Are we truly getting joy from ticking off the tourist traps and grabbing a selfie for the ‘gram? As she reflects on her most meaningful memories from a road trip through the US South, Carrie Hutchinson makes a case for the unexpected magical moments that come when you step off social media, quit your itinerary, and slow down.
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Niagara Falls. The Pyramids of Giza. The Eiffel Tower. They might all be on the list of places to see before you die. But does joy come from ticking off monuments... or from the moments in between the spectacle? The people you meet when you slow down. The things you find when you’re not in a rush.
It could be an aversion to crowds, but for me bucket list destinations have never appealed. The jostling, the selfie for the ’gram, the ‘been there, done that’ feeling you get from those around you… It doesn’t resonate.
Personally, travel has always been about the intimate moments, the unexpected conversations, the byroads that reveal a special vista.
It’s not that you can’t have those when you’re elbow to elbow in the Louvre trying to sneak a glance at the Mona Lisa, but it’s more likely you’ll come away with frazzled nerves than a memorable story.
Slow travel is big business. It’s touted as a way of countering climate change. If nothing else, the events of the past 18 months have taught us there are more important things than showing off on social media.
These are its rules: put yourself out there, stop for a moment, do things you wouldn’t normally, take a calculated risk.
It took me years to appreciate what removing the itinerary from travel could reveal.
Being invited in for tea at the home of an Iranian woman who caught me staring at her pomegranate tree. Sitting for long silent minutes in a Japanese forest and noticing the details: the way the sun backlights moss on a stump, the shimmering web of an orb spider moving in the breeze, a single azalea bloom that hasn’t realised it’s November. Learning the two-step after chatting to a stranger in a Fort Worth bar.
It’s much easier to be open to these sorts of experiences when you’re on your own. Solo travel – my preferred mode – can be isolating unless you do the hard work and put yourself out there.
On the other hand, travelling with friends or family – unless your group is preternaturally social – has the potential to turn crews into cliques.
We were in Austin, in the midst of a three-week road trip through the US south. Originally one buddy and I had brainwaved Coachella, then others suggested they might come along and, hey, wouldn’t New Orleans’ biggest music festival be more our scene? We locked in dates, booked flights and looked at what else was happening at that time of year. Soon we numbered a dozen. The anticipation was immense, the arrangements gargantuan. No one missed the plane.
Our days in NOLA were mapped out in times and stages for Jazz Fest. When the action finished at the end of the day, we’d chat to people selling beers from coolers in the street or follow others to a bar with a crawfish boil. We didn’t go to Bourbon Street, easily the most famous part of the Big Easy, yet filled with college kids, strip clubs and cheap bars. Instead, our memories there are of being shown the locals’ side of the city.
In Muscle Shoals, Alabama, a few of our cohort fell asleep on the sofa during a tour of Fame Studios before owner Rick Hall wandered in because he’d heard there was a “huge group of Aussies who’d travelled halfway around the world to see him”. The man had worked with Aretha Franklin, Otis Reading, Bobby Gentry and the Drive-By Truckers.
We peppered him with questions about a career that had lasted more than five decades and he answered each with the flourish of a true raconteur before autographing the books we’d bought in the gift shop.
At the end of a weekend spent camping next to and sharing beers and stories with a group of Texans outside of Austin, we were gifted with CDs, homemade jerky, weed and the perfect song. A song of thanks, one of our new friends told us, just before her voice lifted and we began to think we were in the presence of an angel.
It was Galveston, Texas, that delivered the small moment that still resonates. We arrived late and hungry, but since we were on the Gulf Coast there was only one thing to be eaten: seafood.
We saw the dismayed look in the host’s eyes as we asked for the biggest table they had. The kitchen closed at 9pm, and it was now 8.30. “You’ll need to order straight away,” she told us then went to find a spot in the cavernous interior.
In the meantime, the group dispersed for various reasons, leaving just three of us chatting at the entrance waiting for her return. A man heading towards the door, propped as he passed us, his face a mask of disbelief.
“Where y’all from?” he asked. When we replied Melbourne, he gasped as if no overseas visitor had ever stepped foot in Galveston.
“What are you doing here?” We told him about Jazz Fest and the road trip and our plans to visit NASA the following day. We tried to ask him questions – with two prostheses, he was obviously a vet – but he wasn’t having it.
He was in charge of the questions: how we’d met, where we were going, what life was like in Melbourne. We’d try to steer the conversation to him and Texas, but no, he wanted to talk about life and friendship and music.
Our new friend would have talked all night had we not been told the kitchen was five minutes from packing up. He hugged us tightly as he said goodbye. Here was a man who’d fought in a war (we’d got that much out of him) and lost both his legs, but the smile on his face, the sparkle in his eyes and his excitement for three strangers’ stories was pure joy.
It was a random connection, 15 minutes perhaps during a three-week trip, but one I’ll never forget.