Who doesn’t know what I’m talking about?
Who’s never left home, who’s never struck out?
I am sixteen, sitting in Bible class at my small private high school. The teacher thinks—at least, I hope she thinks—that I’m following along in the book. In reality, I’m a rebel. I’ve nestled a paperback behind the cover of our text. While she lectures, I’m traveling across America with John Steinbeck and his dog Charley. I’m dreaming about leaving.
I have a happy, easy, middle-class existence in a charming southern city. There’s nothing I need to escape. My problems are simply the standard teenage woes: not fitting in, feeling alone, flirting with the isms that begin with solips and existential.
Despite all this, when I’m assigned to write a paper envisioning the next ten years of my life, I—student council president, editor of the yearbook, National Merit Scholar—I dream about becoming a truck driver.
See, at twilight in Arkansas, weekend nights when I decide to skip the parties because I just can’t bear them anymore, I go driving. Out highway 10, before it was developed, you could drive at sunset and after just five minutes you’d be in the country, old wild oaks, hickory and pine trees hemming you in, their leaves turning lacy black against the dusky sky. You could roll down the windows in April, and the air would be thick with humidity, the temperature of your baby brother’s bathwater, fragrant with magnolias. You could drive until the stars came out and never see a soul. You could pull over and lie on the hood of the gray car nearly as old as you are and listen to the cicadas. You could wax poetic in your journal about the light from stars that had died long ago and never once have to answer any of those questions they’d be asking at the party, questions about the weather or college or prom or, worst of all, what God had been teaching you lately (these were Christian parties, after all).
If I were a truck driver, I think, or if I were John Steinbeck—if I could refurbish a Volkswagen van and crisscross the country, highway-69ing it on my own, then maybe I could be free.
Take to the highway,
Won’t you lend me your name?
I’m in college and I’ve begun to believe that this is just something in our blood, all us European-Americans. We were born of those who chose to leave. We’re made of sturdy immigrant and pioneer stock. We have a manifest destiny and are nothing without a new frontier to explore. And—
This isn’t an original idea. The historian Frederick Jackson Turner wrote in 1893 that “To the frontier the American intellect owes its striking characteristics.” Turner argued that because the frontier forced American institutions to continually adapt and re-create themselves as they expanded with it, they underwent a “continual beginning over again.” That process, explained Turner, created uniquely American people and institutions. His theory of American development was wildly popular with historians and politicians alike. Woodrow Wilson published several articles in popular journals in which he called the frontier “the central and determining fact of our national history.” John F. Kennedy regularly used frontier rhetoric to appeal to and challenge Americans, reinventing manifest destiny with an eye toward space.
Later historians complicated Turner’s ideas. George Pierson argued that it wasn’t the frontier but the related M-factor of movement, migration, and mobility that defined the American people. Texas historian Walter Prescott Webb argued that Turner’s thesis did not apply uniquely to Americans; many nations had experienced national frontiers. However, Webb wrote, the closing of the frontier in America uniquely shaped the American psyche. Since then, Americans have been searching for new frontiers to conquer:
The business man sees a new frontier in the customers he has not yet reached; the missionary sees a religious frontier among the souls he has not yet saved; the social worker sees a human frontier among the suffering people whose woes he has not yet alleviated; the educator of a sort sees the ignorance he is trying to dispel as a frontier to be taken; and the scientists permit us to believe that they are uncovering the real thing in a scientific frontier.
Cultural studies also speak to the power of the frontier myth: “Myths are stories,” Richard Slotkin says, “drawn from a society’s history that have acquired through persistent usage the power of symbolizing that society’s ideology and of dramatizing its moral conscience—with all the complexities and contradictions that consciousness may contain.” These stories are by nature vague, and their historical veracity is unimportant to their functional ability. Rather than appealing to reason, they invoke memory and nostalgia through metaphoric representations and our intuitive recognition.
Ultimately, the frontier myth reconciles conflicting desires to fulfill both individual and communal needs, to pull up roots and explore new horizons and at the same time to attend to the needs of the community. The hero of the frontier myth—think Daniel Boone, Natty Bumppo, Davy Crockett, and Buffalo Bill; think any cowboy in any Western movie you’ve ever seen—functions symbolically as an instrument to reconcile those desires. He can ride into town, save the day for a community, and then leave to continue taming the west on his own. Therefore, he fulfills a responsibility to community without actually committing to community.
And so historians call us a nation of restless wanderers with an unshakeable migratory compulsion, and in this myth of the rugged white male who can’t settle down, I recognize myself, a sixteen-year-old girl sitting in Bible class dreaming of highways. I see an excuse for my wanderlust, a reason to travel to every new place, to experience the whole world without feeling guilty about what—or whom—I’ve left behind.
One more song about movin’ along the highway.
I can’t say much of anything that’s new.
