Travel Article: travel experiences

The Wandering Type

We’d been driving around Newport Beach in Orange County, California for what felt like hours. It seemed fitting, sitting side by side, road trip style, talking about travel in the very vehicle Mike travels the country in. It was Memorial Day, and the town was bursting at the seams with long weekend tourists. We were initially going to park the tan brown F150 Ford Lariat and go somewhere near the water so he could tell me about his extended trek across the United States, but parking ‘her’ was proving harder than anticipated. I’d been wanting to talk to Mike in more detail about his experiences exploring the United States because I’d only recently arrived from Australia and everything still felt new and raw. I wanted a person and a story I could relate to, a mirror I could hold to my own. If I could examine another traveller’s story perhaps I could better understand mine. Like all good travel adventures we came up with a plan to detour the madness, which included a quick side step to Citi Donut for items necessary for the American road trip experience.

Sitting on the tail gate of the pick up truck in the fifteen minute customer parking lot with donuts and bad coffee I get the background on this entity perched opposite. Mike Regan, born of Irish immigrant stock in Middlebury, Indiana in 1984, one of three children. Summers spent in ponds examining frog bellies while simultaneously ensuring one’s feet were visible at all times, despite no evidence of sharks in said pond. Houses with long dirt driveways, deep in an Amish neighbourhood surrounded by people who took their children to school in horse drawn buggies, who worked in an RV factory but never drove one, who went home and read by kerosene lamps. Teenage Mike who played sports and was brought up to have manners and believe in hard work, who graduated from high school and moved away to college in Muncie, and then took a Semester by Sea, living with other students on a ship for 65 days that berthed in Vancouver, Sitka, Kodiak, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy, Osaka, Brisbane, Cairns, Auckland, Rotorua, Suva, Honolulu and finally Seattle. Early twenties Mike studying film and script writing in Chicago, taking off to New York in the summer breaks and bluffing his way into film industry jobs. Phew. We’re both a little sleepless from the weekend’s activities, but power through the preliminaries. Packing up half of each brutally sweet donut and regretting the coffee, we climb back into the truck and press on.

With the exception of his room mate Keith, most people will say Mike’s a really nice guy, but that they don’t know him all that well. Mike has that kind of air to him, affable but a little distant. Sandy haired and tanned from surfing, he keeps his face turned to mine with a level gaze. I was greeted earlier with a firm handshake, then discovered he’s the kind that opens car doors for women and finds kind things to say. Quick to smile and disarming with his Mid Western mannerisms, he has a clever knack of turning the conversation around so that it’s not about him, it’s almost entirely about you. Some people never work out that they are being manoeuvred in this way and that he’ll walk away knowing almost everything about them, but they’ll know next to nothing about him. We agree that it’s a traveller’s trick, a way of making people feel at ease quickly. In most encounters he volunteers comparatively little information about himself, with a conscious aim “to burden people with only the little they need to know”. Perhaps that makes leaving easier. When the time comes, as it tends to, to say his farewells, when he goes through that process he describes as a necessary ‘tearing feeling’. When he physically separates himself from the life and self he’s made in the town he’d landed in. When he packs up the pick up and leaves for the next destination on a trip that started some time in 2006. Mike finds “an addictive sweetness to good byes.”

So far Mike has found himself in unfamiliar territory spanning Colorado, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, New Orleans, South Carolina, and now California. I hear about the endless miles of waving wheat fields in Kansas, the otherworldliness of the Utah mesas, the silence of the Nevada desert, the Tolkienesque experience of entering the Rocky Mountains and the way the world ends abruptly with the torn off edges of forests of the Northern Californian cliffs. I wonder about what it is like, seeing all these things, alone in a car. I ask him why he travels, and he gives an array of reasons. Initially he travelled to keep himself busy, so he wouldn’t feel as haunted by the big questions of why we exist and what it all means, now he keeps moving to see how other people keep themselves distracted, and what keeps them in that place. He looks for their sense of purpose, and in turn learns about his. Mike then tells me that each destination he arrives at “is an opportunity to engage in a peculiar kind of game, a kind of experiment.” It was at this juncture in the conversation when I realised this might be more than just a feature story on a traveller.

We parked the truck back where Mike lives and unlocked the bikes as he tells me that initially his role in this game was as an observer. In Mike’s mind, cities are like machines; living, breathing machines. It’s a logic befitting a carpenter by trade, writer by nature. Each city is a different machine. The component parts are similar, but the configurations are unique to the location. Moving to a new city meant entering into the machine, observing and understanding its mechanism and then inserting oneself into it. Finding work, establishing a life and making contact with locals are all part of the game and a lens through which to examine the machine, take it apart and understand it. Mike considers three to six months to be his ‘gestation period’, which is about how long it takes before it feels less like a game, and more like a routine, and it’s time to move on.

Somewhere around New Orleans, October 2006, Mike found that the game changed. He’d arrived there by way of New Mexico and a Danish jazz singing travel companion to do two things. Help out with the clean up effort after Hurricane Katrina and to listen to the stories of those that had left and returned, and those that had stayed behind. There seemed no better way to understand New Orleans than to see it being rebuilt by people who’d had a ‘wrench thrown into their machine’, and had to fight to even be there. Mike found himself feeling less like an observer of a community he was passing through, and more like a contributing factor to this machine. Planning on two months, he ended up staying in New Orleans for a year, assisting in the rebuilding effort. Mike’s ex-girlfriend considered this typical, and says he tends to gravitate to people who need help, that he needs to do it. That he seeks opportunities to do things for other people, and doesn’t like to focus too much on himself.

