At the risk of presumptuousness, I will say that I believe that what interests people reading about a trip like mine—and what interests me when I read travel writing of a similar sort—is that the narrator, the traveler, is operating outside of what we often call our “comfort zone.” The comfort zone is the space of habit and security. We get up, do the work that we do, eat the meals we normally eat, see the people we usually see—some of whom we love, others who are just figures appearing in the landscape of routine.
To travel is to leave the comfort zone, to engage with new people every day, to have less recourse to habit, and to eschew much of the security upon which our emotional and physical well-being depends.
In my own position, motels and hotels offer temporary sanctuary from the stresses of travel. They give me a place to physically recuperate. If I stay for longer than a night, I don’t have to worry about where I’ll end up at the end of the day. They give me time to write. And, most crucially, they afford me some privacy.
This last has several important components. Some of them are, at home, so banal as to be constantly forgotten: a bathroom where I don’t have to worry about my pack, sleep in a bed where I will not be awoken by levee patrol officers or ATV riders. But privacy also means not having to interact with other people.
I have mixed feeling about saying this directly, but here it is: while I cannot express enough the deep gratitude that I have for the opportunity to meet so many people, especially good, caring people, these interactions take a toll on me.
Let me try to explain another way.
I spent a lot of my time in graduate school—and continuing today—thinking about the nature of sound, about listening. I love to listen to non-musical field recordings, of nature, of urban landscapes, of industrial machines. The reason for this is that these sounds, while ever-present, are generally filtered out in our day-to-day experience. When they’re made concrete as recordings, it’s possible to listen with new ears. Those new ears you can take with you, away from the stereo, and out into the world. I stand out on the deck of the farmhouse in Illinois, and I hear the rustling of dry corn leaves, of the step-down transformer, of the train in the distance, of birds and coyotes and insects. It can be wonderfully calming, like a form of meditation.
The months leading up to this trip were more difficult: I’d left the city I loved as a graduate student to move into relative solitude, I left Jeannette back in Austin too, and I didn’t have a job or a means to pay back the substantial student debt I’d accrued in all that time spent acquiring those degrees.
But when I left New Orleans and began walking north, a lot of that of my anxieties started to fall away. In one sense, every day was MORE stressful: the physical demands of walking with a heavy pack for hours, not knowing where I’d be sleeping that night, etc. But in another, everything was simplified…so why worry?
And as I sit in my room at the Eola Hotel in Natchez writing this, I think that still holds true. But after three weeks on the road, I’ve encountered something in myself that I wasn’t expecting, and maybe couldn’t really have anticipated.
When you truly listen to all of the sounds around you for the first time, it’s enervating. You feel more alive. But there’s a reason we don’t actually listen all the time: they become a never-ending stream of noise, worse, really, than somebody blaring your least-favorite type of music. So we filter things out. We hear the phone ring, but pay no attention to the refrigerator’s hum. It’s the aural dimension to our creation of individual comfort zones.
It is, I think, the same way we deal with the people around us. It’s not that we ignore our loved ones or friends or colleagues. It’s that we know the cues about to pay attention to, and what to let go. It’s what allows me to sit on the same couch as Jeannette, me reading and her working on her dissertation, and if I laugh at a passage she knows it isn’t necessary to respond unless I decide to quote it aloud. Or if she expresses frustration writing a paragraph, I won’t ask her if I can help unless she asks. And so we sit, comfortable together.
With new people, that’s just not possible. And if you’re traveling alone, new people are all that you know. The effect is akin to what I imagine it’s like being newly born: you’re sensitized to everything. Every word exchanged, every change in body language…you’re attuned to it all. Which is exhausting, as you might imagine.
I had a friend in Austin for many years who worked as a labor organizer, and I used to tease her about her sudden bursts of emotion at some thing or another. She sat in on one of my classes once and, afterwards, was teary-eyed at the beauty of the student-teacher relationship. We called them her “Oh, the humanity!” moments. In what I know is actually a short time on the road, almost every day is filled with at least one “Oh, the humanity!” moment for me. Many of these are joyous, some are heartbreaking.
I treasure the opportunity to hear people’s stories, to be a part of their lives, however briefly. But this is life without a filter. And every once in a while, I have to retreat into my rented room. It’s not exactly a “comfort zone,” but it’ll have to do for the time being.