The Long Way Around
by Graham Toben ’11
Baccalaureate Address, May 21, 2011
Three years ago to this day I was driving across a highway that was so straight and so long and so ceaseless that I swore I could have reclined my seat, put my car into cruise control, and fallen asleep for two hours. And when I woke up, I would have still been on the road, still on the highway, and still seeing the vast expanse of nearly nothing that was Kansas. There’s a lot of nothing in this country, and for those of you who haven’t driven across interstate 40 from Denver to Kansas City, a lot of that nothing resides on that highway.
I was far from my home in California, taking a gap semester between transferring from a large, public university in the Bible Belt to Whitman, traveling across the country in my car, and writing about it. Literally no one that day knew where I had come from, where I was, or where I was going.
Like many twenty-somethings of my generation, I have always been plagued with having more questions than answers. The world we live in today operates on two speeds, everything and nothing, where the success of what we do is timed and assessed in a span of minutes, hours, or days. It is rather Euclidian in that way, we take the shortest possible path to maneuver our way through coursework, or walk through Ankeny field, or parse out our days to achieve maximum efficiency.
This is how we were raised, and by taking that semester off and traveling around the United States I learned to take things slow. To meander. To wander. And in this fast-paced life and world, I was given an opportunity to be alone and to take my time, to take the long way around, which is what I titled my travel narrative. I stopped on a side road somewhere between the infinite nothing and civilization of Kansas and started to listen. I listened to the corn growing, to my own heart beat, to the tha-thunk, tha-thunk of cars crossing lanes, to the sound of my upturned smile and the saunter of the horses in the distance, on some nameless ranch.
Not many people I know did what I did, traveling around the country for three months at 19. I didn’t really expect to meet people who took the long way around. But when I came to Whitman, I found out something strange, that like me, these students had learned to listen too, to the sun setting over the Walla Walla sky, to the music major serenading the town with his saxophone in his purple robe, to the scratch of an India ink pen on the paper of a Whitman artist, to the memorable timbre of an inspiring professor.
We are strange fruit. We were raised in towns that hugged rivers, in cities that flirt with snow-capped mountains, in houses that perch impossibly above cliffs that viewed the sea. And yet somewhere along the way, long ago, we all learned to listen to life’s rhythm long ago, to improvise our own unique solo in between the gaps of a universal drum beat. And yet, we are as beautifully unique as we are a single community. We all know the taste of Clarette’s hash browns, the faint smell of chlorine from the fountain in front of Kimball, the sound of a ping between the walls at Cordiner. And while time is life’s agent of change, our experience at Whitman has taught us that there is someone out there who knows these truths the way that you do, and no matter where you are, or they are, one memory, one sound, one anecdote, takes you back to this place when you embodied the Whitman experience.
As an English major, I read my fair share of books over the course of my college career, and every time I finish a really good book I get this uncomfortable feeling in my stomach. My insides knot up and I start to get anxious for no particular reason. This sensation normally kicks in when I’m about 20 pages from the conclusion; often I find myself breaking from the narrative to leaf through pages and check how many I’ve read and how many I have left until the finale of the novel. By the time I’ve read the last line, the feeling in my guts has grown to full force and I feel an angst, a general malaise start to bubble up from inside me.
When I passed through the Pacific Northwest south on I-5, on my way home from a road trip that snaked through cliffs and valleys, through everything and nothing, 13,500 miles with only the company of myself, my stomach began to knot itself up in that all-too-familiar way. I started to look around my car, outside where the fields were snaking past at a hypnotizingly quick, even, and now all-too-familiar pace, searching for an escape from my driver seat. I pulled over, thinking I was car sick, but upon exiting and walking around a grassy rest stop the feeling did not subside. My body sensed what I had up until that point overlooked.
My trip, a tale in its own right that spanned four months and was the source of incredible, unpredictable stories, was coming to an end. I sat down on the curb and considered my return to the Bay Area for a long moment. How could I have let the last few days fly by without noticing a change in myself? A return to some uncomforting familiarity, a return to taking the life of the shortest path? I was so sure I could feel the end of the trip, that it was finished with the last mile logged. In absolutely every way, I saw this as a conclusion.
But like our time here at Whitman, our journey is far from over, because we have taken the long way around. We took our time to listen, to connect, to shop around for classes and extracurriculars, to meet peers who are simultaneously aspiring freestyle rappers and philosophy majors; amateur rally car drivers and ultimate Frisbee players; singer-songwriters.
In Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley,” Steinbeck writes that “[The life span of journeys] seems to be variable and unpredictable. Who has not known a journey to be over and dead before the traveler returns? The reverse is also true: many a trip continues long after movement where time and space have ceased.”
We have ended our adventure here at Whitman. But while we are done, we are not finished. And somewhere down the road there will be another Styx to sit on, another Frisbee golf course to play, another impromptu dance-dinner party to attend, another symposium to hold.
And that’s when our adventures will again be turned on, revved up, and driven, hard, like the engine that grumbled under my feet and over the miles and miles of road as I took the long way around. Wherever we will be going after this, we will continue this journey, throwing away any semblance of the Euclidian path and opt instead to meander through peaks and valleys, through cities and countries. And as we’ve learned to do while here at Whitman, we will always travel with spare room in the passenger seat, knowing full well that somewhere out there, there is someone who can listen the way you do, knowing full well how to improvise their own solo, to follow a longer path up the mountain. And I, like all of the other students of the class of 2011, look forward to that day when we meet again while we take the long way around, to reunite to tell our stories and share our experiences, just like we did at this school.