TRAVELING NOT FOR TRAVELING’S SAKE
By Katy Simpson Smith
he Friday before Thanksgiving my partner and I embarked on the first leg of our holiday journey: a seven-hour drive from east Mississippi to east Tennessee. (Technically, we began late the night before, driving from New Orleans to a Red Roof Inn in Meridian, where two semi-permanent residents of the motel and their dazed toddler were complaining to management about the visible profusion of used condoms in the room across from theirs.) Though we already had two hundred miles under our belts, that morning felt like the first real leg, the leg with daylight and sights, with the fresh feeling of a Prius on an open road: snacks uneaten, podcasts not yet listened to, the journey still limitless. Of course, as experienced readers know, travel hubris is a dangerous thing.
Everything we wanted was in that car. Fresh water, satsumas, sesame sticks, pistachios, dried cherries, a box of Girl Scout S’mores from the spring that had somehow not been devoured—and would remain unopened a week later when we returned. Jigsaw puzzles, crossword puzzles, board games, cards. Novels, poetry, children’s books. Pillows and blankets and presents for everyone along the way. We stopped for gas and a leg-stretch somewhere in Alabama, and when I opened the car door to get back in, the smell hit me like childhood memories of camping, crisp and bountiful.
Like a miniature Odyssey, our trip had its trials and wonders. The Red Roof provided us with free breakfast to go: two styrofoam containers of plain porridge and toast, along with four creamers, four jellies, and thirty-six sugar packets. (Each rest stop was an opportunity to ask each other, “Should we throw the oatmeal away now?”) In heavy Chattanooga traffic, an SUV pulled alongside with its back windows rolled down, and a little girl frantically waved a piece of paper toward us. We glanced over, prepared to enact a highway rescue of a kidnapped child, but what she was brandishing was a crayon drawing of a sea turtle. I beamed, gave her a thumbs-up. She turned to the girl in the seat next to her and they high-fived, gave me a thumbs-up back.
We ebbed and flowed with traffic, dodged construction barrels outside of Birmingham and got tied up in Knoxville’s rush hour jam. I kicked my shoes off and folded my legs under me, popping pecans. We listened to Beck and the Pointer Sisters, a podcast about the Iowa primaries and one about a happy divorce. We had conversations about politics and what marriage means, and all this felt good and interesting. We were moving; the world outside was moving; fog was descending on the Appalachian Mountains.
The Friday after Thanksgiving my partner and I drove from east Tennessee to New Orleans, largely without speaking; the car smelled stale. The intervening week had been a whirl of family and friends, cuddling with germ-infested children and enjoying the freedom of movement, pushing our bodies beyond the bounds of an automobile. A hike in the Blue Ridge, a manic visit to an escape room, playing football, falling in creeks. But I picked up a combo cold/norovirus that derailed Thanksgiving dinner, and so our pleasure began sapping away. Being in the car felt dangerous, nausea-inducing. It felt like a trap.
That long drive down five states provoked a new animosity in me. I hated cars; I wanted cars to be banned. I wrapped my body around a pillow and buried my face in it, willing some kind of sleep to come. We stopped outside Tuscaloosa so I could vomit in a Walmart parking lot. An audiobook accompanied us the whole way, Megan Abbott’s You Will Know Me, a murder mystery featuring teenage gymnasts and a car that plows down a handsome man. “The car is the killer!” I kept thinking. “It’s not one of those girls, it’s the car!” I nibbled on oyster crackers, drank ginger ale and Gatorade, and looked miserably at my driver; it was as much a test of his endurance as of mine. My illness stood in the way of all that merriment, that happy snacking, those productive conversations, and the car became a tomb.
But all misery produces contemplation, albeit the most morbid, self-pitying kind. The passing sights did nothing for me, so I turned inward. I focused on my own aches, on the feel of the vinyl dashboard on my socked foot. The seat-heater flipped on and off, a victim of my fevered whims. I wondered why the armrest between us was so small; why didn’t Toyota anticipate that I would want to lay my whole head down? I stared at my partner’s arm resting there. No, I couldn’t ask him to move it. I writhed back with the pillow to my right, where the seatbelt slapped my face, and, upon further adjustment, threatened to garrote me. I wanted to design a car with beds for seats, with unflappable shocks, with lavender oil misting from the vents. I wanted to be home.
The sun set in south Mississippi, and the moon rose: a hanging crescent, pure light. The car became just a vessel through the night. My eyelids calmed; my stomach settled. Megan Abbott was reaching her denouement. Travel can bring joy and misery both; it can be unreliable, claustrophobic, speedy, satisfying. And often we hear platitudes about the journey being all that matters. (I believe Emerson’s to blame.) But writing about tiny travels has taught me it’s not the motion itself that brings meaning, but the attention. Seeing the small details that motion too often elides. And what was beautiful at the end of that tortured drive wasn’t the car or the road—both fleeting—but my partner and the moon.
“Tiny Travels” is part of our weekly story series, The By and By.
Enjoy this story? Subscribe to the Oxford American.