Monday, September 27, 2010

A personal retrospective on my summer’s grand road trip

In late May 2010 I returned from an extended stint of professional conservation and development work in Africa and the Middle East (see descriptions of my work in Rwanda, DRC/Congo and Abu Dhabi).  This time I decided to start a blog to document my re-adjustment to life in America, and I took a grand “road trip” across America.  On the trip I also dove into a longtime passion I had let go for too many years--outdoor photography (see links to photo sets and collections on FLICKR).    It was my hope that a period of personal reflection and photographic exploration would facilitate thinking through “what should/could be next” for me in retirement (or semi-retirement) as a Boomer and also now “empty-nester” or maybe I would decide to go back to work for a while--that was also an option.  Unlike most academics I had never had an official sabbatical and my last true vacation had been years ago!  

The first task upon my return from Africa was to weather the trauma of selling our house in California after the real estate crash which accompanied The Great Recession.  We decided we needed to be mobile again so we could explore whatever options might arise (see June 4 blog).  In hindsight (as a social analyst and not as a homeowner) it seems clear that one of the most serious results of this recession has been the severe dampening of people’s ability to sell their homes when necessary so they can migrate easily, which has traditionally been a safety valve for Americans needing to cope with tough times (maybe we do need to be a nation of “renters rather than homeowners” as suggested by Richard Florida in The Great Reset: How New Ways of Living and Working Drive Post Crash Prosperity.  

Regardless, we are so thankful we were finally able to sell and now will only rent for a while until our next phase of life is clearer.  The ordeal was particularly hard on my wife Karen who had to struggle for almost nine months trying to sell our place while I continued working alone in DRC/Congo “saving gorillas” with the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International--and trying to keep ourselves afloat economically.  So now, as we hit the road--being mortgage-free-- truly feels like the new beginning of life we needed--at least the beginning of “retirement” or more work or both??  We’ll see what happens!

Also in hindsight, what has bothered me most since returning from Africa is trying to understand the source and rationale for the vitriol, lack of civility, and negativity that now seems to pass for political discourse on the radio and TV (June 16 blog)--it has been very distressing!  I note that lately even some TV pundits are now stating “it has gone too far”--I hope they take their own advice!  As one who has worked in many truly chaotic, poverty-ridden, environmentally degraded, violent, politically unstable, and insecure places such as Haiti, Congo, Rwanda, Honduras-- to hear the rancor among us Americans right now strikes me as being rather “small-minded” given the realities compared to what the rest of the world experiences all the time. 

Many of my compatriots would benefit by traveling to see how “the rest of the world lives” and maybe they’d realize how great we have it!   In an earlier blog I quoted Mark Twain who so cogently stated something which has become the motto of my trip: 

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many
of our people need it sorely on these accounts.  Mark Twin.

My road trip was not meant explicitly to repeat Steinbeck’s trek recounted in his wonderful book Travels with CharleyBut as I look back on it (and reread his book) it is uncanny how my experience is hauntingly similar to his, particularly as I’ve explored small town America, some of its urban gems, e.g. New Haven CT--and most of all, as I’ve explored the LAND--the beautiful places in national parks, preserves, and other landscape gems!   
I could never hope to emulate Steinbeck’s writing,  but for whatever it’s worth you can read about my road trip in my blogs of June 4, June 16, June 25, June 28, July 13 and August 19 (maybe you’ll see an evolution in my thinking over the summer that I can’t see--please tell me what you think I went through).  Like Steinbeck I tried to focus my camera and guide my exploration on places and themes that might enlighten me (and others) on how The Great Recession is affecting real people in the real America as I “reconnected with America”.  

Curiously, it was just yesterday that I learned online that a famous photographer--Randy Wells--had recently redone Steinbeck’s grand tour for the 50-year anniversary of  Travels with Charley (see article in Outdoor Photographer).  Some of his photos will soon become part of a special exhibition at the Steinbeck Center entitled: Steinbeck’s America: Rediscovering Travels with Charley and there will soon be a great coffee-table book to purchase as well…  I strongly recommend the book and exhibit!

How do I personally feel now--four months since starting my road trip?

I can categorically state it was the best investment of time, resources, and psychic engagement I've ever spent!  For me it was a return to saneness, balance, and a sense of joy about life and a renewed love of this great country.  Most of all, I’ve regained an appreciation of what we need to do to preserve what’s great about our gloriously beautiful land and diverse and wonderful people--even thought when we’re at our worst we can be “a pain”--but that is also us!   Doing such a road trip and rediscovering the America Steinbeck saw has given me confidence to tackle the next phase of my own life.  Thanks Steinbeck for showing me (and hopefully) others the way forward.  I hope the pundits are also reading you again!  I still have a lot of pictures to process and publish--many memories and impressions to think about--and then more blogging.  It was definitely worth it!  I will still be haunted by the beauty of a setting sun outlining the buttes and pinacles around White Mesa (on the Navajo Reservation) and meeting a wonderfully engaging boy and his pony out for an evening ride across the open landscape (see below)--that evening and next morning watching the sun rise over Monument Valley was priceless!


Over the next few weeks--after a few more photographic trips to catch New England in the Fall--I will add more to my blog as I let the experience of this summer “simmer” for a while.  I now understand completely what Steinbeck meant in his original book: 

“We do not take a trip; a trip takes us.” 

 I do look forward to sharing with others who have done similar odysseys.  Tell me what was your experience?  What benefits did it bring besides beautiful pictures...(see some of mine HERE on FLICKR).   Some of my friends say I should just “keep traveling and taking pictures”--I may do that, or I may also go back and work awhile, on projects--or do both!  Whatever the case, I believe in sharing what is still great about our country with others around the world; these rough times will pass and we’ll be stronger for it--I’m sure of that!  Your thoughts and counsel would be greatly appreciated!  Or am I being too “Pollyanna-ish”?  Let me know.

Bob (Geobob) Ford, New Haven Connecticut, September 27, 2010


  1. Hi, Bob... My wife and I did it the other way around... we did our US road trip before moving to Peru to do our volunteer work. Regarding re-adjusting to life in America, you're right on target. Upon returning to the US, we were amazed anew at the contrast... how very much we Americans have and take for granted. A visit to the supermarket to count the shelf space devoted to breakfast cereal is instructive. Bill

  2. Thanks so much Bill - you're SO right about perusing the shelf space at the supermarket...the material goods we Americans amass is truly astounding. We're in downsizing mode (a huge amount in storage right now and don't miss any of it)....our next phase of life (for a few months) is to whittle down that cache to as little as possible before we finally "settle" somewhere. We may even go back overseas for a while, like you did. Your counsel is greatly appreciated, and I love your blog, BTW... My best, Bob