On Wednesday December 12 at 3:07pm PST, Catbird and I shared our ten thousandth road mile as we beat rush hour traffic into Portland on US-26 E. The escalation we experienced during our descent towards the Columbia River was wound with the celebratory feeling and guilt of accomplishment. Our millennial mile experience brought to surface the many contradictions at the heart of our journey:
individuality / cultural-cliche
autonomy / (co)dependence
achievement / privilege
sustainable city / fast food living
engagement / unfulfillment
I. individuality / cultural-cliche
Before departing on Oregon Trail 2012, I was well aware that I was participating in a multi-generational celebration of the American narrative of individuality and independence. (This American mythos has spanned centuries from the country’s beginning in an escape from religious persecution to the “frontier” that drew mass migration across mountains and deserts to the pursuit of spontaneity by the Beats and its admirers to the recent migratory patterns for millennials after the economic fallout).
However, as I experienced in Boulder and later upon my arrival to Portland, I felt less like a self-directed individual, and more like an obnoxious cliche. Rich suburban white person who loves traveling the world. Check. Over-educated young adult moving to Portland because he hasn’t chosen / doesn’t want a career path. Check. For every one of me, there were 10,000 more.
II. achievement / privilege
I also had no illusions from the get-go that I was free of financial, race, and gender privilege. Clearly purchasing a vehicle, smartphone, and equipment before a several month long road trip without any income and student loans is not an opportunity many people encounter in their 20s. As I traveled, these privileges either receded in my consciousness as I encountered fellow travelers or became glaringly salient as I found myself houseless in Portland yet not without a vehicle to sleep, travel, and commute in.
My Mom was amazed by my accomplishment of traveling thousands of miles across the US, backpacking in remote wilderness, and finding work in PDX. Friends found the trip inspirational. Yet, it became obvious that as tough as it could be, I had a safety net and I was in some way “playing” vagrant. On the one hand, this is a life I chose for myself, grounded in my values. On the other hand, it is a delusional attempt to shed the privileges I have access to for being a white, affluent, cis-male. Had I been trans or a cis-woman, I would not have enjoyed the psychological security from feeling safe living on the road, and had I been dark-skinned or driven a more conspicuous vehicle, I would have received as much leniency and disinterest from the police.
III. sustainable city / fast food living
Another irritating contradiction is moving to the pacific north west to be a part of more sustainable and socially conscious communities, but through surviving out of an automobile on a fast food diet. There is no essential mandate that comes with a car to eat out while on the road, but if one is a houseless employee who lives in a sprawling suburb and who doesn’t dumpster alone, fast food is very fitting.
Tucked away in the comforts in an unofficial sex-for-housing work exchange I had access to a masticating juicer, Vitamix, wicked food processor, a gas stove, and a spacious fridge. Living on the road I have a small Jetboil, can opener, spork, and unrefrigerated food storage behind my front seat. Fixing a meal on a backpacking trip in the privacy, warmth, and dryness of desert dusk is exciting, but cooking up Progresso lentil soup or Tasty Bite Chana Masala at night in the chilly rain in a public parking lot, not so much. The former is romantic and your only option; the latter can be humiliating (or at least conspicuous and invasive) and less appetizing than your alternative, picking up a hearty Chipotle burrito.
The cost to the environment from commuting to work and downtown via car may be high, but the cost to one’s bank account and patience is less. With the exception of rush hour, one can shave off an hour of transportation, and unless one is commuting from Hilsboro to the PDX airport in a Hummer, the $3.30/gallon is softer on the hemp wallet than the $5 roundtrip ticket. With no house in which to store one’s stuff, one carries extra weight wherever you go. With lack of food storage and a kitchen, one can’t reduce much waste from the necessity of packaged and ready-made foods. One tries to rationalize it by thinking one takes up less space and energy (from cooking and heating), and leaves housing options available to people who need them more, but by the end of that thought, one’s ego deflates and the guilt returns.
IV. engagement / unfulfillment
One means of diluting the guilt of privilege, unsustainable living, and hypocrisy is volunteer work. I joined a half dozen organizations ranging from hospitality for the homeless to conservation guide at a state park to board member of a vegetarian outreach organization. Filling every corner of one’s temporal existence left empty after being disposed of by one’s ex-lover gives one destinations to dart back and forth between. But as meaningful as those destinations may be, one can’t shake the empty feeling that returns to one when one arrives to one’s automotive companion. No matter how many admirable deeds and attractive people one does, the meaning is compartmentalized and lacks a larger framework to make one’s work and social life fulfilling. There is no cohesion of a narrative self, no synchronized relationship to a world that just fits.
V. autonomy / (co)dependence
Ultimately, my journey failed to inspire me, to attract love to a particular project, place, and/or person. The more absent love, the more salient one’s dependence on another becomes, possibly the more one would like to escape that dependence in “freedom” and “autonomy”– which are really just code words for a narcissism that closes its eyes to its yearning and fulfillment through others. How often is the quest for self-sufficiency a quest to escape a human condition, to wind up on a treadmill of freedom from, never arriving at a for.
Oregon Trail 2012 may have been a success in many ways, but not in such a way as is most necessary. Without love, “I” am abandoned. I’m tangled up in my own thoughts and string like a strip of used tape that, once pulled apart, sticks to nothing else, that is essentially used up. Like tape, humans have the propensity to stick to things, to nestle their way into the folds of others and be apart of something larger than themselves, to share something with an other–whether human or nonhuman. It’s wearisome to be blown around, unable to stick, bouncing off those objects one might otherwise love. After a while, it becomes part of what you are–forever wanderlust for a sticky situation.