We had this dream, it was a sort of glimmer sparkling in our minds about traveling the world in a VW Syncro. We’d be renowned in some way, living a story we could tell our imaginary children about how their mom and dad traveled the planet in a temperamental 80’s van. Mom and dad climbed the highest mountain passes in South America, they drove along coast lines and on crumbling roads, through intrusive military checkpoints, and fixed their rig using roadside trash. They made friends that showed up years later in the family driveway; dusty, dirty smelling of oil and diesel, thankful beyond words for a hot shower and a slab of concrete on which to do some much needed wrenching. Pops would have all the necessary tools, ma would be Johnny-on-the-spot with perfectly sliced apples and cheese, her keen eye turned towards the rig, ensuring the boys were doing the job properly. And if they weren’t? She’d get under the truck, wrench in one hand and a mimosa in the other.
Our kids would think we were cool, I’m sure of it. I wanted to travel for them, the ones we never decided to have because somewhere in the stifling monotony of cultural expectations, the road promised something we thought was worth chasing, a trade-off we considered more worthwhile than holding a flesh and blood copy of ourselves. There are days I regret this decision, wondering if a child or two would give this life more meaning than I have been able to muster on my own. Other days I believe that notching a successful camping operation atop Bolivia’s altiplano would make whatever notions of regret I have disappear into the vastness of a seamless earth and sky wherein an overwhelming sense rushes in revealing that everything is unitive.
I wanted to travel for Jessica, to create a life filled with faces and varied locales that no matter our age, a memory of a place would still manage to hold even into senility. If she or I could keep just a few memories, I hope one would be of each other, the other of sharing stories and laughing around an open fire on an African coastline surrounded by locals whose gracious generosity gave us a place to park the rig. Or maybe the memory would be of that night under the Texas sky, listening to drunk cowboys play music for a small meandering host of desert tanned rebels. Yeah, that’s the dream. I could write that book.
More importantly than that, however, VW people would know us and maybe we’d have our picture and story in a small enthusiast publication. Years later, it’s rustled out from inside a dusty box in an attic in California, a kid thumbs through it landing on our feature and therein the yellowed pages she resolves to do what we did, what so many other inspiring, endeavoring, and adventuring individuals did beside us and before us: to really and truly overland this blue planet of wonders, imbibing with intention this world and its cultures’ many nuanced complexities (1).
— What the Fuck is Going on? —
But that was the dream. Now with our new Land Cruiser in hand, purpose built to take us on such a journey, I find myself wholly uninspired. The prospects of such an undertaking appearing almost annoyingly boring. Why would I want to go back to days on end of constipation, filthy pants smudged with mud and grime from walking around in the desert, matted hair and an itchy beard, smelling of road-tripping’s thickest perfume: Chanel Number Diesel? Living on the road is as frustrating as it is exhilarating and for the first time in almost a decade, I want neither the frustration nor the exhilaration of life on the road.
Is it age that has brought me here? I just turned 40. I remember when my pops turned 40. We all thought he was so old. Looking up at him much less than half his age and size, where he was seemed like a fucking lifetime away and an awfully close number to the grave. Now I’m here and though I can’t run as fast as I used to, physically I feel better than ever. Mentally I’m more healthy than ever. It should be all systems go. Fire up that mother fucking Toyota, point it at the sunset and get the fuck out of Dodge.
Except, I like Dodge. The perfectly manicured suburban street sitting quietly in a firmly middle class bundle of similarly designed cut cookies feels just fine to me for some odd reason. Well, maybe not that odd. The last year has felt like a decade of life has been squeezed between two January firsts.
To quell demons that have gnawed at my soul since childhood, I’ve traversed the infinite landscapes of my mind after more than 20 entheogenic experiences in 2020. Add to that a once-in-a-hundred-years global pandemic, an economic crash, a depressingly misapplied cultural upheaval rooted in poetic truths giving rise to a vicious and destructive collective effervescence, a presidential election between 2 arguably senile men, and so many more layers swirling beneath the surface of current and past events that it feels like something more than just a bad year has taken place. There’s a strange new vibration in our shared reality whose essence demands we turn away from our lives’ normal course and give attention to whatever new stage is coming. It feels ominously similar to the stories told in too many books written in the shadow of the hammer and sickle.
All that and at long last we have our new truck (that was delivered a year late). The wait and anticipation, the excitement and relief quickly turned into thorough disappointment. Standing face-to-face with it, I recognize now that I had imbued it with expectations so high that likely no single thing could ever meet them. This is all a lot to process when given a few years. This has happened in one!
Lest we forgot, I turned 40 this year, which feels important but maybe that’s just all in my head. Come to think of it, everything that is is all in my head. Nowadays, a thought like that keeps me entertained for hours which means that suddenly I find myself completely uninspired to resume my previous lifestyle. And so I’m guiltlessly comfortable settling into this spare-bedroom-life in the heart of America’s middle class Bible Belt, surrounded by Trump flags and “Jesus is the answer” billboards. Gross, but also, meh. At least I’m not riding an elevator in midtown Manhattan being castigated by a fellow rider for daring to use a plastic straw with my chocolate shake from Shake Shack. Man, was that ever surreal. Things in those locales have only gotten more insufferable. Here, however, I’ve yet to be evangelized to or asked to register to vote by someone wearing a red hat, so there’s that.
