As a child, one of my most favourite books was “Travels With Charley”, the final work of John Steinbeck, an autobiographical record of a last tour around his homeland at a time of great change and uncertainty, made in a determined effort to stave off feebleness and debilitation.
Its opening page had me enraptured immediately, setting out a mandate that spoke of a yearning, an aching need, an atavistic impulse to explore and to wander.
It went like this.
“When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch.
When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age, I was assured greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked.
Four hoarse blasts of a ship’s whistle still raise the hair on my neck and set my feet to tapping. The sound of a jet, an engine warming up, even the clopping of shod hooves on pavement brings on the ancient shudder, the dry mouth and vacant eye, the hot palms and the churn of stomach high up under the rib cage.
In other words, once a bum always a bum. I fear this disease is incurable. I set this matter down not to instruct others but to inform myself….A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”
Wise and wonderful words. But I was too young and too sensible and too underfunded to more closely follow their direction.
In later years, one of my most favourite records was “The Lonesome Jubilee” by John Mellencamp, which included “The Real Life”, a splendid song that featured this verse:-
“Jackson Jackson was a good kid
He had four years of college
And a bachelor’s degree
Started workin when he was 21
Got fed up and quit
When he was forty three
He said, “My whole life
I’ve done what I supposed to do
Now I’d like to maybe do something
And just as soon, I figure out what that is
You can bet your life
I’m gonna give it hell”
I want to live the real life
I want to life my life close to the bone
Just because I´m middle-aged that
I want to sit around my house and watch TV
I want the real life
I want to live the real life”.
It wasn’t until I reached my forties that I truly began to understand the significance of these words, written by two very different Americans about their search for something larger, something beyond the mundane, something meaningful in their life.
Exploration, wanderlust, travel, tourism – call it what you will, but it became an inescapable priority and I began travelling much more frequently, both with friends and independently.
Then something happened.
On the first morning of a trip to Athens, I made my way to the Acropolis in time to be there as the site opened, coinciding with the arrival of a coach carrying a contingent of elderly Americans, who happily disembarked in expectation of the antiquities ahead.
Sadly for a good number of them, the steps up onto the Acropolis were just too steep and they simply couldn’t gain access to this wonder of the ancient world.
They’d left it too late.
A just life, lived appropriately, as they “were supposed to do”, but they had been robbed of this reward at the last moment.
It was an instructive moment.
If there is something you want to do, then do it.
Do it now.
So, a few years later than Jackson Jackson, but a few years sooner than Steinbeck, I’ve quit my job and I’m about to embark on my own journey, my own version of the “real life”, upping sticks and relocating to another country, with no job and just a couple of weeks of temporary accommodation lined up.
The Real Life. The step that isn’t too steep to take. The trip that is taking me.
Or something like that.
I’ll tell you what it’s like, every now and then, through these pages.