It was a spectacular November morning, the high desert air clear and sharp, the sun ablaze in a cobalt sky. The future was mine for a song.
It was my first day on the road, the beginning of my grand adventure. It was my ultimate break with the past, my rejection of the familiar, and my repudiation of the predictable. There I was, on the cusp of metamorphosis, about to tear through the walls of my cocoon and take flight into a brave new world.
I was terrified.
It had seemed like a good idea, leaving everything and everyone behind to hitchhike across America. But that first morning out, standing on barren stretch of New Mexico highway 650 miles from where I’d started, all I could think of was getting back on the train to Southern California and slinking home to confess my reckless folly.
Getting a lift shouldn’t have been that difficult. I looked marginally respectable, standing there at the side of the road. My hair was short, my clothes clean, my backpack tidy. But none of that made any difference: one car after another hissed by, most of them containing solitary drivers. Was it so unthinkable to offer a ride to a fellow human being in his hour of need, to a migrant soul whose only desire was to travel the face of the earth by making himself dependent on the kindness of strangers?
Time crept by, one interminable minute after another, until the long hand of my watch had described a full circuit around the surface of its world while I had hadn’t moved an inch. Then, as if by divine inspiration, I had my first real brainwave.
I pulled out the notebook I had brought for journal writing – which would remain otherwise unused – and studiously filled the back cover with six large capital letters:
Within minutes, a car rolled up and the driver invited me in. “I don’t usually stop for hitchhikers,” he said. “But I’m going to Denver, and I saw your sign, so I pulled over.”
In hindsight, it made perfect sense. A destination implies legitimacy. I wasn’t just some aimless wanderer looking to put miles behind me on the road to nowhere, or a freeloader expecting to take advantage of someone else’s good nature; I was a journeyman, momentarily deprived of transport and seeking assistance to get where I needed to go.
Moreover, as I learned from my current benefactor, shared destination established an instant bond of commonality that made it both easier for him to justify picking up a stranger and more difficult for him to leave me stranded by the roadside.
Four hundred miles disappeared behind us. No welcome mat ever looked so inviting as the sign marking the Denver city limits.
From that moment on, destination signs become my stock in trade, my go-to strategy for catching rides. It would be months before I had to wait over an hour again.
(The only exception was in bad weather, when signage was impractical. Indeed, no matter how forlorn a hitchhiker may appear, standing in the rain or the snow, the bottom line is that people don’t want to get their cars wet.)
There was, however, the faintest pang of conscience. It occurred to me that, from a philosophical point of view, my signs were at least partially misleading. I wasn’t really traveling to Denver; I was traveling through Denver.
My destinations were not truly destinations; they were way stations, stopovers on a journey to my next stopping point, each leading on to the stopping point after that. And this raised the question, whether I chose to ask it or not: where was my ultimate destination?
Truth be told, I wasn’t really going to anywhere; I was going away from somewhere. Or, more accurately, something.
Not that I was running away. Rather, for the first time in my life I was venturing out from safe harbor to hazard the open sea. I really had grown up in a cocoon, coddled and cradled, if not overly spoiled. My life had been so sheltered, so thoroughly circumscribed that, upon finding myself in possession of a college diploma and no earthly idea what to do with it, I realized that my program had run out and that I had no clue what I was supposed to do next.
I found myself, quite literally, without destination or direction.
So where was I headed? Not toward a destination but in search of one. And that required me to first choose a direction, which in turn required me to first find the courage to start moving forward, to escape from the walls of security that had simultaneously protected and imprisoned me.
Which really meant that my destination was anywhere and nowhere. Shoot an arrow into the air: you may have no idea where it will land, but you can’t miss.
What you can do is waste a lot of time sailing in all directions. But then again, is that time really wasted if the only place you’re sure you don’t belong is where you are?
One Saturday last December, Jody Tarbutton got in his truck to drive to Walmart. Visibility was poor from rain and mist, and the 89-year-old resident of Boothwyn, Pennsylvania, missed his turnoff. Sometime later, he wandered into a Galley Restaurant and approached three policemen to ask for directions. It was Monday morning, and he was in Hadley, Alabama, 897 miles from home.
The officers quickly discovered the missing persons report filed by Mr. Tarbutton’s daughter two days earlier. After having him checked out at the local hospital, the officers arranged for safe transport back north, and Mr. Tarbutton was back home for Christmas.
So here’s the point. The moment he walked up to those three Alabama policemen, Jody Tarbutton was closer to home than he was when he missed the turnoff to Walmart. It doesn’t help that you’re only two miles from your destination if you’re headed in the wrong direction. And it doesn’t matter that home is a thousand miles away if you know where you’re going and how you’re going to get there.
But knowing where we’re going can be complicated.
In 2009, a German scientist named Jan Souman concluded, after exhaustive research devoted to the study of walking, that human beings possess a natural inclination to travel in circles.
Dr. Souman took his subjects out to empty parking lots and open fields, blindfolded them, then instructed them to walk in a straight line. Some of them drifted right, and some drifted left. Some managed to keep going straight for a dozen or two dozen meters. But in the end, all of them ended up circling back toward their points of origin.
Every single one of them.
“And they have no idea,” said Dr. Souman. “They were thinking that they were walking in a straight line all the time.”
There were no discernible patterns, either. It didn’t matter whether the subjects were left-handed or right-handed, whether they were right- or left-brain dominant, whether one leg was longer than the other.
It wasn’t even specific to walking. Blindfolded people swim in circles and drive cars in circles, no matter how hard they try to go straight.
Dr. Souman concluded – rather obviously – that the only way we can be certain of staying on course is if we fix our sight on some promontory in the distance. Once we have a point of reference, going straight is easy.
Which means that if we don’t have a destination, the next best thing we can do is to go in search of one.
Published in this month’s issue of The Wagon Magazine.