“And you may find yourself
Behind the wheel of a large automobile…
… And you may ask yourself, well
How did I get here?”
~ Talking Heads, “Once in a Lifetime”
If I could talk to myself at a younger age, I’d say this: pay attention to the journey and don’t worry about the destination.
No wait—I’d say set a goal and stick to it and don’t get distracted by the shiny objects along the way. Hmmm…better yet—it’s the process, not the product that’s important. And, you need to make a good product or what’s the point of the process.
And at that point, my younger self would just roll his (my) eyes and laugh at the old guy (me) who clearly still does not know which is it: destination or journey; product or process; goal or shiny object.
Listen, have you ever taken a road trip? Big car, little car, bus, whatever? If so, you can probably relate. My first was in a big car—a baby blue Ford Galaxie 500 convertible. It was August 1965. I was 12. My parents, my brother and sister, our 70-pound German Shepherd, and I piled into that non-air-conditioned vehicle and headed east from Denver toward central Illinois. One thousand miles and two days lay ahead of us as we started. At first it was all about the process—making the journey fun. There was license plate bingo to play, snacks to eat, and a sister to torment. Before we hit the Kansas state line, it had turned into a trip all about the destination. Are we there yet? How much longer? I’m bored!
There were no shiny objects along the way. Well, maybe the beer cans in the front seat, but they were reserved by my parents, and maybe the Arch in St. Louis. Have to admit that it was a worthy shiny object along our path, but notwithstanding that singular highlight, it was a long, tedious, interminable trip.
A few years later, I had a different sort of road trip. January 1973. I was traveling with a friend in her car (little car—Datsun, I believe). This trip also originated in Denver. And, once again, there was a definitive destination. This time due west in central California. The most direct route was unavailable to us, however, so we improvised with the process and, using our Google maps navigator Rand McNally paper maps, we devised a course that headed south, then west, and then north-west.
There were lots of shiny objects along this route. Some were in the front seat. Coors, if I remember correctly. (I’d learned that travel hack from my parents obviously.) Some were in my pocket—orange tabs. But most were along the road. Fantastic landscapes (New Mexico), incredible land formations (Grand Canyon), electric cities (Las Vegas), and most shiny of all, a fantastic, incredible, and electric (hint) journey through a midnight Death Valley.
A moment to describe it because it was just that worthy. We left Las Vegas after dinner. It was chilly and it was dark. No moon to light our way. A couple of hours later, we wound our way through the mountain range on the eastern edge of the valley and dropped onto the floor of the Death Valley basin.
It was pitch black at ground level, so not much to report on the sights of the landscape, but let me tell you, there were more stars visible that night than I’d ever dreamed existed. Talk about shiny objects. Everywhere. Faint, bright, close, distant. It honestly seemed as if our heads were in the stars and we could practically reach and grab them. I felt like our ancient ancestors—looking into this starry void and trying to make sense of it, to find divine meaning in the sheer audacity of its brilliance. It was one of those moments for which awestruck was truly the proper description.
We had to leave eventually, of course. As we did, and began our ascent out of the valley, I briefly celebrated by sitting on the hood of the car and waving my driving partner’s cowboy hat, Slim Pickens style (look up Slim Pickens and Dr. Strangelove if this reference is obscure) and then retreated into the car.
It’s a bit ironic perhaps, but the peak of that trip took place in the lowest altitude in all of the United States. And that experience has defined that trip for me all of these years since.
And here’s the funny thing, which I’d try to explain to my younger self if I could: one trip was tedious and one was a lark, and yet I’d do both again because in the end, neither was solely all about the destination or all about the journey.
And it’s not that the journey is the destination or that the destination is the journey. Those concepts are just meanings we assign to fit our story in the moment and they can, and do, change all of the time. Sure, the Illinois trip was a tedium, but it was also a bonding moment for our family—something we could laugh about in the years hence. And the California trip was a series of fun and capricious moments, but also gave rise to a deep appreciation of this planet and our relation to the skies.
And so, the last advice I’d try to impart to that younger self is to just pay attention to what’s happening right now. There will be times when life will seem like it’s all about the goal or destination and times when it will seem all about the journey. Sometimes you’ll find a journey as you focus on a goal; and sometimes a shiny object along the journey will turn into an unexpected destination.
Later, you may completely redefine what you meant by each. But if you pay attention and be open to the full experience, you will have the option to choose how you want to define it. You won’t be stuck with a viewpoint that is settled before you even begin.
And you’ll be able to answer the question “How did I get here” in any way you damn please.