In mid October, my husband Bobby and I went on a month long road trip. Since our return, I’ve tried to distill our experience to share its essence in a blog, but there are many layers to choose from. I could share where we went: Land Between the Lakes in Kentucky, Ozark National Forest in Arkansas, Black Kettle National Grasslands in Oklahoma, Palo Duro and Caps Rock Canyons in Texas, Graceland in Tennessee. Or, I could tell you what we saw: lakes, hot springs, caverns, an outhouse race, a haunted hotel, a cowboy museum, canyons, bison, coyotes and Elvis. Or I could talk about the people we met: a couple married 60 years whose first date was at a Roy Rogers movie, women celebrating Halloween at “Down the Hatch” bar, a man with his rock collection in the laundromat (his favorite rock was shaped like a finger), a friend of Bobby’s he hadn’t seen in 30 years and plenty of active, vibrant retirees who were hiking and mountain biking.
These places, experiences and people filled our days and were what we were doing, but I decided to write about my state of being on this trip and the word that best describes this, is free.
To be honest, it took a few days to feel free. I’d created a spread sheet of our itinerary with where we were staying, how long, and what activities we’d do in each area. I began the trip with specific expectations about how it would proceed, but in the first few hours my plan was challenged with traffic and predictions of severe thunderstorms and high winds at our first destination. Circumstances outside my control interfered with the perfect implementation of my plan, and this created stress.
I’m embarrassed when I read this last sentence. Feeling stress while on a road trip for a month with my wonderful husband? Obviously, there was nothing significant to be stressed about, but even in these positive circumstances, I created anxiety with my need to control.
On the third night of our trip (still at Land Between the Lakes and a day off my schedule) my husband, who is thankfully less rigid than I am, said, “We don’t have to go as far west as we’d planned. We can do whatever we want.” Intellectually I knew we could do whatever we wanted, but had difficulty embracing this because I had our “plan”. Once Bobby said this though, something clicked, and I mentally crumpled up my spread sheet and threw it away. I released the expectation that our trip would proceed according to my plan, and that was the exact moment I felt free on our trip. I didn’t have to move through the grids of the spread sheet, and we’d make decisions based on how we felt, the weather, information collected from locals, and the research we’d done prior to our trip : a good reminder that it’s important to do research and have a general plan, but to be flexible as to how that plan will be executed using real time data.
I just described how my thoughts, “we’re off our schedule”, could create stress, even on a vacation. I anticipated this would happen and had purchased a temporary tattoo of the word “free” as a reminder to manage my thoughts. If my head was cluttered with self criticism, anxiety about what would happen next, or the need to control my husband’s behavior, I could be in the most peaceful, awe inspiring, natural setting, and not free to experience it because of my thoughts. I’ve mentioned in previous blogs about my efforts to quiet the negative thoughts in my head, and our road trip was a good opportunity to practice this
Being away from my ingrained, daily routine made it easier to step away from my ingrained ways of thinking, and I was more adept at noticing my negative thoughts. Of course it’s easy to notice my thoughts, take a breath, and return to the present moment when my present moment is beside a 700,000 year old stalactite, looking into the eyes of a Aoudad Sheep who found me meditating at the canyon rim, or driving 75mph on a deserted west Texas highway; a reminder it’s beneficial to remove myself from the familiar and examine my life from a broader perspective, and from here identify unhealthy patterns in my thoughts and behaviors.
Minimal responsibilities also contributed to my sense of freedom. We took care of our immediate needs like food, shelter (setting up camp or finding a hotel) and getting safely to our next destination, but for the most part I had the freedom to chose where I’d go and what I’d do each day. It was a gift to wake up in the morning without an alarm and without a detailed itinerary for the day (thanks to crumpling up that spread sheet). Because my primary responsibility was to myself, it was easier to identify my desires and interests without the clutter of what other’s expected from me; a reminder to be true to myself and not allow the expectations of others to direct my life.
Freedom and responsibility have both a direct and inverse relationship. A reduction in my responsibilities increased my freedom, but increased responsibility before our trip, allowed me to have a month of relative freedom. Leading up to our trip, we made responsible financial choices that allowed us to be away for 4 weeks. In my counseling practice, I took responsibility for my clients by setting up a plan to meet their mental health needs while I was away. These issues had to be addressed beforehand to avoid challenges during our trip; a reminder that being responsible, disciplined and organized, can create the gift of freedom.
A sense of freedom also came from minimal personal belongings. Everything we needed was in our jeep; shelter, food, clothes, books (a necessity for me) and a few favorite toys. All we had to do was hop in the jeep and go. We ate out of the same bowl for every meal, wore some variation of the three outfits we each had, and stared into the fire for evening entertainment, and we were as happy as we’d ever been; a reminder that, after our basic needs are met, material things do not increase our sense of well being.
On our road trip I accumulated many new experiences, and stickers for my travel mug, but my most powerful lessons came not from accumulating, but from letting go; letting go of familiar surroundings, expectations, negative thoughts, responsibilities, and material possessions. Letting go created space for spontaneity, playfulness and freedom, and though daily life is more complex than a month long road trip, the reminders I received while away will influence my choices in the new year. And when I notice myself rigid in my routines, shouldering responsibilities that are not mine, and receiving too many boxes from Amazon, I will consult the atlas to plan our next adventure, so I can be reminded again.