What the fuck is going on? And where does that leave me? Not the physical me but the spiritual me? The one that thrives in the presence of awe, the one that cries at the sight of a burning sunset, the one that has caught a glimpse of a silent mind where the incessant emotional reactivity that seems to drive each of us and our collective ego simply melts away?
— Reflecting, Remembering —
In the mirror, new wrinkles stare back at me. I’m not sure if they’re born of the days spent under the sun on a 4wd track in Baja or if they’re from the lessons I’ve learned out on the road. I call the long one to the right of my eye “Ripley.” That damn Syncro wore me out to the point where I needed to give up so badly I visited a military recruiter begging to be let back into the Service. I couldn’t pass the piss test nor could my decision garner Jessica’s approval.
The other wrinkle I begrudgingly associate with Maltec. This one really bothers me. It’s not as elegant a wrinkle as Ripley. It reeks of foolishness and cynicism. It’s yet another goddamn thing I see that says Maltec. Our new Land Cruiser came with no less than 12 different locations on the vehicle that bore the Maltec logo. It’s a Toyota Land Cruiser and you’d be hard pressed to find more than four places bearing the Toyota mark, but Maltec is really proud of their logo emblazoned as it is on the skid plates and the dashboard and the systems readout and door plates and the exhaust heat shield and…you get the picture. I’m more than a little tired of those two syllables occupying space in my consciousness. Now they are represented in a wrinkle on my face. Maybe as I grow older, that seam too will become elegant, maybe even more wisened than Ripley. I certainly hope so.
If it does, I pray it’s because I found a way to engage once more with the immediate and authentic manifold that appears through a windscreen. New places would once again bring that trembling excitement of infinite possibilities, they’d be worth the crusty underwear, the sweaty pits, the barbed and matted beard. I wouldn’t care about not having had my exercise session and hot morning shower with my special scented bar of man soap. No, what transpires on the road so completely erases the vestiges of domesticated life that once more primal instincts guide action and every moment is lived on the razors edge of the razors edge in anticipation of each rolling number on the odometer.
Change happens out here with more salience and immediacy than happens when you see or—more often than not—don’t see sunset from the same picket fenced yard everyday. You know you’ve made something, seen something, left something behind when the oil on your dip stick indicates it’s time to go loosen the oil-pan drain plug again. You know you’ve put in some miles when you’re out of windshield washer fluid, when you inspect the fraying sealant tape around a hose that’s still managing to hold back a coolant leak; the tires need rotating, tie-rod ends may need changing, the truck needs a new fuel filter and an alignment. Didn’t you just do most of this shit…when was that? Oh right, back in Grand Junction at the end of winter before you put half a continent and two seasons between you and the western slope of the Rockies. That’s how time is measured out here. Not by x-ing through days on the calendar hanging on the fridge but by remembering what the truck sounded like when you drove through an August snow in the Northwest Territories. It’s been about 3 years since that happened. That was a good drive. Where did we camp that night? Oh I remember…
Except I don’t remember or maybe I only remember for the sake of remembering, welding nostalgia to a memory I feel like I want to experience again only I’d rather not. Not now anyways. But when?
I don’t know.
— Feeling Legendary —
The struggle to get to this point, the seemingly unending rig changes, the bad luck, the arguments and resets, they’re all stuck back there on the road I traveled, occupying the space and energy I’d reserved for that round-the-world trip we dreamt about in mid-2015. This new Cruiser? It’s just too easy. Yeah, it’s got problems, but I’ve solved these problems before. I’ve played this game. It’s boring. It’s was never supposed to be the main game I would play out here, and yet it seems I know the layout of more mechanic shops than I know the location of the drivable tide-line on any coastline. It’s worth considering if the road that lead me to right now needed to run through those shops instead of the coastlines and mountain passes I longed for. Ironically, I find myself wishing I longed for them now.
Having said that, the rig carousel is over. We won’t be upgrading from this point. Everything beyond this level of truck shades too far into having essentially an RV on mud terrains, and if I’m struggling to accept the poshness of this Cruiser, what lies beyond will feel downright Robber Baron. But going backwards? Now there’s a thought. A Delica is sitting in the driveway, after all. Is backwards the right way? Would that be backwards? It feels like Vanlife (to use a phrase I’ve come to despise) is the old me. The way forward may be where I least want to go: fixing the fucking Maltec Land Cruiser and seeing what manifests thereafter.
Yet, in this truck, I don’t feel legendary. I’ve afforded myself the rolling, four-wheel-drive equivalent of a first class ticket when the real conversations are happening back in coach. The Syncro broke my heart, crushed my spirit, demanded I make her run, and I would do it over and over again because I was desperately passionate about that van. The Troopy was similarly situated but I can’t talk about that truck. Its wounds are yet fresh two years removed from the events that tore him from us. This new Land Cruiser though? She makes this all too easy (minus of course the initial troubles). Isn’t this what I always wanted? The rig of my dreams and all that? I’m facing the first-worldest of all first world problems. Boo. But, it’s my story, the only one I’ll ever get a chance to tell.
