When I was young(er!) I used to come up with excuses to plan elaborate bus rides around the city. They were the flimsiest of reasons. "I think I'll use the bathroom," I remember telling my parents once in Redmond. I then proceeded to get on the 251 to Seattle and the 307 to Lake City, a journey totaling over two hours. There's a restroom in the Fred Meyer there, after all. To my preteen mind it made sense. Evidently I didn't need to go too badly!
Photographers do this. In the tradition of Dorothea Lange, I once drove back 50 miles to take a picture of a snow-covered cornfield in Wyoming I had passed hours before.
But sometimes it wasn't about the camera so much as the unquenchable thirst of being, in the Heideggerian sense of Dasein. To be made alive by existing as observer and portion of the writhing human maelstrom... I know I learned a lot while in school, but I have a sneaking suspicion I gained more by wallowing about in the real world of the street, joyriding on the 7. Too much of one or the other would be a loss; I'm thankful for having done both.
Once my friend Brian called me. "Hey," he said. "I kinda feel like going to Eastern Washington. Do you?"
"Yeah, come on man, let's go," I replied. I didn't ask why until we'd been on the road nearly an hour. The ostensible reason for this expedition?
"I need to get some hot sauce," Brian intoned.
Oh, yeah. That's reason enough for me! There's a fruit stand on Thorp highway that has the best hot sauce in all the land, according to him. We talked the road up all the way, and found ourselves on dirt pathways in forested mountains we never knew existed. I made what I thought were some excellent photographs, and we had a grand old time. The clouds out there...
The impulse that leads me on such paths is not unlike the one which led me to email my friend in Colorado before heading out the door in Seattle to my car with nothing but a map, some CDs, camera and film. The email was a note which read, "Anna- I'm coming over. See you soon." A couple weeks and several hundred photographs later, we met at her residence in Fort Collins and had a terrific lunch.
I don't do things like this all the time- and yet, in a smaller way, I do. Road trips fuel the soul in ways that are obvious; but the engine behind that thirst, the great and endless search to pierce through the fabric of our known understanding, to confront "the unknown-" this hunger is the same as that behind spontaneous road trips or nonsensically circuitous expeditions around King County.
When I travel to distant lands, I find what I remember most clearly are not the notable objects and moments I so love to photograph. Those memories become clouded by the photos themselves, which take over in my mind. No, what sticks are the moments in-between, when the camera wasn't available. The day's last light peeking through the blinds, casting the shadows of a potted plant against a wall; a man and a woman squatting on a marble floor outside, rinsing pans over a washbasin. An empty parking lot flashing by through the train windows, maybe somebody walking around out there.
Bus driving might seem like a monotonous job, but it really isn't. The 358 and routes like it aren't just different every day; they change with each passing minute. I try to be present for all of that.
Traveling in new or changing territory, be it near or far, is unique from all other human experience by its definition: it is the act of being confronted with an unending stream of moments, places and things, for the first and probably the last time.
It's about as close as we can get to the sensation of early childhood, where you were bombarded with so much new stimuli, and attempting to process it all gave you that heady rush we adults call being thrilled to be alive. That is the reason to go to Thorp Fruit Stand. It has nothing to do with hot sauce. It's the reason to get on the next bus, no matter what it is, having no clue where it's going; a reason to take the long way home. You never know what you might see.
And yet, this craving runs deeper than merely a desire for the new. It is a thirst to find the confirmation that yes, we can and do know ourselves to exist. Regardless of the surroundings or challenges. We throw ourselves into new situations thinking we're searching for differences, but what we really want to see is the commonalities that still remain, because they prove our existence and indicate a recognizable structure in the morass of contemporary human life.
There can be great comfort in this. You see behind the layers now, layers which you thought defined you. You've taken the variables away, searching for the unknown, and there you are- all the more yourself.