The Zen of a Road Trip

Published on: May 18, 2011

Mitch Traphagen Photo

Mitch Traphagen Photo


By Mitch Traphagen


The sun rises over the shimmering water into a deep blue sky with a suggestion that the day could be a scorcher. But it is only May on the upper plains where winter has barely gone around the bend, and the stifling heat of summer is still a month or more away. Maybe. This far north in the midsection of America, the weather is variable and unpredictable. The day might reach 90 degrees, with heat that lingers through the hours of darkness; but probably not today, the cool breeze is anything but oppressive. It’s a beautiful morning at the water’s edge on the prairie.


On this cloudless spring morning, the small lake holds the suggestive power of adventure in its shallow depths, a power that is latent from my childhood. I grew up nearby, dreaming of adventures on the water, thinking that someday I would sail my own boat to the other side of this lake. Back then, I didn’t really know boats beyond the little 16 foot daysailer upon which I learned how to harness the wind. My sailboat docked in Florida wouldn’t even fit on this lake where there are no facilities for launching an 18,000 pound cruising vessel. 


The little town around that lake was founded in the late 1800s. At the time, people believed that Worthington, Minnesota, could become the next Chicago or Minneapolis. By the 1960s, when I was growing up there, the optimism was still alive but the bar had been lowered. Instead of a major city, people thought it might at least become a very important city. It didn’t, except for those who live there. Today, it’s a neat and quiet little community where most just hope that other people won’t move away too quickly. It has been almost 30 years since I left this little town on the prairie; yet I keep coming back. Ruskin, Florida is my home. Worthington, Minnesota is my hometown. 


This week, Worthington is the destination and waypoint on a 4,000-mile road trip. As I grow older, I increasingly value the simple pleasure of planning a road trip. Opening an atlas and taking in the roads that crisscross America, I feel as though the world is my oyster. Or at least, that the continental United States is my oyster. The direct route from Florida to Minnesota, through Atlanta and Nashville into Illinois and Iowa, is a well-worn path so I look at the entirety of the map of America, seeking a new adventure. I don’t have to go straight north. I can go east or west in search of something new. I’ve visited 47 of the lower 48 states—should I drive 1,600 miles out of my way to mark the last state off my bucket list? But the realities of time and money play a role in how far I can go, as does my advancing age. I sometimes wonder if my days of driving thousands of miles are coming to an end — invariably I decide they aren’t over yet.


I took my first long road trip at age 17 when I borrowed my mom’s car and drove into the mountains of Colorado alone. Up to that point, I had never stood on a mountain and everything I saw along the way was viewed with fresh eyes. Later that summer, I returned to Colorado with friends for a backpacking trip into the backcountry of the Rockies; and a few years after that, I moved there, by myself, to see if I could make my own way in life. I graduated from college in Colorado and started a career before an unarticulated voice in my mind called me home to Minnesota a decade later.


Road trips became a fixture in my life. From my cubicle on the 45th floor of a Minneapolis skyscraper, I yearned to go to places where suits and ties were foreign and no one discussed the merits of the seven habits of highly successful people. Every few weeks I would take a Friday vacation day and leave the city during the morning rush hour, traveling outbound as hundreds of thousands of people were inbound to their jobs. I wanted to see their faces, to see what I looked like as I drove into work. Taking in the stressed-out, unhappy demeanor of the inbound commuters somehow only served to enhance the adventure that lay before me. By night, I would be in Miles City, Montana, feeling as far removed from the suits, ties, and skyscrapers of Minneapolis as I could possibly get. When I discovered Florida and ocean-going sailboats, my definition of “being far removed” was broadened—Florida and sailboats became the definition.


Today there isn’t a place further removed from my life than the Midwest. Even the language is different—there are no headsails, staysails, sheets or halyards here. There are no shrimp boats in Iowa or Minnesota, and islands and palm trees are just exotic dreams. But then I realize that Midwesterners aren’t dwelling on palm trees and islands. People here are doing exactly what people in Florida are doing — just struggling to get by.


The night before departure, the car is packed and I am wired. Calming down for dinner at home is impossible so my wife Michelle and I take off for Five Guys Burgers and Fries, just a short hop away on Big Bend Road. I love Five Guys. Despite the fact that my road trip will involve a lot of road food, Five Guys is still a treat. They aren’t located on freeway interchanges among the plethora of mundane fast food joints and somehow that makes them all the more special. Over our burgers, Michelle and I chat about the trip and I tell her that I’m not certain I’m up for it.


After the excitement of planning, departure day invariably arrives with a certain dread. Suddenly before me is the specter of the thousands of miles, with the difficult first step yet to be taken. So much can go wrong. Will the car break down? Will I have a fateful encounter with a bridge or a wayward tractor-trailer? What were whimsical dreams of adventure only days ago are now questions in harsh reality.

Those questions fade after a few hours and a hundred or so miles of driving and it is then the adventure begins. But invariably new questions come at nightfall after the first day or two on the road. By then, I am far from home, feeling that perhaps I am too far. I drive through towns and see homes lit up with people inside enjoying dinner and time with their families. I become acutely aware that where I am isn’t home, and I begin to wonder what made me want to leave in the first place. But that melancholy is fleeting and by the third day the adventure resumes, after finding a comfortable stride in traveling. Finally, I arrive at my destination; the point of my planning and yet merely a waypoint on the bigger journey. I am as far away from home as I will get on this trip, but the adventure will continue—I still have to drive back.


A road trip breaks me out of a rut. It forces me to confront things anew, to see life with fresh eyes. Somewhere past the initial fears and misgivings lies the Zen of a road trip. Removed from the comforts and routines of day-to-day living, an almost meditative state begins. The hours spent on the road give time for my mind to both ask and answer unspoken questions. Today I realize that life is a cruel irony. When we are young, we are fearless and immortal. As we get older, we become acutely aware of our limitations and understand the risks in life all too well. Yet young people have so much more to lose. You’d think the older a person gets, the more fearless they would become, but that is rarely the case. I consider with wonder where the road trip of my life will lead. The Zen is in the road, the sky and my little Porsche coming together to say that right here, right now, the world is mine.


Standing at the water’s edge of this small lake on the prairie, I am reminded of home—that place in Florida on the water’s edge of America. I am 1,600 miles from home and this road trip isn’t anywhere near complete. I’ve decided to travel east towards a place far removed from this small town in Minnesota. On Friday night, I have a date with an attractive woman on her own adventure in Washington, D.C. Once we’re together, we’ll see life and America with new eyes. And we will pretend the world is our oyster.