I love to travel in low season. Granted that not much is happening after the masses of tourists dwindle to a trickle in any part of the world, but that is precisely what I find so enchanting about going places. It is a way of finding plenty in the absence of rather than in the abundance of. And Homer, Alaska with its pristine environment, was such a place in mid-September. Almost barren of tourists and wanderers, the majority of local businesses closed for the season, and the first salvos of the inevitable Alaskan winter beginning to appear, the setting was nearly perfect for the advent of a much-needed, mind-clearing brew. Long, bundled-up walks by the rocky beach during the early morning hours, beautiful sunrises over the glaciers in Kachemak Bay State Park mountain range, and long, sumptuous seafood dinners washed down with California wines under the dark-blue skies of Cook Inlet, were the perfect antidote for this city dweller. Think of it as food for the soul, a reset for lives too occupied with too many “silly little nothings.” And the silence, whith only an occasional interruption by the high-pitched call of a passing seagull, or the rhythmic drumroll of the crashing waves. I’m not accustomed to hearing those sounds these days, and yet, their unpretentious melodies brought back memories of places far away, of lives already lived, and of times when dreams and the imagination were as unencumbered as the wind flowing down Kachemak Bay on a September morning. There, along those cold and desolate nordic rocks and the majestic ocean keeping guard over sleeping glaciers, I was reacquainted with someone I once knew, so very long ago. I guess sometimes it does take a distance of over 4,000 miles to arrange such a meeting with those we once knew.
Some things we just cannot have enough of in our lives, and for yours truly, one of those things is the Alpine culture of Europe. I’m not talking about mountain climbing here, although there’s plenty of that going on along the mountain chain. Rather, I’m referring to that overall feeling that immediately hits you the moment you come in contact with those mountains and the endless villages that dot its lower elevations. I’m talking clean air, transparent rivers, green vegetation, breathtaking scenery, and a much slower pace of life than anything we Americans are accustomed to. But wait, did I forget the food? Well add that too to the mix. I’m sure that those used to seeing such places in a regular basis may feel a bit different about them, but for a traveler whose life only provides such sustenance in small, occasional dosages, such sights serve as emotional antibiotics to the many routines that consume most of our existence.
And that is precisely why a traveler should not travel all the time. How else to avoid the disenchanted effect of the routine life? Travel, if done in excess, could have the same soporific effect as not traveling. It will suffer from its own excesses, just like eating a sumptuous meal every hour of the day for the simple reason that you happen to love food. Too much of it, and it looses some of the magic that resides in its absence, in the lack of, and the longing. That is why my extended absence from the beautiful European alpine region has such a dramatic effect on my travel life. Many years ago, and somewhere along those clear, mountain rivers lined with small villages and pine trees, I discovered a sense of serenity that only shows its face when confronted with such beauty. It never lasts long enough, or comes around often enough, but its scarcity is no doubt part of its wonder. The other part lies within us, for as Ralph Waldo Emerson reminded us so many years ago, “Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.”
I think our parents were up to something when they hauled the entire family into their vintage cars for the purpose of doing a little road tripping. And as rare as it sounds today, the habit of going out for a family ride in those old cars was one of the things some of us remember fondly from our youth. No agenda, no plans, and no particular destination in mind. Cruising around to check out what was happening in town had its own rewards. It was pure automobile zen. Right turns, left turns, slow down here and speed up over there, an unchoreographed dance where everyone’s performance became the stuff of family legends.
This sort of nostalgia is what led me recently to get in my car and hit the road, so to speak. All I knew was that I would drive down Virginia’s Route 50 for as long as I felt like it and that at some point I would perform a Forrest Gump-like turnaround and come back home. So along I went, music playing on the radio, windows down, and no destination. With my camera sitting next to me, I did tell myself that I would stop at whatever site caught my attention, even if it took all day to complete my journey. I knew this would be a problem because Route 50 is one of the most scenic country roads you’ll encounter anywhere in the US. But here was a unique opportunity to try out some of that “slow travel” concept that the Europeans have mastered so well over the years. Would it really be possible to do away with all notions of time while driving into the sunset of our minds? Well, the short answer seems to be no, but if it’s impossible to do away with that old torturer time, it is definitely possible to ignore it for a while.
Route 50 may just be the perfect place for this. And while I’ve written about this area before, the sheer beauty of this American landmark makes it the place you keep coming back to, over and over again. Hard to think of a better place in the area for a road trip, although admittedly, Route 211 past the town of Warrenton comes close. BBQ’s and horse farms are big in the area, as well as quaint, little towns where you can find everything from Amish patio furniture to Alpaca socks. But it’s the landscape that will make you forget all notions of time for a while. The green meadows just seem to go on forever until they reach the distant Blue Ridge Mountains, while happy horses graze on grass so green that it looks as if it has been painted recently. It is easy to loose yourself in this scenery and the delicate touch of a morning breeze. Who knows, perhaps it is possible to make time stand still after all, even if for that brief moment when nothing else mattered but what was in front our my eyes.