Hittin' the road

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road, Healthy, free, the world before me, The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose. From 'Leaves of Grass,' by Walt Whitman

Who can resist the pull of the road, a journey you've planned yourself or without any plan at all, the sun in your face and the wind at your back? The Orient Express, Route 66, the Pacific Crest Trail - especially the uncharted path that brings exalting surprises and life-altering challenges - the urge to go has been felt since the first human just had to know what was over the next ridgeline.

Is this true in an age when most of our adventures seem to be vicarious? When minicams are hauled by crews to the top of Mt. Everest? When we stay glued to the TV to find out which "survivor" will last from one week to the next?

When Terre and John DeVilbiss were married in a field of wildflowers outside of Boulder, Colo., in 1994, the Unitarian minister read from Walt Whitman's "Song of the Open Road" as part of the service - prophetically, as it turns out.

Three weeks later, they were on their way to Nepal where John was a visiting scholar at Tribhuvan University and Terre

taught English at an orphanage. They also trekked around the Himalayas. "It was total immersion, and I felt we were in their culture pretty thoroughly," says John, a retired US Forest Service economist. "I couldn't get enough of it."

They returned to the United States about seven months later, and since then they've lived on a 35-foot ocean-going sailboat and traveled 29,000 miles around North America in a motor home. Just last month - six years after they began their travels - they finally settled down on three wooded acres in the mountains of southern Oregon.

They are not wealthy people, except in what they've seen and lived firsthand.

"Do we really need to keep buying more and more stuff?" asks Terre. "We'd rather travel than acquire more things. It really lets you see that you can live in many different ways."

For the young man who calls himself "Amilius," home is a 1975 Volkswagen. His van is outfitted with hardwood floors, a tiled sink and stove top, lace curtains, brass door hinges, and crystal handles. It's a work of art, the third van he's worked on and lived in since he left home as a teenager and set out on a spiritual search that began 12 years ago.

His travels have taken him "from Nova Scotia to the Olympic Peninsula, from Tijuana, [Mexico,] to Florida," he says, including five years when he followed the Grateful Dead from venue to venue, selling food outside the concert halls and stadiums. (His recipe for sprouted organic hummus, he proudly notes, can be found in the official "Grateful Dead Cookbook.")

Amilius has been to India three times (traveling around the subcontinent by train), bringing back the hardware and wood trim that makes his VW much more like a museum piece than a hippie van. He'll make another trip there this winter. When he needs a break from the road, he works as a cook at a Buddhist retreat in New Mexico.

What keeps him going?

"The fun," he says. But there's more to it than that, although it's hard to articulate.

"I'm coming more and more to believe that our experience as humans on this planet can be interpreted in so many ways - how we became separated from God, why there's suffering," he says. "The best kind of fun is the conscious, loving fun that brings God into it - that's community, that's the sacrament right there, I'm sure."

Over the years, he says, he's become a "devout yogi," and it's obvious that the younger travelers at a campsite outside of Ashland, Ore., look up to him - addressing him as "Baba" (a term of respect) when they stop by his van for advice or encouragement.

In their years of travel, Jack and Dorinda Schuman have been looking for a different kind of enlightenment - one that is gained from art and music.

As a young couple nearly 40 years ago, they saved up in order to travel around Europe for nine months in a VW Beetle, living on $10 to $20 a day. "We had all of this money in our pockets and all of Europe in front of us," recalls Dorinda.

That's when they began collecting antique musical instruments, a tangible way of expanding on their interests in European and Islamic music from the late Middle Ages and Renaissance.

While Jack was a graduate student at the University of London, they continued to acquire a collection that grew to more than 100 instruments by the time they returned to the US in 1968. Over the years, they took many more trips when Jack was on sabbatical as a professor of art history at Washington State University, and their travels expanded to South America, Africa, and Indonesia.

They became experts at spotting rare finds underneath the dust and cracked finish of an instrument found in a flea market. One 200-year-old Spanish guitar they paid 80 pounds sterling for has been valued at $25,000. Their collection, cataloged and kept at their home in Phoenix, Ore., now totals 553 instruments.

But it's not just the museum-quality accumulation of musical instruments that they value as reminders of their regular world travels. "Each instrument has a story," says Jack. This summer, they're collecting more stories - and maybe more instruments - on their first trip to China.

In some ways, international "foot-looseness" these days is easier than in an earlier era of hitchhiking or taking passage on a tramp steamer.

"Cross-cultural movement has become the norm, which means that leaving one's native country is not as dramatic or traumatic as it used to be," writes Eva Hoffman in her recent book "Letters of Transit" (New Press). "The ease of travel and communication, combined with the looser borders, gives rise to endless crisscrossing streams of wanderers and guest workers, nomadic adventurers and international drifters."

Writing recently in Utne Reader, Dr. Hoffman (who emigrated from Poland to Canada when she was 13) cites a report in the International Herald Tribune, noting the increasing number of American expatriates in Europe who are "abroad in a world where they can watch the Super Bowl live from a Moscow sports bar or send an e-mail from an Internet cafe in Prague."

The open road is about much more than counting miles, collecting stamps in a passport, or acquiring souvenirs.

For the Schumans, it's rescuing precious musical instruments from flea markets, restoring them, learning how to play them, and eventually making them available for public appreciation.

For Amilius (who says his name means "Spark from the Light of God"), it is the spiritual search expressed joyously. "I'm sure Jesus would rather see people dancing and having fun than sitting bored in a church," he says.

And for John and Terre DeVilbiss, their last year or so of travel was mostly about finding a place to settle down - a place, as Terre says, "where our children and grandchildren could visit us." "This is what we happily call home," says John. "After six years of travel, our roots are going deeper than that ponderosa pine over there."

Still, Terre has never seen Europe, and she really would like to travel around Italy, her ancestral home. And just outside their front door, the 29-foot "Seabreeze" motor home remains parked for when they're feet get to itching again and the call of the road is heard.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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