This new Cruiser may yet set alight our minds, reawakening the dream we had to travel the world overland. After all, the rig of my dreams isn’t as easy as my existence in Dodge. Still though, at the moment, I don’t think this tumbling and rumbling lifestyle moves me as it once did. I can blame the rig; I can suggest — as I have above — that maybe all of this is due in part or in whole to lacking the motivation derived from an inspired affection for the combination of vehicle and locales that make up overland travel. Or I can gaze deeper into what’s really happening but I don’t yet want to admit.
— Regress to Progress —
Night cut short,
this minds a mess.
The goddess inside
begins to undress.
Reborn to abort,
my left breast adorned
with sinking heart
once more, once more.
What’s the next step?
Regress to progress,
and find the right stitches
to pin up her dress.
Maybe this phase of my life is over. To attempt to recapture it all would be to engage in what the famed psychoanalyst Carl Jung called Retrogressive Restoration of the Persona. That is, after an individual makes a certain amount of progress on their path to individuating (Jung’s term for becoming a fully integrated person, fully accepting both their strengths and weaknesses), they often find themselves in a kind of terra incognita, a place in-between who they were and who they have become. Such a state can be disorienting, confusing, lacking comfortable familiarity. As a result, the person, although changed, finds herself unable to integrate their blossoming, more integrated identity into the stream of their life. So what do they do? They move backwards, seeking shelter within the patterns and rituals of their old lifestyle in an attempt to mash-up what’s familiar with this new person. It doesn’t work. One either moves forward, leaving behind old attachments or one engages in destroying who they have become in order to fit themselves back into their old self, like a reptile attempting to fit into shed skin. I know, you may be thinking why can’t you have both? You can but not as it once was.
You see, for me the subconscious impetus for travel was to mollify an aimless pursuit and assuage a roiling hurt that had taken up residence in my heart and mind. I believed that to live on my own terms outside the constructs of what Western culture deems normal would be a start in forging my own path. I also saw opportunity out here to apply my talents to “inspiring” others and fulfilling a sense of meaningful engagement with creativity that the advertising business had failed completely at providing an outlet for. Though while I was at all this, instead of pursuing my own voice, I continued to dedicate time to, well, working hard at advertising and selling my efforts on social media in exchange for status credits. I was caught between the world of what I felt I could do and the world I knew could pay for all the cool toys that could get me there while simultaneously increasing my status on social platforms. Finally, when neither the living free or working hard did the trick, I aimed to wander further for longer, hoping to replace whatever gap existed within me with the sites and sounds of our beautiful world. The silence experienced in wild spaces served to crack open a realization that I was going about this all wrong. Yet knowing you’re going about it wrong and knowing what to do to fix it are two mental states separated by a chasm the size of our universe. So, I ask myself everyday now: where from here? Travel was difficult and challenging because it was intrinsically so but also because that was the state of difficulty I needed in that time. What do I need now? Kids? A house? Selling the Cruiser? A Syncro? Travel again?
If I’m honest, regression is what our most recent trip into Utah felt like. There, in the stillness of Canyonlands, overlooking Monument Basin, alone for hours I began to realize that none of this is really about the truck or some idealized dream at all. Am I growing up? Am I really moving on from here? Here? Days filled with driving, filling a diesel tank, eating a sandwich on the side of the road, pissing into a bottle, traversing snowy mountain passes before descending into warmer valleys Here? This does feel familiar and I finally have the vehicle to do it all, except somehow all this moving forward feels like moving backward. I set off on the road to find something and I think I found it. So why keep turning the engine over? Why keep going? Right now, I don’t belong Here. My heart simply isn’t in it, the dream feels like less an ambition and more an obligation. Admitting such a thing is more heart-breaking than whatever expectations our Land Cruiser has failed to meet.
Strangely, without this heart break, without the failed expectations, without the long delays and broken promises from Maltec, I may yet be stuck in who I was, spiraling aimlessly looking for the next dopaminergic hit from an epic view (or social media). Is it possible then that that wrinkle isn’t so inelegant after all? Should we turn the engine over one more time, just to make sure? Should I talk to Jessica about having real children we can tell stories to? Are we too old for that?
About these I am certain: I’m not getting back into a Syncro, and I oughta finish that book.
(1) And I hope—even if my hope fades with every passing day—that in so engaging with overland travel, this individual resolves (or learns) to cast aside the West’s current and ascendant obsession with retrograde “moralism.” It is a form righteous dogmatism caught in an unending downward purity spiral that reduces the beautiful intricacies of our world to an unimaginative mash of fashionable manias over immutable characteristics. Alas, though there is some truth to Mark Twain’s suggestion that travel is a healing salve for narrow minded bigotry, I have found that among friends who fancy themselves evangelists for this salve, the current mania is especially acute among their lot; and what is this mania if not a repackaged form of narrow minded bigotry that is more subtle and more subtly destructive than the last?