Descended at least culturally if not genetically from the ranks of our most exulted literary road warriors – writers like John Steinbeck, Jack Kerouac, and Ken Kesey – my wife Karen Walasek and I have exercised and exorcised our wanderlust cyclically throughout our forty year marriage. There have been many, many journeys punctuated by periods of growing and transplanting roots. In the first twenty years of our marriage we lived in sixty different homes. We moved so often that family and friends were annoyed at having to repeatedly revise their address books. Banana boxes housed our possessions during those tempestuous early years.
We drove east, north, south and west, crossing the continental United States at least fourteen times. Most of these journeys were made by car, though a few began with planes or trains, and there was one drive-away rental car that we wrecked in Zanesville, Ohio during a snowstorm. We hitched home from Tucson to New Jersey for Christmas one year and got stuck on a milk run Greyhound from Pecos, Texas which became the scenic backdrop for my novel, Jam. Talk about long, strange trips.
As a novelist, songwriter and artist, I think of traveling as the little known tenth muse. I call her Varvara, or Βαρβαρα if you are Greek. Varvara delights in our discovery of ourselves through the strangeness of others. She coaxes and teases, leading by a trail of the tiniest breadcrumbs, whispering in her raspy alto. Her song is like the tug of the stars on my heart.
Most writers have used prompts. I assign timed ones to my students as a way to bypass the censor and get down to the deep stuff. A month long road trip is a bit like immersing your whole body in a writing prompt. Motion occupies the conscious mind and lets your creative self – wander – absorbing the peoplescape. All you have to do is copy down your impressions.
We began referring to these trips as vision quests after our “vacation” to New Mexico in the early 1990s took a surreal detour from the normal planned family excursion. Karen was about to attend her first Goddard undergraduate residency as we set off from our home in eastern Pennsylvania during the hottest part of summer toward the Southwest, bisecting Tennessee on Interstate 40. Our favorite movie at that time was The Milagro Bean Field War, Robert Redford’s 1988 film version of John Nichol’s novel. The movie became a template for our trip as we wandered around New Mexico in search of Joe’s bean field. It was a sweaty trial, six of us pressed into an overheating Volvo wagon. We didn’t know that the town they used in the film was chosen more for aesthetics than fact (the novel was a fictionalization of a real water rights war) or that plastic bean plants were driven into the dry soil for the filming. Ruby Archuleta’s goad to Charley Bloom, the reluctant editor of Milagro’s alternative paper La Voz, surfaced as commentary on the deficiencies of our preparation: the air conditioning “wasn’t up to it.” The voice of our muse, Varvara, narrated the inner landscape as the sun purified us.
We didn’t plan it, but a member of Karen’s Goddard cohort lived at the mouth of the road to our primitive campsite. She prepared Anasazi beans, brown rice and corn bread, a gift that connected our modern family to the indigenous cliff dwellers of an ancient land. Looking outside her kitchen window at the neighboring straw bale adobe buildings across the fields, she explained that Joe’s actual bean field had grown right there, next to the Pilar Yacht Club, a whitewater rafting outfit. Back then we were surprised, called it serendipity (which is another favorite movie.) These days we know it was part of Varvara’s plan.
Road trips have always punctuated the geographically stable stretches of our marriage. It’s a cycle independent of season. We grind through our daily lives, making small headway in our various endeavors when the tumblers unexpectedly align, opening our sights to new possibilities. Once again, that lock has fallen open.
We bought a new/old SUV and a DSLR camera. We will journey across the north to Vermont through Canada, diagonally dissect the southeast to visit our farm in Tennessee and then power on to Prescott, Arizona via Interstate 40, retracing our earlier journey through Taos. We plan to return home to Oregon along the coast of sun parched California.
In this post Clinton/Bush/Obama culture, this road trip promises to braid new stories with the journeys and vision quests of the past four decades. Varvara is whispering themes of resistance, indigenous identity, and the impulse to decolonize as we head out to embrace the country’s changing narratives, both dominant and otherwise. It is going to be a trip. We even bought a mini refrigerator and a blender for the car with plans to make yogurt and sprouts on the road. Maybe kombucha, too! You can come along.
Most importantly, we are journeying with our senses and writing muscles tuned. As the fabric of the land and American psyche impresses itself upon us, we are hopeful she will feed us with wonder and possibilities for a more resilient future. This summer, Karen is beginning her fourth degree, a low residence PhD program in Sustainability Education at Prescott College. And I am embarking on my third, also in sustainability, at Goddard’s Vermont campus. Both happen in August. Updates can be found at http://thewritersroadtrip.com. I hope you will join us for the ride and do let us know if we are in your neighborhood. We’d love to connect. Who knows what plans Varvara has for all of us?
Ron Heacock, his wife, Karen Walasek, and her loyal service dog, Finn, split their time between the farm, HillHouse Writer’s Retreat, in the hills of southern Tennessee and their home in SE Portland, Oregon. Ron spent many years as a performing songwriter and has shared the stage with such notable artists as Alan Ginsberg and Pete Seeger. His work has been published in Connotation, PaperTape, The LIMN Literary & Arts Journal, Cease Cows, Far Enough East, Rawboned, and The Pitkin Review. He has an MFA in creative writing from Goddard College. His book of short stories, Hey, This is it, I’m Going to Die was published in November 2014 by Libros Igni. He is a fiction editor at The Elohi Gadugi Journal.