was the numbing dead of a Chicago winter, when the wind stiffened the soul. There was a fire there, too, a log burning in an old potbelly fireplace in a Lincoln Park apartment. We were staring at the flames, my wife and I, two newlyweds taking stock of our lives. Marriage should have seemed the culmination of a journey all its own. It had started with a dinner, a movie, and a kiss good night when I was seventeen and Amy was sixteen and the world was at our feet. But a decade later, when the final thank-you note was mailed and the last vase returned, there was something missing_not between us, but within ourselves and beyond ourselves. There must be more out there, we felt, despite the rumors.
If you believe what you read, then I should be a flannel-wearing, goatee-bearing, body-piercing, politically correct yet apolitical, half-employed slacker sitting around a gourmet coffeehouse complaining about the godforsaken mess I've inherited. But generalizations are generally bad form. As the early nineties became the late nineties, the stereotype dissolved into a thousand unique forms. For every twenty-six-year-old snowboarding weed hound, there was a twenty-six-year-old bank president. Sometimes, they were the very same person. The X in Generation X was revealed to be just what it is a variable of infinite possibilities.
But one characteristic that seems pervasive is a sense of surrender. Somewhere along the line "Have a nice day!" turned into the contemptuous shrug that defines Generation X: "Whatever". Succinct cynicism. But I am a cynic because, in my heart, I am an idealist. Skepticism and scorn are simply a reaction to unfulfilled expectations. I expect so much, thus I am impressed by so little. If that seems like a contradiction, so be it.
Walt Whitman knew there was more out there. "Other states indicate themselves in their deputies," he wrote, "but the genius of the United States is not best or most in its executive or legislatures, nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges or churches or parlors, nor even in its newspapers or inventors...but always most in the common people." So he made himself the poet of the open road.
Some people have always known there was more. It's just way out there, past the shock headlines and the schlock newsmakers, hidden in the nooks and crannies of America. John Steinbeck claimed, "The honest bookkeeper, the faithful wife, the earnest scholar get little of our attention compared to the embezzler, the tramp, the cheat." So he and his dog, Charley, set off to remedy that. Charles Kuralt stated, "The front pages were full of selfishness, arrogance, and hostility toward others. The back roads were another country." So he brought the back roads into our living rooms.
Sitting by the fire on that bitterly cold evening in Chicago, Amy and I suddenly saw our future laid before us, and it didn't satisfy... We had both lost a sense of Out There. We needed a permanent shift of perspective. We needed to get out of town.
The need to cleanse one's soul and restore one's confidence through travel goes by many names. Steinbeck's "virus of restlessness" was Whitman's "resistless call of myself" and Thomas Wolfe's "hunger for voyages". It can take many forms_a meandering journey without itinerary, a Kerouacian dive into the fringes of society, a rush to the farthest point from departure. We decided ours would be a mission in the form of destinations, an experiment to find out if cynicism was justifiable if our generation reflected the state of the union or merely misjudged it.
We would search for the things that seem elusive in modern America by seeking out Pride (Alabama), Faith (South Dakota), Wisdom (Montana), and Inspiration (Arizona). Some may call them virtues; I call them states of mind. After all, one man's pride is another's arrogance; one man's faith is another's folly. Knowing nothing about these places except what emanated from the fine print of the atlas, we would embark on a literal and figurative search for states of mind often overwhelmed by many Americans' state of panic.
We headed for the middle of nowhere. More people squeezed into a stadium for a typical pro football game than can be found in all eighteen towns, villages, and hamlets we visited combined. But as the Zen believers say, one can learn much about the tree by studying the simple shrub. Large insight is the amalgam of small discoveries.