The Importance of Wandering

“I want to encourage in others the ambition to devise with the aid of maps their own cross-country marathons and not be merely followers of other people’s routes: there is no end to the possibilities of originality and initiative” (Wainwright iv).

We spent several of our early years together living in Eugene, a small city in Oregon known as both the city where old hippies go to die and, thanks in part to Fred Armisen, Carrie Brownstein and the Portlandia writers, as another city where where young folks go to retire. On my thirteen year old “Life Wish List” I indicated Oregon as a place that I would one day like to live. I knew nothing about Oregon outside of my experiences playing Oregon Trail on the Apple IIe computers at school, knowing it only as the place where folks died of dysentery after not being able to ford a river. Like all of my teachers, I pronounced it Or-e-gone and thought it would be a cool and unusual place to live. Remember, at thirteen I also wanted to learn Swahili. I was not serious about this endeavor.

At twenty two, I intended to be a spinster like Emily Dickinson and devote my life to writing because I truly couldn’t imagine loving anyone or anything that I might produce, more than I enjoyed the pleasure of composing.  An obsessive compulsive list maker, I was used to mapping out goals and checking them off like boxes on a grocery list. As I embarked on life as an academic, I imagined my life to be one of solitude and well aware of the tumultuousness of the academic job market, this seemed like the most reasonable option. Moreover, I felt I had dated enough to know that the goals I had outlined for myself as a workaholic, were not compatible with the life one might lead with a companion. I hadn’t anticipated that in academia I would be reacquainted with an old classmate, who would almost a decade later become my husband, nor could I have realized that for me, life in the university, would be sorely disappointing.

When my husband, then boyfriend, received a prestigious fellowship in Eugene, he moved several thousand miles away. We both firmly believed that work took priority over relationships. Never having been west of Elmira, NY, I jumped at the opportunity to accompany him on the cross-country drive to Oregon. This was the first stray off the path and down the rabbit hole of curiosity. We spent two to three weeks slowly driving Interstate 90 together, with a fixed destination in mind, but an amorphous purpose for the two of us. We didn’t know, nor did we actively discuss what life would be like for us once we arrived in Oregon and I turned around to fly home.

As the landscape unfolded past Chicago into the flat stretches of prairies, subtly transforming into the colorful and jagged depths of the Badlands, rolling into the smooth Black Hills it became visually clear  how wonderfully unpredictable and exciting it could be to stray. Aside from our first night in Chicago, we didn’t book any hotels in advance. Poor graduate students who had too much pride to apply for food stamps, we were not in the financial position to take this kind of trip and stay in a hotel every night.

Upon the recommendation of a friend, we invested in a pop-up tent and camped several nights along the way. Growing up in an heavily urbanized suburb, my idea of camping was a cheap motel with a black and white TV. I had only ever been in a tent, once, in a friend’s backyard for a sleepover and we didn’t even make it through the entire night because it got too cold. As we traveled west my own sense of innumeracy became clear, the inability to realize the correlation between numbers and their size. The United States is humongous and the people we met along the way led lives so very disparate from one another. Although I had spent so much type traipsing through Europe, I hadn’t realized how interesting and exciting it could be, right here at home.

When it came time me me to travel back to NY, we did not have a plan marked for our relationship and over the course of a year’s worth of telephone calls and letters and e-mails and visits I med the frightening decision to walk away from an academic life and my family and the friendships I had built up over the course of twenty or so years and move to Oregon without a scripted plan for the future and no firm commitments of any kind. Although I couldn’t have realized this at thirteen, but this is how you wind up having an adventure: by letting go of your best laid plans.


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About 30 Ways of Walking

Gina Liotta's writing has appeared in or is forthcoming in The New York Quarterly, Slate, The Paterson Literary Review, LIPS, and The Healing Muse, among others. She lives, writes and teaches in New York.
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8 Responses to The Importance of Wandering

  1. JM says:

    Gina, I know I speak for many of us still kicking around in Oregon when I say that I’m glad you did take that adventure! I had some of those same impulses when I was in my early adolescence, fueled a little by a streak of competitiveness — “I’m going to make it to Oregon in real life even if I can’t do it in this @#$% game!” And I’ll confess that going through high school in the peak years of the “Seattle sound” on the radio made me think of the Pacific Northwest in general as a mecca of sorts. I had no regrets about leaving Minnesota for Oregon at the time, and I still don’t — time/effort/money required to visit family can be frustrating — since I’ve met incredible people out here. And although my dad and I have always been very close, the drive out here was a fantastic experience for us both. Neither of us had been to the northwest before, and we’ll never forget driving up 101 along the Oregon coast on a beautiful sunny Saturday morning for the first time.

    I’m looking forward to hearing more about your upcoming adventure in England; here’s to many more great adventures for us all!

    • Thanks, Josh! I am a bit behind in all of my commenting, etc, but you folks at U of O and at OH really made our experiences in Oregon worthwhile. I think you touch on an important point of a “travel” or a “journey” vacation with a loved one. Relaxing on the beach with a mixed drink is great, but the experience of wandering with someone else builds an entirely different dimension to your relationship. I think this is why I am very intrigued by the Amazing Race, the idea that the journey is as much about the relationship as the places you travel.

  2. As a person who was forced to wander (too many parking tickets) and in a country where you are looked at oddly for wandering (from Midwest) I enjoy how you talk about the importance of wandering. It gets me by. Keeps me in good shape, and well, I get to notice things that most people drive passed. Going down forgotten alleys can be scary, but rewarding. Following kittens is also a city adventure, in a very Alice in wonderland way.

    • Yes, there is something so vital to our spirit about wandering, particularly within the US. There is so much to be seen and so few people actually get to se it. Thank you for reading and following along.

  3. macksemil says:

    Just popped in here from the post that was freshly pressed. I like this post too and totally think that dropping plans (or refusing to make them) in order to wander is the way to go. (I like to use the term adventure, it makes me sound less like a vagabond and more like Indiana Jones.) Sharing your love for Eugene, a really special place with tons of great stuff going on. Thanks for writing!

    • Thank you! Eugene is a truly unique and amazing place. You’re right about the word adventure. Most of the folks I met in Eugene were very adventurous (more so, than myself). Thanks for reading and perusing the site.

  4. Sheila Hurst says:

    My husband and I were lucky enough to able to do a similar sounding cross-country camping trip a while after we first met. It was really so wonderful to be able to experience the country that way. I love wandering without really knowing where you’re going. Then no matter where you end up, it’s a surprise. I’m glad to hear you’ll be able to wander around some more too.

    • Yes, we really are tremendously lucky to have the time and resources and good fortune to be able to take this kind of trip. Wandering can be a wonderful way to see the country. Thank you for reading and following along!

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