We ride the bikes down to the waterfront, and slip into the crowded bike lane running along Newport Beach. We’re surrounded by pure Southern California; gold sand, sun bleached American flags and vast expanses of tanned skin. Mike fills me in on how the Orange County machine is actually very different to the Los Angeles machine. Orange County is a machine based on the idea of relaxation, where people’s whole lives are directed at the aim to simply do next to nothing on the beach. Los Angeles is a machine where ‘making stuff up’ is the main occupation, and people are constantly working hard just to be noticed. “LA as far as learning how a machine works is terrible; it’s a very young city, it’s only really about 40 years old, based on the film industry. There isn’t a lot of history, the history is mostly the Hispanic culture. There isn’t a deep rooted sense of culture there, its not a great place to learn the heart beat of how the system works, the sense of history is not acute.” The idea of cities as machines and Mike’s game of entering the machine; identifying its components, inserting himself into its framework and then separating himself out of the structure whirrs noisily in my head as we lock the bikes to a fence and stop for lunch.

The conversation swings around to religion, and the place of religion within the machine. Mike explains how in some machines, religion fuels the entire contraption, in other machines, religion is just a bolt connecting some of the structure. In cities like the ones in Indiana, religion is a core element. Religion fuels the city, and without it, the city as it stands wouldn’t exist. It directly motivates and affects the people within that machine. In California, religion is a much smaller component of the whole machine, other elements like entertainment are more dominant. Mike goes on to contrast how “for the Baptists, Mennonites and Amish, dancing is forbidden, where as in other cultures you have to dance. One culture says you are closer to the essence of life when you dance, another says you are further from the essence if you dance.” Mike goes on to describe how differences in landscape, weather and attitude will affect the ratios of work to recreation within each machine.

I ask about carpentry. Mike tells me that it’s satisfying, and that in essence it’s about helping people. “You make or fix something they need, you help them out.” He tells me that it is interesting work, and that it ‘keeps his machine going’. He works on houses, building, renovation projects. Lately they’ve been in the Los Angeles area, so instead of driving all the way back to Orange County, he just sleeps in the truck parked near where ever he is working. Mike tells me the story of the Winchester house a few hours north of here in San Jose, California, of the widow Sarah Winchester’s grief and her belief she was being pursued by the ghosts of those that had died from Winchester guns. Sarah Winchester had carpenters working continual shifts all day and all night, constantly adding rooms to the ever expanding mansion. Some say it was because a clairvoyant told her that if she built rooms for them all she’d appease them, but the moment she stopped building, she would die. For 38 years the construction continued without pause, and the Winchester widow, hidden behind a veil and reputedly sleeping in a different room each night, presided over the sprawling mansion that grew to 160 rooms, with 2000 doors. Mike thinks there might be a Winchester house inside his head, with doorways to nowhere and stairs that end abruptly in mid air.

We take a walk while my brain tries to compartmentalise the chaos. So now he’s a machine within a machine, and a man with a never ending house inside his mind, who used to travel to get away from himself, and now travels to watch how others cope with staying. Things are clicking into place. Back near the beach we are overtaken by rollerskaters, rollerbladers, skateboarders and bikes of every persuasion imaginable. Mike tells me about the time he saw skateboarders with gondola poles and how Californians in particular seem to be excited by coming up with new ways to travel. Even though we’re both story telling travellers, talking about travel, while travelling, this isn’t the travel story I was expecting. I trace back over the conversation as we dodge traffic. I ponder what it is about travelling that is hard for me; all the rawness, the uncertainty and the loneliness. We pause at another cafe, and I wait until we sit down in a corner next to some rowdy French backpackers before I ask about relationships.

“With friendships, I’m working out the ratio of how much the person can deal with, because there will be an end point. I try and tread lightly. If they don’t have the stomach and the heart for ending things I’ll be less involved. Romantically; they’ve been another place to travel. If I feel like I’m too inside the Winchester house, then it’s partially like taking a vacation from the brain.” Mike confesses to no longer telling potential friends or lovers that he doesn’t plan on staying, because he finds when he does so, they are less willing to open up to him. We compare notes on the journeys and trajectories that can be travelled with, and inside of another person. Mike thinks that now he goes into each encounter with the realisation that “I have to be willing to not think about the end point. I can’t live with one foot in the door in a relationship, even though we both know it wont last forever. I have to turn that part of myself off for a while.” The conversation ebbs as we agree that it’s easier to be the one that leaves than the one that is left behind.

We get back on the bikes and head to the house. Lock them up next to the staircase and get back in the truck. Somehow we still have the energy to tie up loose ends. I ask a few more questions, confirm details about family and friends, going over how his room mate Keith affectionately refers to him as a ‘big fruit’ and a ‘total pansy’. I ask about script writing and film school. Mike explains a little about his process for writing, how he lets ideas circulate in his head for a month before he ever writes them down, with the logic that if they stick around for a month then they must be worth recording. He then writes the ideas down on note cards and lets the stories build, fleshing them out with maps. After he collects enough of the cards he’ll pull one out and write the story one vignette at a time. Another journey, a story for another time.

Out on the highway in the late afternoon sun I ask where he’s going, if there is an endpoint to all this travel. Mike reflects on this for a while, and decides he would like to find his home in a system or machine that has the things he loves doing. “I’m not saying I want to stop going inside the Winchester house and stop putting things to sleep, but if I could find a place or machine where I can combine these things I love and love doing… then I could stay longer. There are things I really love to do, that make me jovial and optimistic, and things that I am good at, but really bring me down. It would be nice to do the things that are fun for me, plus things that are heavy and bring me down but are necessary. Writing is hard for me. Writing can be painful, but I need to move through it. I need to find a balance.” I add this to my notes and wonder how I’m ever going to put these stories within other stories into some kind of logical progression. The conversation winds back to places he’s been and for the rest of this road trip, we’re talking travel, side by side.

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