“What brings you to our small town?”
This question tells me that I’ve reached my desired destination. My short answer is quick and easy: I like visiting places people don’t normally go without a good reason.
The answer to this logical follow-up question has been evolving for years. My travels are a vagabond pilgrimage that teach me more about life because I venture beyond the distracted sphere of my quotidian existence. They have a general direction but no intent beyond serendipity.
Walking from France to Spain, in Off the Road Jack Hitt defined a pilgrimage as a marked route with a known destination. Destined for the Santiago del Compostela, he said pilgrims must find their surprises elsewhere.
Perhaps that is true along a still traveled route, where the way stations that it cater to the pilgrims who follow it. But what if the thoroughfare, like the Oregon Trail or the Illinois Central Railroad’s right-of-way, which plowed and planted whistle-stop towns in an ocean of grass, no longer serves its original purpose? What surprises await in these lonely places rarely visited by those not related to its residents?
Baseball is not a pastime that captures my attention, except when my sons were playing. And then one afternoon several years ago, unrelated to any player on the diamond, I found a spot in the bleachers at Little League game in Forreston, Illinois, a village of 1,446 good people.
It was filled with mothers and fathers and a few grandparents. Those not yet old enough to play on the field cavorted beneath the stands and scurried across the grass in free-range packs playing. The adults acknowledged my presence with a nod and smile before returning to their conversations that filled the time between their son’s at bats and fielding efforts when the ball flew their way.
Watching them I realized that Little League and my sons’ soccer matches were more than games that filled countless weekends. It was then that I realized that they established and sustained the community I longed for by uniting people who didn’t normally see each other in any other context, unless their sons were in Boy Scouts. This surprising realization instantly made my memories more meaningful.
This surprise has been one of the many rewards of my vagabond travels. Discovering them, however, takes discipline and courage. Dedicated vagabonds control the urge to make miles, a serious Interstate affliction. And when stopping at some alluring, lonely place, they squelch the natural trepidation of an outsider and take a seat in the stands.
Referencing Wordsworth, Pico Iyer said in Falling Off the Map that “every traveler seeks out places that every traveler has missed,” yet they don’t consider lonely places because they “don’t fit.” Perhaps these places don’t “fit” because people are uncomfortable outside of the homogenous world in which they live.
On my vagabond pilgrimages I seek out places that most travelers ignore because they possess no scheduled, predictable life-changing “experience.” Surprise, unexpected discoveries made at prosaic events like a Little League baseball game can also be life changing, and letting them happen naturally is a fulfilling investment of time to travel in search of them.