I am a self-professed vagabond. If I could, I would make a life out of traveling: seeing and experiencing the new, the strange, the colossal and the minuscule, the... everything. I waited a long time to discover this about myself and even longer to act on it.
I've been to at least twenty cities in the 4 years I've lived in China, and loved every bit of it. The trains, the discovering, the hotels, the people, the food. I can't describe to you the feeling of anticipation and excitement that fills me upon holding a train ticket for someplace I've never been. As I crawl into my bunk on this sleeper coach, thought crosses my mind: why did I wait so long to do something I love to do?
And why didn't I do it in America?
America: the dream destination of millions in China. America, with her rolling plains, soaring mountains and stark canyons, her wilderness and waters. There is so much to see and do and experience in America. I lived there long enough: more than a quarter century. Except for one time – a 2-week sojourn, alone in the Chihuahuan desert, I never set out simply to see what there is to see and do what there is to do.
Wouldn't you ask yourself 'why', if you were me?
In respect to travel, China is vastly different than America. Here, a train ticket can take you just about anywhere in the country. Add a long distance bus fare to that and you just might get to the farther reaches. In America there are trains, too. Their range is limited – up and down the east or west coast, and limited passage throughout the middle states. And they are expensive! It is actually cheaper to fly than to take a train. Besides, by flying you can get pretty much anywhere.
What is flying for this vagabond? True, I get where I want/need to go quickly, but I miss the entire travel experience by making the journey several thousand feet in the air. I can positively attest that Death Valley is stupendous from the air, but equally strongly aver that it is even more magnificent when driving through it.
Besides flying, driving is the #1 mode of long distance transportation in America. That is not a bad thing, I assure you. The privacy and privilege of piloting your own, comfortable vehicle. You can stop and start when and where you want. You can drive fast, if you so desire – and can pay for the ticket, should you get nabbed. I enjoy long distance driving. Several times I've criss-crossed the country, usually to a visit someone or in order to attend a specific event. Because that is how my life was, in America.
I am the luckiest vagabond in the world! I have a dream job that affords me more than enough money for my needs, and my bare bones schedule – teaching only about 6 hours a week gives me plenty of time to pop off here and there. In America, time was in short supply for me. I worked sometimes more than 60 hours per week, but even with the standard 40-hour/week schedule, this seemingly aimless wandering I enjoy now was impossible. I had to see to my wardrobe being work ready and take care of my house. I had to grocery shop and spend time with my friends. I had to earn my college degree, and that only after raising my children.
Please don't misunderstand: I'm not blaming my kids for holding me back from my travels. They are in fact blameless through and through. They did not ask to be brought into this world. The very least I could do is wait until they were successfully launched into their lives before I began mine.
And then there is the financial aspect to consider. No matter how you slice it, travel in America is expensive. Even the poorest hotels generally go for no less than $45 per night, and good luck finding those prices along a highway. Gas, while cheaper than anywhere else in the world, still comprises perhaps the largest chunk of a traveler's budget. Eating on the road can be pricey, too. A truck stop or diner meal will run about $12-15 just for a sandwich and a side of fries. The quality of that food might be questionable, leading you to have to pull into one rest stop after another.
The Eisenhower Interstate system is a marvel! It is easy to navigate: even numbers run east-west and odd numbers north-south. Highway number designations increase the further a traveler heads west, with the exception of Highways #s1 and 95: #1 runs down the west coast and #95 down the east coast. Rest stops are themed to the region: adobe constructions in the desert, saltboxes in the northwest and cedar or pine constructions along the southern routes.
I preferred driving at night, when traffic was lighter and temps were cooler. In doing so I missed what probably should have been seen during the day. If I had been traveling freely, in the spirit I now travel in, I would have most likely made the most of the daylight and pulled in to every attraction (I could afford). Can't really berate myself, though. Most of my driving for travel was mission-bound: visiting friends and family, and attending weddings and graduations.
The one time I did drive by day was my 2 weeks in the desert. No cellphone towers, no conference calls, no one else but me. Hour after hour, mile by mile I enjoyed the vast nothingness and the empty road. I don't think I talked with more than 20 people during that entire time, most of them being campground managers – no motels for me. I had brought my food, so I didn't need to shop for anything.
That trip completely changed me. In the middle of that vast nowhere I was forced to realize how small and defenseless I really am. All the meetings, the demands for my time or expertise at work, social exigences, all appearances... none of that mattered to the deer that nosed her way through the brambles I camped by and stood 3 meters away, looking at me. Silent and still, I returned her gaze. We communed at sunrise, oblivious to the world around us. After she left I broke camp, loaded up the car and drove on, windows down for the wind to swirl around me.
It is that feeling of peace, of not being in control or even having to be in control that assails me every time I hit the rails to a place I've never been in China. I don't conduct the train. I'm not in charge of anyone or anything and I have no expectations of my destination. I only have myself to look out for, and I'm no more important than anything else I might encounter along my way.
Maybe it takes being in timeless, beautiful China where my time is free and all my defenses are down to allow myself to be a true vagabond.