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#1: Travel Stories and The Road Not Taken

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#1: Travel Stories and The Road Not Taken

Gregg Evans

          Wherever travelers gather, travel stories abound. Whether the travelers are backpackers, hitchhikers, motorcyclists, boaters, backcountry pilots, paddlers, pedalers, horse packers or 4-wheel adventurers, stories are told of routes followed, decisions made, dangers faced and challenges overcome. Telling our travel stories is just part of the travel/adventure lifestyle.
          Travel stories have been entertaining us humans for as long as we've been around to tell and hear them. Iliad and Odyssey have enthralled readers for millennia, as have the books of Genesis and Exodus - travel stories all.  Some of my favorite books are travel stories.  I think of Kerouac's On The Road, Steinbeck's Travels With Charley, Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. There is just something about travel stories!
          Over the last couple decades, I've spent a lot of time at gatherings of motorcyclists, and at every one of them, stories from the road have been standard fare. The stories are as varied as the riders that tell them, of course, but common themes include an element of danger, or extreme difficulty, or near disaster averted by split-second maneuvering and/or extraordinary riding skill. No one ever calls "bull shit" when travel tales are being told, but whenever I hear a rider launch into a story, I think of the last stanza of Robert Frost's poem, The Road Not Taken:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

          Though The Road Not Taken is one of the best known poems ever written, in some ways, it is barely known at all.  I say it is barely known because people routinely get the title wrong, calling it The Road Less Traveled instead of The Road Not Taken, and tend to misunderstand its meaning, believing it to be a paean to individualism, which it isn't, rather than a confession of travel-story misrepresentation, which it is. To arrive at their misunderstanding of the poem, people focus on the last three lines:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

          Taken out of their context and isolated from the rest of the poem, those three lines do sound like praise for choosing the road less traveled, but that's definitely not what Frost was saying, for earlier in the poem, he had clarified that the two roads were actually the same, neither showing any less or more wear than the other. Though Frost had initially tried to convince himself that the second road looked less traveled than the first, he had to admit, after comparing them, that the two roads were equally trod. That admission is an important aspect of the poem's development and is the key to understanding its final stanza.
          After establishing in the first three stanzas that the two roads looked the same and that neither had a legitimate claim to being less traveled than the other, Frost ends the poem by imagining a future where he would be reminiscing about the choice he made between those two roads.  Though in reality it was a choice that could have been made by flipping a coin, that's not how he would tell it:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

          In this imagined future, Frost sees himself telling about the decision he made between those two roads, explaining to his hearers that he had chosen the less traveled road and that doing so had made all the difference. That's how he would tell the story – he would say he'd intentionally taken the road less traveled – but in reality, he hadn't taken a less traveled road at all because there hadn't been a less traveled road to take! He had chosen between two equally traveled roads, but in telling his travel story, he would spin it to make himself sound more adventurous.  He would fib about taking a less traveled road and also inflate the importance of having done so ("And that has made all the difference").  From this we understand that the poem is not a paean to individualism but a confession of self-serving factual misrepresentation.
          I think of The Road Not Taken whenever I hear someone launch into a travel story. I don't begrudge the storyteller the self-serving spin they will almost certainly put on their story - it's usually the most interesting part, after all - but I definitely do listen for it and say to myself, "Ah, yes, there it is," when I hear it.  A dozen times over the last few years I've wanted to respond to a story by asking, "And that has made all the difference?" but I've always biten my tongue.  After all, calling "bull shit" in such a circumstance would be no less rude for being poetic.
          There are a lot of things I imagine myself writing about in this blog - products I sell, companies I represent, travelers and adventurers I meet, events I vend at - but I'm pretty sure I'll return again and again to stories of my own travel and camping experiences – trips I’ve taken, places I've been and things I've done.  I suppose those stories will be my own version of, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”  In telling my stories, I'll no doubt put myself in a favorable light, perhaps even by resorting to factual misrepresentations. I'll try to keep those to a minimum, but you should feel free to tell yourself, "Ah, yes, there it is," when you hear them.