I was chatting with someone at a party, and when I mentioned that Ann and I had recently enjoyed a ten-week trip in our 1971 VW campervan, he said, “Why?”. He had probably been one of those kids who said the darndest things to Art Linkletter.
I said, “For fun.” I would have gone on, but before I could get started, he was struck by an urgent need to speak with someone on the other side of the room. Before he lit out, I saw questions flitting across his face like heat lightning on a summer night.
What’s fun about spending ten weeks driving around in an antique that probably overheats and won’t go over sixty or so except downhill and is noisy and might break down at any minute?
How did you people get to be like that?
When did you first realize you were that way?
Have you considered therapy?
* * *
Here’s the backstory. A couple of years ago, we were enjoying a cocktail after a day of middle-class, home-owner ordinariness – inspecting the front-yard cedar elm for ball moss and wondering if the basement was going to take on water during the rain that was coming and that sort of thing – when the idea of owning a classic VW van dropped in unexpectedly. Well, why not? Before the evening was over, we were shopping for one online. In the months that followed, we considered price (substantial) and whether we wanted to risk owning a project and turning into old-VW nuts and how neither of us knows much about auto repair – all pretty good reasons not to proceed. But it came down to this: Ann would say, “Lets have some [voice rising in pitch and amplitude] FUN,” and I would respond, “Why not?”. We like fun as much as Bret Kavanaugh likes beer. After much repetition of this jolly antiphon, we became so keen on having an Age-of-Aquarius relic, we bought one – sight unseen – from a classic-car dealer in Chicago and had it shipped to us in Austin.
We spent the better part of the next year driving it around town, getting used to things like no power steering, having repairs and improvements made, and growing a vision of a long road trip that was all blue skies and folk songs, the return of youthfulness, and somehow something akin to fulfillment. It was ours for the asking. Just start the engine and go.
As it turned out, the trip did present some challenges, but we muddled through, and it gave us a small sense of accomplishment.
The challenges also gave me a large stock of anecdotes to call up when a party needs enlivening. I have a knack for turning any subject in the direction of our encounters with tow trucks and such as that. I just interrupt with “that’s like…” and springboard into an amusing story from our life on the trail.
Let the record show, however, that on balance, fun outweighed all other outcomes, no matter how welcome those others were.
Mile after mile, there was the fun of sightseeing: spacious skies, purple mountains that are indeed majestic, amber waves of grain. Those delights alone almost made up for having to spend a night in Lubbock while en route.
It was fun to be envied by people who wished they had a van like ours and to watch memories of the summer of love light up their faces when they circled around the van in gas stations and parking lots all over the west. It was fun to climb in and magically turn back the calendar and become guest members of the counterculture. It was fun to be saluted by peace signs.
But truth to tell, fun was just part of the story. Underlying it was restlessness. Everybody has at least a touch of that in them; Ann and I have a lot. We can hardly resist (and why should we?) checking to see what’s out there. It sounds like fun. In addition – not to put too fine a point on it – it might be more fulfilling than the life of now or it might possibly fill in some blanks or even dance around big, vexing questions about meaning. For better or for worse, that’s who we are. I have evidence to support this.
We once bought a ramshackle fourteen-bedroom monastery as a vacation home after seeing it but once, spent nineteen years renovating it, sold it at a loss, and moved on to another way of being. We’ve relocated our residence many times over. We’ve set up housekeeping on three continents (four, if you count England the way the Brexiteers do).
Returning to Austin a while back, we purchased a lovely, 2458-square-foot house that was built in 1929, lived in it for just over a year, sold it, and rented a condo that’s less than half that size. Currently, I’m reading about the “tiny-home” movement. Living in a 350-square-foot, off-the-grid box is probably not for us, but you never know.
I enrolled in law school a couple of weeks before my fiftieth birthday, graduated, and a few weeks after becoming a member of the New York Bar, “retired.” (That’s the Bar’s term; more to the point was Bartleby, the Scrivener’s, phrase, “I prefer not to.”)
For some years, Ann and I spent countless hours as middle-of-the pack runners, training and competing in long-distance races and marathons, straining to get to the finish line faster than the last time, unaware that it was all a stand-in for something else.
None of those explorations has slayed the restlessness dragon. None has given us quiet hearts – bits and pieces and occasional relief, but not the whole package.
Nor has owning the van and taking that trip. It was interesting, it was educational, and it was, for the most part, fun, all outcomes of inestimable value. But the whole truth is the van adventure was an episode in a search, one that began a long time ago – perhaps at birth.
Until recently, we’ve not known what we were looking for. It’s often that way in quest stories. The journey is well along or even finished, challenges have been met, hardships endured, glimmers of progress noted, before the hero realizes what the point of it is.
So it is with us. The quest continues, but our particular Holy Grail has become knowable. That’s a story for another time.