As a child on road trips, every time my family stopped in for the night, no matter how podunk the town or tangential the stop, I would at some point in the night turn on the news in the hotel room.
It was a ritual of sorts: I would wash off the sweat and exhaustion from sitting folded in a car for 9 hours, pull on my pajamas, pad down the hall to the vending machine to buy a Kit Kat and a cold bottle of water, and climb onto the bed nearest to the window to watch a local news station, the first one I stumbled upon.
Looking back, I think it was a way of grounding myself in my new surroundings, a way of feeling like I was in a place, however temporarily, rather than (or perhaps in addition to) floating through limbo.
In his essay “An Entrance to the Woods,” Wendell Berry reminds us that “Our senses, after all, were developed to function at food speeds…The faster one goes, the more strain there is on the senses, the more they fail to take in…” I suppose my own habits when traveling are attempts to circumvent or work with this disparity between speed and mindfulness, to actively notice “what is living at the edge of the right-of-way.”
As I’ve grown older, I’ve only added to my personal rules of travel engagement, familiar structures to the way I move through unfamiliar environments.
At Holiday Inns, I eat the same kind of danish at the complimentary breakfast; I wake up to get one even though I’m not a morning person at home. The routine need not be the same as my usual life – it isn’t so much about limiting change when on the road as it is about navigating the unknown with a grasp on myself.
At airports, I find the nearest newsstand and buy a pre-packaged oatmeal raisin cookie. Sometimes I eat it on the plane; sometimes it stays in my bag for the next three days. But it ensures that when I step into an airport, I have at least a vague idea of how to be sure in my footsteps, knowing that step one of my journey is already taken care of.
The more I have opportunities to travel outside my comfort zone, the more I think about the entanglement of exploration with tradition and superstition. The patterns we follow when we must move away from our homes are telling; they dictate the way we interact with the world around us, the strategies we use to lean into new situations.
Last week, I polled some friends to see what their travel rituals looked like. Some seem to be cultural or generational; quite a few of our mothers insist on bringing their own pillow and blanket on trips, distrusting the comfort or cleanliness of hotels. Many of my friends and family refuse to check a bag under any circumstances, fearing where it might end up. Considering I once flew to Portland, Maine only to find that my luggage had made its way to Portland, Oregon, I can understand the worry.
Other rituals were tied to comfort or safety: One of my coworkers keeps a stuffed animal in her bag whenever she travels, even if she never actually takes it out or touches it throughout the trip.
Naomi Shihab Nye references this tendency towards traveling traditions in her poem “Wandering Around an Albuquerque Airport Terminal.” She muses,
“And I noticed my new best friend – by now we were holding hands –
Had a potted plant poking out of her bag, some medicinal thing,
With green furry leaves. Such an old country traveling tradition. Always
Carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.”
Nye goes on to consider the implications of our actions when we travel, too, the possibilities of how we view the world when it fills with unfamiliar people and places:
“And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and thought,
This is the world I want to live in. The shared world.”
The routines of my friends revealed different philosophies about travel. My friend Jess approaches it as a freeing escape from daily life, seizing the opportunity to “get the unhealthiest snacks at 7-11 that I would normally never eat and download an audiobook of a classic book I know I’d never get around to reading in print.”
In fact, planning entertainment was a common theme in their answers. My girlfriend’s family always brings a cribbage board on plane flights. Almost everyone had a personal method of making a playlist for road trips, ranging from “queuing up my YouTube most recently played” to carefully curating a specific mix CD or, in my friend Lea’s case, an accidental 12-hour Ke$ha playlist. I always bring my Nook, which I barely use in my regular life, just in case I run out of reading material on a train halfway to New York or in the middle of the sky. In part, this is due to the obvious: Traveling is full of a lot of dead space and down time. But I find it interesting that we seem to approach trips as vessels to fill with media and entertainment that we wouldn’t necessarily get a chance to dedicate time to otherwise.
One of my favorite parts of traveling is the point at which I am definitively nestled in a place away from home, away from my daily responsibilities, and can only interact with what I have around me. There’s something about being essentially stranded with one bag of clothes and whatever snacks I brought with me that narrows things. It demands that I make a pocket of time and space for myself, now that I’ve been pulled away from the context of my usual life.
Removing ourselves from our usual surroundings can set off fears and paranoias, leaving us superstitious and planning for any eventuality. They can leave us scrambling for a sense of routine, frequenting the same three restaurants on the interstate, or methodically crossing things off a packing list. They can also make room for parts of ourselves we might not have the time or space to explore in the constraints of our day to day lives. My mother told me recently that she makes a point to check out the local art scene in every city she visits. I frequently encounter new writing and art ideas while on the road, as though the mundane and typical becomes fresh and inspiring simply by virtue of being farther than 100 miles from my own city. I think mostly, once the itinerary is printed and your bag is packed, travel forces us out of our own limitations, the boundaries we create in our heads. There’s nothing left to do now but stare out the window and let your mind wander.
One of my favorite cliché quotes is Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “I become a transparent eye-ball.” Nothing allows me this freedom as much as leaving the little corner of the world where people know me, where I am distracted by others’ opinions and expectations, by cleaning my house and driving to work, by the pull and ease of the familiar.
On the road, the routines we adapt and the rituals we keep are often protective rather than stagnant: prayers for safety, check-in times with friends or family, carrying plants or stuffed animals or omens with us to ground us to our homes and ourselves.
But beyond that, the motion and novelty of travel shakes us loose of our familiar and our expected. We notice more, think more, write more, because the world doesn’t fade into monotony before our eyes. At least, we will if we embrace it, holding on to our protective rituals and letting go of routines that keep us tethered.
So tell me, what rituals do you adopt when you go on a road trip, a plane flight, a vacation? What do you listen to, read, eat? What do you bring with you? How do you feel safe, and how do you push yourself out of your comfort zone? 🗺️
Edited by Carmen.