Off the Road 

What happens when your ramblings lead to an office desk.

The travel gods are checking in on me tonight.

I didn't summon them. They just swirl around me on occasion. If I were feeling antsy, I'd say they were calling me. Sentimental, I'd say they miss me. Settled, I'd say they annoy me, like old college friends saying "Let's go get wasted!"

But I don't feel any of these emotions. The travel gods have come around, instead, like ghosts, for reasons unknown. I was minding my own business at home, checking e-mails, when suddenly "the shack" jumped out at me from an e-mail's subject line. The shack in question was a refuge from the mind-numbing activity at an Alaskan cannery, a place where brain-dead "slime line" workers might mingle with filthy dockhands, share a pipe or a bottle, and bang some drums.

I went to the shack one time and wrote about it in an article that appeared on the Internet. The shack was promptly destroyed by cannery management. The guy writing me tonight was a shack veteran, though he didn't hold a grudge about the article. The shack for him was a peaceful place of togetherness that had its time and was lost; for me, it was an unfulfilled promise of connection, because I was stuck on the boats. Now, for both of us, it's a memory, a place my mind will wander off to tomorrow as I sit in my cubicle or try to focus in a meeting.

As if that weren't enough, the next e-mail was from an old friend in St. Louis. We were pals in Oregon years ago, and I once visited her when she lived in Charleston, Illinois. I was passing through on my way from Memphis to Chicago, and I borrowed her car for the day and roamed among the Amish in central Illinois. Who knew there were Amish in Illinois? We almost got to hang out in North Carolina once too, but we missed each other by a day. She said in her e-mail that she had just been in Spain, and it happens we've been to some of the same places over there.

What strikes me, as I sit here recovering from my 9-to-5 at an insurance job and preparing for another, is how whatever life we're leading on any given day seems to be normal. But on nights like this, time evaporates, today's life is laid on top of yesterday's like a transparency, and the changes are clear. I wonder what the folks at the office would think if I said to them tomorrow, "You know, there was a time when not showering for a week and working waist-deep in dead salmon seemed pretty normal to me." They would probably think the same thing the folks in the shack would have thought had I told them, "I think I'll leave here and get a job in insurance."

Then again, one of those shacksters just got married. Another one is buying a house. Another one works for an investment broker. All of which makes me wonder sometimes: What did the folks in the other cubicles at work used to be into?

Maybe that's why the travel gods come around sometimes. I'd like to think they miss me, but it could just be that they want to remind me that, sometimes, adventure is right around the corner, in the next cubicle. Or maybe they want to remind me that what seems normal today, even dull, might make a fine story some other day, so maybe I should learn to appreciate it.

I know I used to slog fish into the tank and think, Man, I want an office job! And now I have one. Then again, when I was backpacking around Europe more than a decade ago, I was mystified by people choosing to work in an office. Yet that's exactly what I did today. Perhaps some day I'll sit who knows where and regale people with tales of my days in insurance.

But there are more e-mails tonight. Some of them have been around for a while, but in their number are friends letting me know they finally left Cape Cod for Vermont -- while visiting them one time I scored tickets to a Red Sox playoff game -- and another from a grade school friend who has left the Philadelphia suburbs for those of Detroit. The last time I saw him we were having the supremely odd experience of eating Memphis barbecue in a New Jersey restaurant where the walls were covered with pictures of Beale Street.

Finally, there's one from a friend in Switzerland. I haven't seen her in close to a decade -- she's survived a stroke since then -- but I showed her around Memphis one time, and she keeps offering to do the same for me in Zurich. It's on my list of things to do when I win the lottery.

With all these memories swirling around me, I can't help but think, What happened? Did I grow up or something? And why do the travel gods come to torture me so? Why, in the middle of a life of cable installations and truck payments and 401(k)s, do I need to be reminded of youth hostels, train rides, and drives in the country?

Maybe they are calling me, these travel gods, and maybe they do miss me. And maybe I'm feeling just a little annoyed because I miss them too.

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