IN FAVOR OF DEBRIEFING A TRIP
The license plate of a car parked outside the shop reads “neednap”. I buy my second coffee of the morning here on the north side of Moab, then I hit the final stretch of road towards home. Several other visitors retreat towards the border along with me, their green and white Colorado plates match mine.
How do you know winter is over in Moab? All the license plates turn green.
Making a detailed itinerary to follow on a road trip is, at best, a hopeful act. Rather than building a list for diligent checking-off, better to treat it more like the building of an armature. A good framework leaves some decisions unmade, trusting that the best choices are sometimes made in the moment. The unplanned, improvised parts often end up being the best parts anyway. Leaving space in the plan allows one to arrive squarely in a moment; to make decisions based on how you’re feeling. Play the right song at the right time. Follow the clues in front of you. Be unplanned enough to meet people. I must practice itinerary restraint because I am one of those who gets hits of excitement from the research and planning of a trip.
*click-click.. click-click.. click-click.. click-click..*
I coax my vehicle to the passing lane and it squats into its rear tires as I step into the gas pedal. The body slightly rolls outward as I glide by another motorist through a gentle curve of the highway. Over my audio system “I Won’t Back Down” gives way to “Runnin’ Down a Dream” on Tom Petty’s Greatest Hits, the 7th best road trip album of all time. I steer back into the right lane and my engine settles back down into cruise. We are a good team.
The framework for this particular road trip was to drive from my home near the Colorado-Wyoming border to explore the desert around Escalante, UT, cross Lake Powell at Glen Canyon Dam, head by way of Mexican Hat to camp along backcountry roads of Canyonlands National Park, then possibly finish with a few nights birding and biking around Moab. In hindsight, while planning this route I may have been heavily under the influence of Ed Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang. I grabbed my camping bins and my daypack, threw some shit in my trusty duffel, and loaded up my bike.
The American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) teaches the importance of debriefing a trip to “intentionally cultivate expertise rather than haphazardly gain experience”. This idea is on my mind even now, in the heat of the desert. Upon returning to the familiar from any kind of outing it’s easy to be distracted by obligations, or the end-of-trip scaries, and slip back into daily life without reflection. But in the debrief we learn more about what has transpired than we possibly could as things actually happen. Our experience crystalizes. We can become more than just a passenger of it. What if researchers following the scientific method formed a hypothesis, conducted an experiment, and then just shut it down there without drawing any conclusions? The last step is arguably the one we learn most from. Like a sculptor stepping back to survey her work, we must pause to ask, ‘What did you think was going to happen?’ ‘What happened?’ ‘What does it mean now?’…
On a shrubby mountainside in the La Sals a few days ago, I got to talking with some kind ornithologists who ended up helping me spot my first Green-tailed Towhee. Earlier in the trip, I stealthily moved through a slot canyon off Hole-in-the-Rock Road near Escalante, UT and was amazed at how vividly it transported me back to the secret passageways of my childhood. While riding the Porcupine Rim Trail one day, I listened to Hermanos Gutierréz from late afternoon into sunset and I am irreversibly changed. Some Australians I met at the hostel last night invited me out for a ‘fair go’ on the town and now I’m extremely happy to be pointed towards home, because I also ‘neednap’. Getting out of our element on a road trip almost always changes us for the better, but we don’t always notice in the moment.
The heat of the pavement sends up ripples outside my windshield while the cool blast of AC blows across my face and arms. I am a rubber tramp at heart. There is an inherently nostalgic quality to contemplating things after the fact. A part of us knows there is meaning in there somewhere and once we start looking for it, we start to find it. Summer road trips are a great time to throw some shit in your trusty duffel and go. To be hot. To make decisions in the moment, turn up the music, and feel the contact of your tires on the asphalt as the landscape whizzes by.
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AUTHOR: ASA IRELAND
Asa Ireland is a classically-trained musician and lover of the outdoors who moved to the enchanting town of Steamboat Springs, CO “for one winter” nine years ago. He specializes in technical product writing by day, and by night writes playfully and directly about the strange awesomeness of being a human. Asa is an avid disc golfer, ski bum, musician, and mountain biker who is proud to be a husband and a dog dad… he also lives with a cat.
Photographer: Lionello DelPiccolo
Secondary Photographer: Mary Kate Hackworthy