Terra Incognito

by  J. Scott Jordan, Ph.D.

“I know,” he said, “But I really don’t feel like driving all the way through Western Indiana doing 45 mph!”

“I understand,” she responded with an over-emphasized calmness that was meant to indicate the application of severe patience; the kind you give someone whom you know to be simply avoiding the facts. “But if we take 64 or 70 into Illinois we’ll have to drive way out of our way to reach 57.”

The fact hung in the air like a brick waiting to be dropped. He knew she was right. She was good at reading maps; probably better than he was, though he’d never admit it. The fact she was right didn’t reduce his impatience. It just made him shut up. It bothered him that he was impatient. Having just gotten off the Pennyrile Expressway, he knew the fastest way to get from here to Chicago was 41 North through Indiana, all the way up to 74, which would then take him straight to Champaign where he could catch 57 and drive North to Chicago. But again, knowing this didn’t help. No matter how loudly his logical brain told him it would be faster, in the long term, to take the route that afforded slower travel in the short term, his feeling brain knew he could get there faster if he just got out onto the open highway and put the pedal to the metal. Feeling annoyed by his own impatience, he allowed his eyes to follow the course of the long flat highway stretching out before him. He saw how it grew ever more narrow until finally, just before it disappeared, it met the horizon, evaporated into a mirage-like vapor, and dissolved into the sky. He stared at the road and new that every inch of it would be the same. Not because he had been on this road before, but because he had been on roads like it.

The salience of each passing moment was worn into his awareness by the hot, thick, frictiony moan made by the tires as they clung to the road. From experience he knew that after a while, the ceaselessness of the road, and the moan of the tires could whitewash your senses and lull you into a sort of coma, where you could simply coast through time, oblivious to the world you were passing by. A while later you’d wake up, hopefully to find yourself in some place new and exciting, where the road and the tires would no longer smother your senses, where the commonness of territory well known would be replaced by the sights and sounds of roads untraveled, something new, something big; terra incognita. More often than not however, you would find that you’d simply gone nowhere fast. You’d see the same ceaseless tract of road stretching out before you, hear the same desperate moan in your tires as they clung to the only thing they knew; that tired old road. And you would pray for the coma to come over you.

“Well?” she asked, pulling him into the moment. “Well what?” he returned shortly, knowing full well what she meant, yet not being in the right mind to admit they should drive through Indiana.

“What are we gonna do?”

He said nothing, and neither did she. As the tires moaned and the road flew by he felt himself slipping, becoming more and more certain that a little road coma would be just the thing to get him over his irritating impatience. Suddenly, however, he became aware of something else. He became aware of her and the fact that she was letting the moment pass. He became aware that even though she knew he would eventually agree to driving through Indiana, she was playing the game by his rules, giving him that little bit of time he needed to align his passions with reality. And he knew she was playing the game his way because, deep down, she loved his passion. She loved his uncanny ability to find something exciting in almost everything he did. Sometimes, as was now the case, such passions would skew his judgment and take him to the border of what might be called irrationality, though never in a dangerous sort of way. No, at worst he would appear childish; at best, inspired. She did not want to squash it, so she let it run its course. He thought about this aspect of their relationship and how, together, with her pragmatism and his enthusiasm, they made one hell of an effective person. The thought relaxed him a bit and he smiled to himself.

Now removed from the immediacy of his earlier impatience he felt somewhat ashamed, for he knew he had been irrational, knew he had been wrong. This feeling was made even stronger when he remembered that the two of them had plotted their course the night before. As they had lain there in each other’s arms, calmed and contented by the coolness of the sheets and the stillness of their love, he had agreed, even suggested, they should drive through Indiana. But he also knew that at that moment, as he had felt his logical brain pushing him toward the mirage-like vapor on the horizon, to that land completely known, completely safe; speed, not patience, had seemed the best solution. Understanding the existence of these two conflicting perspectives within himself served to cheer him. He had been in this state before, and it was one he enjoyed. It made him feel as though he understood himself, as though he was all right. It further made him understand that although the road ahead would not be the most exciting, the most unexplored, it would serve its purpose; it would get him where he was going. Satisfied with this insight, he turned and smiled at her.

“I guess we should drive north through Indiana.” She returned his smile as if to test the water, to see if he truly had resolved his little spat with reality or was simply being sarcastic. His eyes told her the former was true, and the way they held her’s for that extra split second indicated to both of them that the issue was resolved. He thought to himself about how many times this scene had played itself out over the years of their relationship; him coming up with some new idea, all in a fluster about how neat this would be and how exciting that would be, and her, getting caught up in the excitement, would find herself somehow playing devil’s advocate. At times his passion would be so strong he would respond to her practicality by accusing her of being boring and conservative, while she in turn would accuse him of being childish and impractical. Somehow however, over the course of their relationship, they had come to expect such exchanges, and to realize they represented, not the essence of their love, but rather, a system of maintaining their love, of laying their cards on the table, in full view, knowing no matter the tensions spawned by such honesty, they would get beyond it. The trick was, every once in a while you had to agree to play by the other’s rules. He knew they had discovered this territory within their relationship only because they had consciously done so, had taken notice of and charted the stirring waters of each others soul, had compared maps and become known to one another. He wondered how many relationships had failed because partners hadn’t allowed each other to play by their own rules on occasion, hadn’t charted the deeper waters of the other, hadn’t compared maps, and had remained terra incognita unto themselves. The thought depressed him and looked out the window.

“Where are we now?” he asked.

“About 20 miles south of Evansville.”

“If we keep up this pace, we`ll probably be home by 2:00.” “That would be nice. I hate getting home late. I like to be able to unpack and have some time to unwind before trying to get to sleep.”

“Absolutely. Especially when you have to go to work the next day!”

