My finger slowly traced the veins. Mapping each artery, each intersection of life. Time passed by in heart beats. Beautiful and simplistic 4/4 timing. The tires on the pavement seemed to mimic this cacophony of beauty and peace. I was seven years old and on the road for the first time.
I like to presume that I knew travel would be my life’s purpose, but all I knew was the feeling of inner peace: understanding of the unknown and acceptance over my fragment of space in this world.
Every mile marker and street sign gave me a rush of excitement. Not because we were closer to a destination, but because it signified a terrain never traversed. This was my favorite part of my childhood trips: knowing I was growing with each passing mile.
I was fortunate enough to grow up in a family where road trips were a yearly have-to. My grandma had always had the travel bug and wanted to make sure that my cousin and I also contracted it at a young age. She drove us to Florida, Colorado, New Orleans, Wisconsin, Michigan, and through Canada. We experienced numerous tourist attractions (as every child traveler should), but my perfect space in time was always the road. The potholes were my breath, the hum of the tires my heart, the headlights of each passing traveler my brain.
Even as a sixteen year old, filled with wanderlust, teenage hormones, and bad decisions, I failed to find a cure for the travel bug. It soon became clear that New Orleans was the ideal destination, and even a necessity. With a group of friends, a hoopty, and a total of $700.00 to split four ways, I was ready to go. I had finally reached a second stage of personal freedom through exploration.
We hit the road with no plan in mind and severe cases of claustrophobia brought on by the thought of being crammed into a sedan for eleven hours. We arrived in Louisiana some sixteen hours later after two flats tires, $30 worth of Taco Hell in our bellies, and an exhaustion that could only be quelled by the lights of a city waiting to be met by our adolescent brains.
Our hotel was a shack, our ID’s non-allowing, but we continued without concern. No matter what happened, no matter what life would throw at us in the moment, it would be for the first time. What followed was a mirage of illegality, cemetery hiking, voodoo culture, roadshows, street characters, hurricanes, paint, alternators, Western Unions, and just a tiny bit of blood.
Even while traveling under these conditions, we were fearless. We weren’t concerned with suspicious neighbors, the straw mattress that we slept on, the amount of money in our pockets, or even the deathly consequences that could have arisen after trying to pull that drink from under a police horse’s hooves. All we felt was true, unbridled freedom. A glorious horror show of experience. A life lived in the moment.
We were growing, we were learning, and we were developing our identities and thought processes.
Throughout this carelessness and debauchery, there was a single instance of perfect beauty that I have carried with me to this day. It was the last day of our trip. We had $5.00 between us, barring the $20.00 in gas it would take us to barely make it home. This moment found us in Biloxi, Mississippi, sleeping on the beach (more out of necessity than decision).
We waded out into the surf at midnight. The moon was high, the city lights distant, and the water just oh-so refreshing. The gulf creeped up to my collarbone as I noticed the blinking lights that surrounded me in the water. A personal symphony of blue illumination. Gentle jellyfish glistened just below the surface. It was living artwork displayed in a single moment never to be experienced again. A partial insight into what is achieved through the incidences of fearless travel in our youth.
Life demands progression as our experiences produce changes in our identities and personalities. We are never fully aware of these changes until we sit in reflection, maybe come across old diaries or see someone we haven’t seen since childhood. We barrel through life as its moments rip chunks from our skin just to be replaced with a new form. Soon enough we look in the mirror, and even though our eyes reflect who we used to be, our souls have changed hue, our hands are grittier, and our skin hangs heavier.
As an ever-evolving species, this is something that happens in every stage of life. Travel simply assists and perpetuates this evolution.
As I grew older, comfort started to become a necessity. Fear crept in and made me foot the bill for a rental car that wouldn’t breakdown. The group road trips were replaced with solo drives during which I revisited that familiar hum of the road on my own. I was more likely to shell out the extra $200 for a beach view and private bar. I looked for hot tubs and read reviews. While in my early twenties, I felt like I was losing a part of my guille and fearless spirit. Though this may be true, it is for the better.
Recently, when I booked an all inclusive vacation (which used to be the bane of my existence) to the Dominican Republic, I did so feeling as if I was betraying my former self. I arrived with my head hung a little low, as if someone would have recognized me and my treacherous behavior. Within two hours on the white sands with colorful frozen drinks and crystal clear waters, I realized I had been doing myself a disservice. I no longer wanted to be afraid of what happened next (as exciting as it might have been). It was enough just to relax, work on my tan, and drink ridiculously sweet concoctions with even more ridiculous garnishments. I have found that a museum or history tour can be just as riveting as it once was to traipse through the cemeteries of New Orleans at night waiting to be robbed.
I have come to terms with these changes in self and have realized it is all a part of growing up through exploration. I have begun to find that inner peace and love for familiar surroundings that I somehow lost along the way. Life is nothing but a lifelong road trip. If we pay attention, we can respect each stage and know ourselves better with each passing mile.
Edited by Nitya Velakacharla
Photograph by Tamarah Schanter