By Geo Ong
One day, while doing some research on an essay about Los Angeles and Brooklyn, I looked up the distance between these two homes on a Google map. The two cities are 4,480 kilometres (2,784 miles) apart. The map also told me how to get from one city to the other by car, which is something I’ve never done before.
I’ve met quite a few people who have done it, and I tend to pay closer attention to them whenever they speak of these experiences. I’ve seen the cross-country road trip depicted in several movies and several books. In one sense, I feel like I know what to expect.
But when the road is the setting of your story, anything can happen. At the same time, as travellers and as people, we sometimes have the power to summon only what we expect to happen because we are only looking for those things. If a nationalistic American businessman is sent to Paris on business for a few days, his prejudices, preconceived notions, and expectations will ensure him his awful time. The waiters will be rude to him, he’ll get lost repeatedly and no one will offer any help, and he’ll think the Mona Lisa is way too small and as a result ridiculously overrated. Seeing only what we expect to see is a power we sometimes don’t know we hold.
But also it’s part of being a human in this future-obsessed 21st century. Some of us know how much effort is required to take stock of what’s happening at this very moment, and some of us don’t know at all because they’ve never done it. On the road everything is heightened, to a varying extent depending on the situation, but it is still very much the same idea. Our expectations can stir us away from the natural order otherwise brought about by wonder and curiosity.
Which is a shame, really, especially during something so possibly experiential as the cross-country road trip. Now, I consider myself an experienced traveller. I done been places, alright? And while I don’t expect to meet my soulmate in a diner in Virginia, or discover the truths of many mysteries during inebriated late-night episodes with good but ultimately tragic strangers, or meet my other soulmate in Seattle, this road yet taken still holds some romantic idealism for me. Responsibly and consciously treated, this can not only be normal but it can be fine as well.
Before embarking on the Urchin Road Trip, which happened to be my first significant road trip, I read several books about life on the road. I would still do that for this future trip of mine, but I would do it a bit differently. I’ll read, I’ll listen, and I’ll learn, and then I’ll store all of that into a compartment labelled ‘What Others Have Done Before Me’, which I’ll take with me as I roll down a clear and empty road with a clear and empty mind, ready to take and ready to be filled.