Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Finding the In-Between

By Tildy Banker-Johnson
Roadtrips are an odd phenomenon. You sit in a small metal box for hours on end, while traveling far distances. Sometimes, you’re alone, and sometimes you have friends. Almost always there’s a set destination, and no plans to stop along the way. Occasionally, you might wander along the highway, with ideas about where you want to stop for the night, but no plan—just a sense of adventure driving you along. This latter example is of course the more romanticized and often fictionalized type of road trip, but I’ve found that they do indeed exist, even if they’re rare. More often then not, there’s the in-between kind of road trip, where you plan an end point, but you use the space in between to find interesting stops and strengthen the sense of who you are and how you relate to those around you.
I’ve been on my fair share of roadtrips; going to high school an hour away from home means that every day has that sort of quality, sitting in the car for more than a short ride, listening to music at full blast, coffee in the cupholders, and seemingly endless traffic. But aside from the commutes to school, I’ve been on a number “legitimate” roadtrips, ones that took hours and/or days, and were as enjoyable as the destination itself, each memorable in its own way and leaving me wanting more. There was the time I drove through a series of thunderstorms on the way back to Boston from New Canaan, CT, two of my friends belting Taylor Swift in the background while I navigated the interstate. Just this past summer, I drove to Nova Scotia from New Hampshire with two other friends for a hiking quest, exploring the area of Canada known as the Maritimes. We laughed as we smuggled wine back across border.
A roadtrip always has its low moments, but in hindsight, what I mostly end up remembering are the high points, the incredible fun I have when I spend hours on the road with people. If you have the will to endure the long hours in the car (in which someone invariably falls asleep) and the thirst for new people, places, and memories, then you can enjoy a roadtrip. Whether it’s stopping at a farm stand for freshly picked blueberries, or taking a mountain-view picture at a pull-off from the road you didn’t know was there, roadtrips give you the chance to explore who you are on your journey.
One of my longest roadtrips came last spring, when I spent five days going around the southern coast of Ireland (I was studying abroad in Dublin). This was an unusual trip for two reasons, the first being home base.  As a student, Dublin was my home for nearly six months, but that wasn’t nearly enough to discover it completely, so it felt odd to be leaving it to explore some other place. But after all, Dublin is a walking city and my thirst for roadtrips could not be denied. The second reason was that I had not known my travel companions as long time as I had my compatriots on previous road trips. In Dublin, the first people I really became close to were not actually Irish students. They were other international students; not American, but Finnish, Swedish, English, and German.  During Reading Week, the last week in February where no students at the university had classes, myself and four of these ladies decided to go on a roadtrip.
They were the English Caroline, the other redhead of the group, (although we were not particularly rare in Ireland) with whom I shared a hostel room with before orientation even began; Anna, the bouncy, energetic German; Heidi who was extremely tall and Finnish, and who shared my affinity for photography and good Guinness; and Kata, Finnish as well. I wasn’t initially very familiar with Kata, but I felt she was very sweet—one of those rare individuals who was always asking about my family, how my classes were going, how my day was, and was actually listening for the answers. When I was asked to join the group on a roadtrip during a reading week at the end of February, I had my hesitations. I hadn’t been spending as much time with them as I had in our first two weeks together, and there was definitely a culture divide between the American and the Europeans (they had loved Robbie Williams in the 90s; I had evennever heard of him). Nevertheless, I decided that this was what studying abroad was all about: taking risks, having adventures, and strengthening friendships.
The trip started out awkwardly: we met on a bridge over the Liffey River, between the North End of Dublin and the South End at promptly 9am. Well, not promptly. Caroline was always late. This time, having gone out the night before (every night, except Sundays and Mondays, was a party night in Dublin), Caroline had overslept. To make things even worse, the first person to begin driving was Kata, who was the oldest of us at twenty-four, and who had generously offered to rent the car in her name (when we finally all got to the airport, that is), but then neglected to mention that she had an aversion to driving on the left side of the rode. Instead of toward the highway, she frantically drove us in the opposite direction, to a convenience store so that we could switch drivers. Caroline took over, being the only one of us who knew how to drive on the wrong side of the road.
            Despite our rocky start, there were many highlights of the trip: our first day we went to Glendalough, a pretty park with an old cemetery. Kata and I walked together, admiring the mini-waterfalls down the rocks imbedded into the hills whilst talking about our long distance relationships, stopping for glamor shots among the greenery. We reminisced about the cats that were waiting for us at home, upon our return in May, picturing them curled up in by the fireplaces in our respective houses, not having to deal with the cold damp of Dublin. We moved on to Blarney Castle, and although I didn’t kiss it for luck (which would have involved hanging upside down from the top of the castle and possibly falling), saw the Blarney Stone. I managed to capture a picture of Anna going in for a kiss, but she confessed to me later that she didn’t actually touch her lips to the stone; I suppose the thought of so many tourists’ lips before her wasn’t exactly appealing.  
Driving through the Ring of Kerry, the South Western coast of Ireland, was incredible. It was amazing to watch the waves throw off sparkles while scaling a hillside in our small car—an experience I will never forget. On our drive through the Ring, we found an old stone fortress, its thatch roof long gone, with nothing but a tiny, illegible plaque for company. It was one of those places we would have never known to stop for, if we had not seen a sign for it on the road. We spent maybe half an hour in the fortress, climbing the stones, which had been stacked in steps (even though the sign said not to), up to the tops of the dilapidated walls. Who had built this fortress and why? It was unreal that this stone fort was built without any sort of mortar, and had survived for centuries, even if it was long abandoned—and that we had found it by mere chance.
Closer to the end of our trip we walked the half-mile along the Cliffs of Mohr, which are so high up, the waves that beat against them seem to be moving in slow motion. Heidi, braver than the rest of us, stepped off the path onto the dewy grass close to the edge (I thought my heart would stop) and managed to capture a photo of a puffin nesting in a niche on the cliff.
Despite the magic of these isolated moments, the activities that gave us the most opportunity for bonding were actually the dinners we cooked together almost every night. The hostels we stayed in equipped their kitchens with the basic amenities, and we whiled away hours in the discount grocery stores, wandering the aisles, trying to find ingredients that would appease every one. Eventually it would lead to us making simple dishes like pasta or rice and salad, while we drank cheap wine and prepared for the events of the evening (usually going to a pub or going out dancing), determinedly not thinking about the schoolwork we had left behind.
One of my favorite moments towards the end of the trip, was watching P.S. I Love You, a cheesy, romantic film that takes place mostly in Ireland. After a day of driving through the winding hills of the Ring, we finally reached the small, beautiful town of Dingle. There wasn’t much nightlife. After making dinner, we settled down and watched the movie in the hostel room to ourselves, going to bed after we had our dried our sappy tears, and swooned over the places we had recognized (and Gerard Butler’s dreamy brogue). It was a moment of friendship, where we weren’t planning or facing something new together, but rather a similarity.
For me, this is where the true value of this roadtrip (and all roadtrips, really) lies, and why I will never stop taking roadtrips: we discovered the unexpected places where our sympathies and feelings touched, despite our different backgrounds, amplified by our shared experiences on the road. Roadtrips can shape your connections to the people around you in a way like no other, and you may never get to know a person, nor experience the world in quite the same way, as when you are on a highway, finding the in-between.

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