I’m a lot like Jack Kerouac, you know: I’m almost twenty-one and I’m backpacking across Europe, sometimes with friends, sometimes on my own, restlessly, aimlessly traveling like Kerouac did in the epic road trip he immortalized in On the Road. I wake up on gently rocking trains and open the windows, breathing the fresh green scent of a new country, clutching a paper cup of steaming strong coffee and a hard roll. I put in my earbuds and listen to music no one else can hear. I watch the sunset on a hostel balcony with strangers, swapping stories like salty fisherman. Where did you come from, where are you going? Drinking cold beer, we share our most fantastical tales—
“I had a roommate who got drunk and climbed the high steeples of the Megyeri bridge over the Danube.”
“The communal goulash at the hostel in Budapest was served with hashish.”
“We went skinny dipping off the Isle of Capri and did yoga in the Roman ruins.”
We never see each other again.
This is the kind of community I love, forged with the transient bonds of the backpacker: interesting conversation with no strings attached. Every morning I wake up and decide where to go next, whether to sit in a cafe all day drinking coffee or to hop the next train out of town. I have a sense that it doesn’t matter where I go, that it’s in the going that I’ll find meaning.
My favorite Bible verses are the ones where we’re called strangers and pilgrims; in my backpack I carry printed sermons that go verse by verse through Hebrews 11, a chapter about heroes of the faith who admitted “that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one” (Heb. 11:13–16 NIV).
Somehow in my study of Hebrews 11, I’ve anointed my personal wanderlust with the holy oil of the saints, as if my restlessness is symptomatic of my spirituality, of my heavenly mindedness. Somehow I’ve transformed my fear of commitment, my wild independence, my eternal sense of being an outsider, into a sign of my own personal righteousness. It’s OK if I don’t plant roots: I have a better country prepared for me.
Let’s get out of this country.
I’ll admit I am bored with me.
On the Road isn’t actually as countercultural as people think, though. It’s a story told by Sal Paradise (a stand-in for Kerouac himself) about his travels across America with Dean Moriarty. Dean is the archetypal Western hero, “a young Gene Autry—trim, slim-hipped, blue-eyed, with a real Oklahoma accent—a sideburned hero of the snowy West.” He’s always moving, and for awhile Sal follows him, enamored of his reckless independence, caught up in his dream of seeing “the whole country like an oyster for us to open.” The road is life, Sal concludes early on, and Sal and Dean are “broken-down heroes of the Western night.”
But Sal, Dean, and their friends have trouble finding or articulating meaning in their lives or in their road trips. Though they experience moments of euphoria and joy, when asked to explain what it means, they’re tongue-tied. Carlo Marx (a character based on Allen Ginsberg), speaking with Dean and Sal, proclaims:
“I have an announcement to make.”
“What is the meaning of this voyage to New York? What kind of sordid business are you on now? I mean, man, whither goest thou? Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?”
“Whither goest thou?” echoed Dean with his mouth open. We sat and didn’t know what to say; there was nothing to talk about any more. The only thing to do was to go.
Kerouac’s characters hold some deep belief that “just going” contains the answers to all their questions.
However, in his descriptions of Sal’s wanderlust, Kerouac questions the mythical belief that frontiers are endless. At the end of his first trip, frustrated in San Francisco, Sal fears that “everything is falling apart . . . Here I was at the end of America—no more land—and now there was nowhere to go but back. I determined at least to make the trip a circular one.”
The traditional frontier myth describes endless frontier, whereas Kerouac emphasizes the fact that ceaseless mobility and restlessness force us to move in circles. In the typical frontier myth, the hero is able to resolve the paradox between individual and community values—he can save the day for a community and then ride off into the sunset—whereas Dean, a more nihilistic hero, has no specific purpose inside or outside of community. On the Road uses the language of frontier mythology, but it is not the classic frontier myth; it does not portray the conflict between individual and communal ideals as mystically resolvable.
Instead, Kerouac emphasizes the conflict, deliberately using the language and themes of the frontier myth in order to challenge its dream of unlimited freedom. Dean is indeed the cowboy “crashing,” as poet Gary Snyder puts it; even the sympathetic narrator Sal judges his wild individualism to be ultimately unfulfilling.
Riding off into the sunset, he says, is riding in circles.
Stay with me,
Remain here with me,
Watch— and pray.
Near the end of my stint across Europe, I spend a week—and my twenty-first birthday—at Taize, an ecumenical monastic community in the French countryside.
Locking my backpack to the metal frame of my bunk bed, I settle in for a week of the Taize life. Every day begins with communal prayer in the candle-lit chapel. Swaths of burnt orange fabric hang from ceiling to floor, like tongues of fire descending or the torn veil of the temple, and I meditate, open-eyed, as I learn the chants we sing in Latin, French, Spanish, English, and Italian.
