A week ago I had a virtual coffee date with a friend from home.
“So, how’s it going?” She asks me, “What’s the plan?”
I surprise myself with my own honesty.
“It’s fine,” I say, “Actually, scrap that. A few days ago I looked up and thought: how the fuck did I end up here again? The dusty desert road, the stretching empty miles, the passing towns, afternoons in park squares watching toddlers chase their shadows. I just can’t seem to shake the fact that I don’t really know what I’m doing, that it’s all pretty arbitrary.”
I go on for a bit about how if I hear the phrase “isn’t travelling absolutely the best thing ever” I’m going to vomit and about how much I worry about being bored because it basically seems illegal to be bored AND epic at the same time.
“You’re allowed to change your mind,” she tells me.
“I know,” I say, “I know”. But we both know that I actually have no idea what that might look like.
“I get it”, she tells me, “travel stories are more edited than world news on CNN. Few people want to admit that travelling alone means moments of glory sprinkled over a solid base of boredom, insecurity and obsessive facebook status checking.”
“It’s just, I don’t know…What am I supposed to be doing?” I wonder as I refresh my facebook newsfeed for the fortieth time in as many minutes.
“Well, if you figure that one out, don’t keep it a secret,” she responds, “I think we’d all love to know what we’re supposed to be doing”.
I know as soon as it comes into view around the last bend that I had been depending way too much on this town and that it is going to let me down spectacularly. This morning, it had been the small prize I promised myself that made the day seem more doable.
“When I get to the town”, I told myself as I packed my gear in the middle of the desert under a low overcast sky, “there will be lunch and there will be sun and there will be people and things won’t seem quite so bleak”.
Two hundred cold kilometres later I search madly for a new small promise. I sit in the town square, empty but for two skateboarders. The desert dust blows cold around us and I gather together my goals and give them a good look-over. There’s no sun, the skateboarders look at me like I’m an alien and I’m not hungry. So much for that.
At the town gas station, the cashier tells me they have lost/forgotten/never had the password to the internet. She shrugs. I order a coffee and stand at the window and watch people put gas in their cars.
I use my kindle to send my parents the kind of message only possible from a child to a parent. “I’m lonely,” it says, “and I need to be told I am special, that I am capable and that someone out there never stops thinking about me”.
My first thought as I climbed out of the tent this morning and saw the moon still hanging full in the blue early morning sky over red desert mountains was as follows:
“That is one moon, but this right here is another”.
Last week at an observatory, our astronomer guide told us about the things people look for through telescopes the size of tennis courts. Some look only for objects on collision courses with earth. The farther we can see, he tells us, the earlier we know and the longer we have to do precisely nothing.
As far as the eye can see stretches nothing. Mountain after mountain of sandy undulation broken only by the twisting grey road and the wind with its blowing.
I time my departure to the exact moment when the sun rises over the eastern mountains and strikes the highway. In second gear I inch my way up one side and in fifth I race down the other side. I am alone.
Some people only count stars. With his green laser he points at a faint light to the left of a couple of brighter stars. This is what we call a closed cluster, he tells us. Through the telescope the faint glow explodes into an unthinkable spray of light. Too far away and too close together to count, I am happy to round up my own count to hundreds of billions.
As the light mellows and loses it’s low angle intensity I let an episode of This American Life have the kind of profound affect on me that can only be had after days devoid of conversation. In an episode about locating oneself in the world, a traveller talks about the desire to step off the map, to go beyond the edges of everything sketched. He explains it as a challenge thrown at the world: show me what makes it worth it, or let me out.
There is a small click in the universe, he says, in the moment when you realise that we have no right to demand these kinds of demonstrations. We are small, and we get exactly what we ask for.