In each of our last two trips across the country, we visited the Elk and Bison Refuge at the Land Between the Lakes in western Kentucky. During that first trip it served as a test run to see how my dearly carbonated friend Emily would handle bison. She amazed me with her peaceful demeanor and curiosity when they came within steps of us. It was as if an entirely new self was revealed in the interaction. A baptism of being with wild things, if you will, revealed Emily Binx Hawthorne’s deeper truer self.
Whenever we visited the bison and elk, we’d then head west, passing through the town of Mayfield on the way to Hot Springs National Park. When we awakened this morning, I saw the unspeakable damage a tornado wreaked to Mayfield, and I grew still and sadder than I would have in the past. That’s what travel does to us. Foreign places, otherwise simply names on a map, are made real. We are touched by them, even if only passing through on the way to someplace else.
In The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain wrote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
Psychological studies have put Twain’s words to the test and found out that, yes, travel does open people to wonders outside our small sphere and creates more empathy for people and places once unfamiliar to us.
On the first trip, Samwise and I took across the country, we stopped at our friend Maury’s country store in the boondocks of Kentucky on the way home. It is a place where racism and toxic masculinity is pervasive. And yet, one morning sitting on a rocking chair on the front porch and visiting with the locals, with who I had little in common, was a breath of fresh air. It was a memorable time where those very different from one another talked and listened. We shared our humanity and, as it turns out, remembered we had more in common than either party original thought.
That afternoon, Stull’s Country Store hosted a book signing, and I spoke to the locals in the backyard about a little dog named Will while barbecue was cooked and served within feet of us. We broke bread and broke barriers. Many of the people had preconceived views of what a Yankee in Payneville, Kentucky, would be like. But laughter, listening, and sharing experiences allowed many to see with more than their eyes. I particularly remember one sharp-edged fellow with a slow-as-molasses drawl who looked at me with something akin to disdain when we first met. But when we parted company three hours later, we embraced. His astounded wife wanted a photo of us together. I will always recall his look of shock and the following delirious laughter when, at the moment she said, "Say ‘Cheese!’” I turned and kissed. He arrived ready to fight the Civil War all over again, but we said goodbye with kindness and joy.
When it was time to leave, my heart was heavy. Yes, I was sad to say goodbye to Maury and her partner Kim, but there was also melancholy in knowing I would not see some of the folks I grew fond of in only a few hours. And that is part of the heartache of traveling with your heart exposed.
Jack Kerouac summed it up in On the Road: “What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people, and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? It’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”
A century before Kerouac, Gustave Flaubert wrote, “It’s always sad to leave a place which one knows one will never return. Such are the melancholies du voyage: perhaps they are one of the most rewarding things about traveling.”
The melancholies du voyage are those ties that pull on our heartstrings. Each time mine have been tugged, it came from primarily unexpected interactions, and I drove away from new friends while mourning our good-byes yet knowing I was more than what I had been.
We learn, love, ache, and ultimately we grow.
This morning, when the news broke that more than 50 people died in Kentucky tornado, I felt it more than I would have had I not recently visited that state.
In our upcoming vagabondage, the plan was to visit the bison and elk once again. But that was before severe gout (read about it here) arrived in my life and delayed our trip. It changed our Cape Cod itinerary and everything that was to follow leading up until the last week of January. Now I cannot say whether we’ll pass that way again. And that’s what makes travel so emotional. For it is life intensified. Once touched by people and places in a brief time, we drink as much as possible in, and we are changed because of it.
This afternoon, I am mourning for the people of Kentucky. They are in my prayers.
By this time next week, we’ll have left Jackson. I cannot give you a firm day because I’m playing it by ear while paying attention to my body. I look forward to sharing five months’ of travels with you: the intensity and peace, wonder and amazement, the joy, faces, and even the melancholies du voyage. After all, true travel is an opening of the senses and every hero’s journey is never finished until it is shared.
Onward, by all means, y’all.
Recipe: Best Ever Beefless Stew
Confession: I no longer eat this delightful stew because the mushrooms and peas trigger my gout. But I’m telling you, this is by far the most delicious plant-based version of beef stew that I’ve made. The original recipe comes from Cathy Fisher (I made some alterations). She shared it on the Forks Over Knives website. You can check out Cathy’s other recipes at www.straightupfood.com.