At breakfast each of us receives a baguette with butter, a cup of coffee, and a square of dark chocolate (which to this day is my ideal breakfast). Each newcomer is assigned a community responsibility, and mine is dishes: after the meal I join a group of other pilgrims, teenage Irish lads, in the kitchen to clean up. We have midday prayer, lunch, optional workshops and group Bible studies, time for silence and contemplation, supper, and then evening prayer.
I am sitting still for the first time in weeks: I allow the rhythm of the community life to quiet my restless soul.
Brother Roger started Taize in 1940, moving from neutral Switzerland into war-torn France with hopes of offering “a possible way of assisting some of those most discouraged, those deprived of a livelihood,” offering a place for silence and work, where wounded souls could take haven. Brothers—Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox—from around the world joined his order, committing to following Christ in simplicity, celibacy, and community. They left their homes to join Taize—I love their adventurous spirits, their pioneering impulses. But then they stayed. The power of their venture was only realized through a commitment to planting roots, to forming community and then offering hospitality.
In fact, this is true of the very first stirrings of the monastic movement too, which began with the desert fathers. Retreating from the world in order to find a pure spirituality, they eventually formed communities together, communities that committed to a place and, later, communities that sent missionaries out to new places.
The first and most famous of the desert fathers, Saint Anthony, was once asked, “What must one do in order to please God?” His answer had three parts:“Pay attention to what I tell you: whoever you may be, always have God before your eyes: whatever you do, do it according to the testimony of the holy Scriptures; in whatever place you live, do not easily leave it.”
I begin to wonder if I, like the brothers at Taize and the desert monks, need to learn the discipline of stability. Do I need roots, when this earth is not my home? That third instruction from Saint Anthony sinks like a seed into the dark recesses of my heart and lies dormant for a long time: In whatever place you live, do not easily leave it.
Gotta’ tend the earth if you wanna’ grow.
I am thirty-two, and I’m driving alone across the country, from Indiana to Philadelphia. I’m playing old Indigo Girls CDs and recalling past roads trips, to beaches and mountains and canyons, with friends, alone, with my husband. I’m looking at the pastoral beauty of Amish country, and I’m starting to cry. I miss this restless, roving life, these long, lonely days on sunbaked highways.
See, I’ve traded in my car for a minivan. Every morning I have to get boots and coats and mittens on the two little people my husband and I created. I have to strap them into car seats and I have to listen to children’s music. I am richly blessed, but I am not exactly free.
We bought a house this year, our first. It took me a solid decade of adulthood to get over my fear of committing to a place enough to own a house somewhere. But now we have a house, two acres, two kittens, and four chickens. We have apple trees, blueberry and blackberry bushes, and enough garden space to feed the whole town all summer long. These days, I can’t even leave my home for more than 48 hours without having to find someone to care for all the living things I’m responsible for.
I come from a place, a small city in the South, where people really do marry their high-school sweethearts. They buy houses down the street from their parents. Three generations attend the same elementary school. In adolescence I despised this, and while I see the sweetness in it now, I still have trouble fathoming it. Staying put just doesn’t come naturally to me.
I’m only beginning to learn what it means to be rooted and prone to wander. Lord, do I ever feel it. I still identify with Steinbeck’s words at the beginning of Travels with Charley:
Four hoarse blasts of a ship’s whistle still raise the hair on my neck and set my feet to tapping. The sound of a jet, an engine warming up, even the clopping of shod hooves on pavement brings on the ancient shudder, the dry mouth and vacant eye, the hot palms and the churn of stomach high up under the rib cage. In other words, I don’t improve; in further words, once a bum always a bum. I fear the disease is incurable.
Wanderlust is in my blood, no denying it. Still, there is a goodness to staying put that I am learning to recognize. For a while, at least, I’m trading truck-driver dreams for gardening ones.
I will not easily leave.
 Turner, The Frontier in American History (New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1920), 1.
 Pierson, “The M-Factor in American History,” in The Character of Americans, ed. Michael McGiffert (Homewood, IL: Dorsey Press, 1970).
 Webb, “The Frontier and the 400 Year Boom,” in Turner Thesis Concerning the Role of the Frontier in American History, ed. George Rogers Taylor (Boston, MA: D.C. Heath, 1956), 87–95.
 Slotkin, Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1800-1890 (New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 1994), 5.
 Kerouac, On the Road (New York, NY: Penguin, 1991), 5, 138, and 190.
 Ibid., 119.
 Ibid., 78.
 Quoted in Ann Charters, “Introduction,” in On the Road, by Jack Kerouac (New York, NY: Penguin,1991), xxix.
 David Graham, “Holy Europe: Brother Roger and the Taize Community in France,” Catholic Peace Fellowship newsletter, http://www.cpfphila.org/NL0510/NL0510%202.html.
 Saint Anthony quoted in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1975), 2.
 Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America (New York, NY: Penguin Press, 1962), 3–4.