By Tom Robotham
So we saunter toward the Holy Land, till one day the sun shall shine…into our minds and hearts, and illuminate our whole lives with a great awakening light. ~ Henry David Thoreau.
Some years ago I read a wonderful little book by Bill McKibben, called Wandering Home. The book is an account of a hike McKibben took from his current home in Vermont to his former home in the Adirondacks. Along the way, he reconnected with old friends and made new ones. But the journey itself was a solo endeavor; he had no traveling companion.
I started thinking about this again recently as I was contemplating how I might make the most of my summer. The open road is calling. It has been for a long time. But in recent years, I’ve not heeded the call as often as I should have for my own benefit. There are many reasons for this, I suppose. Financial limitations and work commitments are among them. But in truth, I realize that I’ve also been shackled in chains of loneliness—or the thought of it, at any rate.
When I was in my twenties, I often embarked on solo adventures. Sometimes they were as simple as walks through the streets of Manhattan, or Central Park. But on other occasions I wandered far from home—wandered being the operative word, because I usually set out with only the vaguest of itineraries. Two years after I graduated from college, for example, I decided to fly west to visit a childhood friend who’d moved to Los Angeles. But I’d always wanted to visit San Francisco, so I decided to go there first. For three days, I explored the city on foot—a city in which I knew not a soul.
No matter. On day one, I walked north on Powell Street, with only one specific destination: City Lights Books. Along the way I stopped for breakfast at a lovely café and took in the sights of Chinatown before arriving at the bookstore.
I can spend hours in bookstores, especially one as iconic as City Lights, a mecca for the Beat generation. I spent about two hours browsing that afternoon, but at long last I chose two volumes to purchase: The Fall of America, by Allen Ginsberg, and Endless Life, by City Lights founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti. At the cash register, I chatted with an elderly man who entertained me with his eccentricities and a long rant about the city government’s neglect of the subways. It wasn’t until later that I realized the man I’d been chatting with was Ferlinghetti himself. (At the time, I’d not seen a photograph of him, so I didn’t know what he looked like, and he never bothered to tell me his name.)
By late afternoon, I’d made it to Fisherman’s Wharf, where I settled into a restaurant with a view of the Bay and Alcatraz, and enjoyed a dinner of crabmeat mornay. I’d never had mornay sauce before, but it sounded interesting, and my instincts didn’t fail me. It was one of the best meals I’ve ever had in my life. I capped the evening off with a show by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers at a nearby club.
On day two I headed due west, through Golden Gate Park, until I got to a bluff overlooking the Gulf of the Farallones, and the Pacific Ocean beyond, sat down in the grass, and lit up a joint. In reverie, I contemplated how Balboa must have felt, gazing at the Pacific for the first time.
That evening, I took in another concert—this one by a string quartet at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. I still remember the main piece on the program—Haydn’s Quartet in F Major. I’d never heard it before, but ever since then it has been one of my favorite pieces of chamber music. It remains vivid in my memory in part because I was instantly smitten with the cellist. After the concert, I wanted to talk to her and ask her to join me for a drink, but I was too shy to do so. Her beauty intimidated me. It took me a long time to realize that I’d had absolutely nothing to lose in approaching her. But I suppose the upside is that I learned an important lesson. Fear often looms large when there’s no real danger lurking but the prospect of slight embarrassment of rejection. I subsequently made a promise to myself that I would not live that way anymore. And while I can’t say that I haven’t succumbed to fears of this sort since, I think that moment was a psychological turning point for me.
I COULD RECOUNT many other solo journeys as well—a ferry ride from Dublin to Wales, for example, followed by a train trip to London, and two days exploring the city on my own; solitary hikes through Vermont, the Adirondacks and the Blue Ridge, and drives to Ocracoke, where I’ve spent many blissful hours sitting in my beach chair with nothing to keep me company but a book, a cooler of beer and the ocean’s vast expanse.
Reflecting on these memories, I ask myself once again why I’ve not taken such trips in recent years. The best explanation I can come up with is this: Somewhere along the line, after my divorce nearly eight years ago, I began to run away from myself. Living alone for the first time in 22 years, I continually sought the company of others whenever I could. When I turned inward, I felt as if I were staring into a void, and I imagined that other people could fill it. They can, at times. It’s not good to spend too much time alone. One must find balance. But therein lies the rub. The craving for companionship, if too often indulged, can lead us far afield from our own souls.
With this in mind, I’ve decided to take a trip on my own before the academic year begins. I thought about Paris, but I really don’t have the money for that. Moreover, during a recent drive north to see my son graduate from Bard College, the appeal of road trips was rekindled. And so, I’ve decided to head north again, for two weeks or so. I won’t be alone the whole time. I’ll see my son, who’ll be working in Woodstock for the summer, and my daughter, who now lives in New York City. I also plan on visiting the Zen Mountain Monastery for a three-day meditation retreat in the company of strangers. But there will be long expanses of solitude as well, whether pure, in the woods, or the kind of public solitude one finds in unfamiliar towns where other people are present but not in your company.
The whole plan is rather loose, and that’s part of the point. Will I end up in Maine, eating lobster by the water on some splintery old picnic table? Will I hit Saratoga for the races and a show at the spectacular Performing Arts Center that resides there? Find some lakeside cabin for a night or two?
Who knows? It scarcely matters. The point is twofold. First, to regain some perspective on my life here in Norfolk. When one stays put too long, it’s hard to see things clearly. It’s like having your hand too close to your face: It quickly goes out of focus, and stays that way until you pull it away.
My primary concern, though, is to rekindle a relationship with myself. This is the great paradox of solo travel. We sometimes must get away from where we live—our homes, in the conventional sense—in order to find our way back home in a higher sense: back to the sanctuary or our inner being. As we do, if all goes well, we remind ourselves that we are never really alone, as long as we’re free to wander—to share the company of trees and birds on some green mountain trail; to trade tales with strangers at some small-town tavern; to share the experience of music. Or simply to look at the stars.
I’ll keep you posted. Meanwhile, I hope that your summer will be filled as well with the riches of discovery, whether you choose to venture off in the company of a friend or lover, or pitch your tent somewhere and enjoy for a few days or weeks your own companionship.