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The wandering traveler

My days, they are the highway kind

They only come to leave

But the leavin' I don't mind

It's the comin' that I crave.

-- Townes Van Zandt, "Highway Kind"

I have always craved the road, and recently got to cover nearly 2,800 miles of great American highway. Although there was a clear destination -- my mother's house in far south Texas -- the route was uncertain, as I prefer it.

When I came to an intersection of highways, I'd choose one going generally in the right direction, not knowing what or where it passed. Some stretches of highway turned out to be desolate. Others yielded scenic surprises: pecan groves, the dark stillness of a forest of live oaks, a low bridge over a wide river, hawks hovering in the morning air.

This wandering is a habit developed over many years of traveling, and it usually has served me well. Once, traveling in Europe with no specific agenda, I took the advice of a tableful of jovial Dutch art professors in Amsterdam who gave me a list of small, little-known museums in France and Italy. They wooed me to their table with an off-key rendition of "Your Cheatin' Heart," bellowed across the restaurant because they couldn't bear to watch me eat alone, and they'd surmised I was from Nashville.

I boarded a train with their list in hand, and wandered through villages I never would have read about in a travel guide, finding countless treasures and detours along the way. Giotto's frescoes in a tiny chapel in Padua were the most memorable.

On that same trip, sightseeing in Switzerland, I met a woman on an overcrowded train. We were stuffed in a club car, standing up late into the night, talking about our homes. Hers was Vienna, and her tales of being a music student there and the decaying charms of the old city convinced me to go spontaneously.

The Hotel Post, a broken-up mansion turned into single rooms with a shared bathroom on each floor, became my inexpensive home away from home. There were no telephones or televisions, but the sheets were the most luxurious I'd ever slept in, and the lace curtains on the tall windows made everything look light and glorious.

On some trips, the wandering has led me to places I wouldn't have visited knowingly. In the republic of Georgia, headquartered in Tbilisi, I boarded a minibus one day, thinking I was headed in the general direction of Turkish baths. But I was unfamiliar with the streets and unskilled at speaking with Georgians, and no one on this bus spoke English.

The bus rattled onto a pot-holed state highway and sped toward a terribly impoverished industrial town about 20 miles away. I thought it would be easy to ride the bus a full circuit back to Tbilisi, but was dumped instead at the edge of town on an empty lot littered with broken furniture, rusted metal and snarling dogs.

I hiked on the side of the highway toward what seemed to be the center of town and looked for buses headed back toward Tbilisi. As the sun set and the night grew chilly, I began to panic. There were no streetlights. Finally, a bus came by, loaded with people dressed in colorful clothes, clearly headed for a night out in the big city. I flagged it down and rode back to Tbilisi, my face smashed against the window as the city's bright lights finally appeared.

Returning to Colorado Springs on my recent road trip, I took an unfamiliar route home, across the far western tip of Oklahoma, through Lamar and eastern Colorado. Patches of snow, sheltered from the sun by the curvature of the Earth, brightened the landscape.

As I turned east on Highway 94, the final home stretch, the sun dropped precipitously to the southwestern horizon. Mesmerized by hours of flatness and straight road, I was awakened by the sight of pink and orange sunlight tickling the fuzzy remains of last summer's grass pastures, the road beginning to rise in altitude and the fuzzy blue spectacle of Pikes Peak in the far distance.

The unfamiliar route gave rise to a spectacular homecoming, the coming that I craved.

-- kathryn@csindy.com

  • The wandering traveler

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