You can learn a lot about yourself on the road, the swirling colors and humming interchange of sounds that only exist at 70 miles an hour are a mighty teacher.
I spent my childhood winding across North America in the middle seat of a silver 1986 GMC Safari Van with a sticky sliding door and netted pockets that hung from the back of the two front seats. I was born in the Canadian prairies and grew up in the southern states, so we traveled back and forth between the two countries often. This regular mission, satisfying our strong family bonds in Canada and my parent’s mission to see as much of the continent as possible.
It was a time before electronic tablets, smartphones, and mid-cabin television screens, so there was little to stare at but the changing landscape outside the window and the furry blue interior of my family’s caravan. We spent countless 12 hour days on the road, and I would alternate between irritating my brother for the fun of it, or read my slowly growing pile of gas station comic books. That, or just distract myself for hours with the passing blur of color outside the window. With each passing town and city, slum and campground, with each passing body of water and stream, swamp and bog, forest and glen, I became a little more familiar with the landscape of North America and the corners of my mind. Not even 10 years old, I was already struggling to find my identity as a gentle, sensitive, and feminine creature in a world filled with harsh jagged edges and flawed masculinity.
A NEW COASTLINE
The first time I saw the western coastline, I could feel the warm Vancouver summer sunshine on my back. Through long green roads and narrow mountain passages we had emptied out into Pacific valleys and fields teeming with ripe berries and corn. The silver sheen and pasty hue of passing cars were all rust-free here, their saltless winter roadways protecting them from the corrosion I knew from Calgary. And each of those vehicles we passed reflected an overcast sky above them.
When we hit the city, the sky opened up and the sun struck a world of graffiti, diversity, and color. We walked through Chinatown and looking through the smudged windows. I could smell the marinated meats, the thick exotic spices, and see the headless chickens – their butchers swinging dull knives and bloody capes. It was the first time in my life I considered the unnecessary suffering of eating animals. In the gentle movement of decapitated poultry through a dirty window, I saw the façade and made the radical decision to start a life-long journey eating and studying plant-based nutrition.
Later, when I was cleaned up from the long day on the road, we stood on Kits beach waiting for Vancouver’s famous summer fireworks. I had a slurpee in one hand and a glow stick in the other. There, impatiently waiting for pyrotechnics, I got to thinking about how lucky the locals were to live in a place so green, so lush, so warm, and so culturally rich. The bleak landscape and cold winters of Alberta – the dry crispy heat of Texas paled in comparison to this place I now longed to call home. The people of Vancouver, all wrapped in this incredible three-way embrace between the ocean, the rocky mountains, and their gleaming city of glass reflecting all its natural beauty right back at them.
THE RHYTHM OF PASSING FIELDS OF GRAIN
The prairies and farm fields of middle America are a different sort of challenge to the traveler than the rugged precarious roadways of the rocky mountains or the sweltering desert of the southern states. Their smooth and lonely roadways with their gentle curves make it hard at times to keep your eyes off the clock … anticipating the end of the long open spaces between Saskatchewan and Kansas with the rhythm of the road.
It was there on these crudely straw-colored pathways across North America that I learned everything I know about about music. Growing up in the prairies, I realized early that If you relaxed your eyes just enough, you could watch the speeding lines of power cables following you and hanging above the road. Lifting and sinking between the poles, their sagging stature creating an undulating wave perfectly timed to repeat itself. And with that, the road had a rhythm and syncopation. In its long expanses, you I feel under the wheels, the regular beat from the cracks in the asphalt and the fermata of the sinking pot holes.
It wasn’t just my music teacher, my vocal coach, and my dance instructor, but to a lonely boy, those roads were a partner on the dance floor. I could dream of the intoxicating escape of my favorite songs, I could taste the freedom that came when I closed my eyes and moved my body. These roads taught me that if things ever got tough in my life – if the pain of loneliness ever felt too heavy – music could lull me out of it. Listening closely, hanging on to an enduring note as it faded into nothing.
CYCLICAL SADNESS AND A FOGGY ACCEPTANCE
One cool, rainy August, we drove along the eastern seaboard. There was an unseasonably crispy chill that held onto the van and a lingering fog that followed us, keeping the edge of the water and the sugar maple forests hidden.
I retreated into comic books, loving the outcasts and mutated geniuses. Outcasts and winners of a genetic lottery that granted them abilities. Weaving through the fog, I dissolved even further into their stories. From them, I sought to escape what I feel was a frightened life. While I thought I wandering into the fog, finding my super powers, I was building a protective bubble around me. I created a resistance to returning home again and facing an unknown world filled with the perceived dangers of familiarity.
Perhaps in the speeding propulsion of a moving vehicle we age more quickly. Or we simply get stuck in time. Maybe we shouldn’t grow up letting the world just rush past us… hardship and rugged beauty barreling past our tinted windows and air conditioning. All I know is that I have felt both old beyond my years and a child trapped, all from the backseat of a minivan. And as a grown man, successful, confident, and loved, I still find myself scared of my true identity. But in those long foggy days, those straw-colored rhythmic power lines, and those lush green coastal plains I started a journey to radical self-acceptance and healing that I still continue today… each passing curve gets me a little closer to somewhere greater.
Previously published on TrevorEllistad.com
Photo: Getty Images