“I hear that,” she said. They drove a bit further. “Would you get me some water?” he asked. She poured some ice water into a cup and handed it to him. He drank it slowly, savoring the coolness it provided.

“It’s going to be difficult going back to work,” he said. “I know. Especially after such a wonderful vacation.” They had spent 2 weeks in the Florida Keys, celebrating their 10th wedding anniversary. They hadn’t done much more than sun bathe, go out to eat, watch the sunset, and make love; it had been absolutely wonderful. There was one thing they did do, however, that they had never done before. They had taken part in a boat trip out to the coral reef just south of the Keys. She had snorkeled and he had gone scuba diving. For him, that had been big. Dealing with scuba gear for the first time had been somewhat of a challenge, but once he was in the water, seeing things he knew he could only see because he was wearing the cumbersome gear, the hassles gave way to the thrill of discovery.

“That trip to the coral reef was really something!” he said. “It sure was.”

“Especially when you ran into that three-foot barracuda!” He laughed aloud in anticipation of the look he knew she would give him. He knew she was not the thrill seeker he was, and knew she had not enjoyed the sight of that barracuda one bit. She simply rolled her eyes and smiled, knowing he was trying to tease her.

Suddenly, the car jolted. His eyes scanned the rear-view mirror. No big deal, they had simply gotten onto a bridge. As he looked to the side he saw two young boys playing in a creek that wound its way under the bridge and flowed off into the distance on a course almost perpendicular to that of the road. The two boys were laughing and splashing wildly as they threw mud at each other. The scene reminded him of a time when he had been that young and had played the same game in a similar creek. The creek had been at the back of a lot his parents had bought in a campground called “Treehaven Lakes”. The lot sat on a hill that was flat at both the top and the bottom. His parents had their trailer situated on the flat part at the top, next to the road, while he and his two older brothers would sleep in a tent on the flat part at the bottom, next to the creek. When it got hot, they would walk into the creek and splash each other. He remembered how the land on the other side of the creek had seemed big; unknown. It hadn’t been anything more than another grassy hill sloping upward from the creek. Now it seemed strange to him that it could have seemed so big. It had been right there in front of him, nothing special, nothing unique. But still, it had seemed big. And for the first time he realized that his creek had been in a valley between those two hills; the one he had known, and the one he hadn’t. It struck him as odd that he hadn’t seen this at the time. Of course, he had only been ten years old, but still, it should have been so obvious. Or should it have been?

He thought back to other times in his life when things that had seemed big had suddenly, through hindsight, become small, even obvious. He thought about how his decision to go to graduate school to become an experimental psychologist had seemed, at the time, so big, so scary, so risky. And now, after having become that person, after having traveled that road and made it part of himself, his earlier fear seemed so unfounded and trivial. He thought about the time he began writing his first story, how he had felt so unsure of its worth, of why he was doing it. And now, when he thought about that story, he knew it had been essential, and wondered why he hadn’t realized it at the time. As these ideas bounced around in his head, he realized that such emotions; the bigness of the hill on the other side of the creek, the riskiness of applying to graduate school, and the insecurity of his first attempt at writing a story, were all reactions to the unknown; terra incognita.

As he continued down this path, he realized there had been times when he had sought the unknown, reached out and grabbed it so as to make it known. He remembered his wedding day when he had vowed to love and cherish her for the rest of his life. He had done so gladly, with the greatest of ease, and with nothing but joyful anticipation. He thought about the year the two of them had lived in a monastery in Germany while he conducted post-doctoral studies at the University of Ulm. He had gone after that experience with both hands, had embraced it with the enthusiasm of a child, and loved every minute of it.

The awareness of these two reactions to terra incognita made him further aware that both were possible only because he had divided the world into the known and the unknown; had sought the truth in what he saw; had gone about the business of creating maps. He then remembered some of his attempts at creating such maps. He remembered that night in college when he had argued for hours on end with a devout catholic about the existence or need for God. He remembered the night he had dinner with a Russian psychologist, who was also conducting research at the University of Ulm, and his German host; an older man who had fought against the Russians during WW II and had ended up spending five years in a Russian concentration camp. That night he had simply listened. Knowing full well he was experiencing the opportunity of a life time, he simply sat, and let the maps they described interact with his own.

He thought about how now, because of his position as an Associate Professor, students would come to him, asking him for advice on how they should draw up their maps. He would tell them that the best way to draw a map, to discover who you really were, was to leave home for while. Once you got yourself into a new environment you could tell which aspects of yourself were yours, and which aspects belonged to the road. Thinking of his students and their struggle to discover themselves reminded him of his own struggle at that age. Though at times it had seemed as though the fear of the unknown would break him, he had stuck with it, kept cutting through the brush, and had come out discovered. As he thought about the trials he had experienced along the way, he wondered what his life would be like if he had never attempted the journey, if he had never turned his gaze from the ceaseless road before him, had never relinquished his desperate cling to that road and the security it offered.

As he thought about it more and more, he became more and more certain that if he had done so, had refused to risk the unknown, the ceaselessness of the road and the desperate moan of his wheels would have been too much to bear, and he would have silently slipped into a never-ending state of road coma. The thought chilled him, yet he knew of people who had gone through life that way, never having dared to draw maps, to distinguish the known from the unknown. He had seen such people live their lives in a never-ending series of road comas. Some induced them with alcohol, some with constant chatter, and others, with material wealth. Whatever the poison, the goal was always the same; smother the senses for a while and hopefully wake up somewhere else, somewhere different, somewhere new, somewhere where they wouldn’t see the road or hear the wheels; terra incognita.

During these episodes, such people seemed untroubled, even happy. But late at night, when they were all alone, and they woke up, they would find themselves in a state of despair. Having dared nothing, they knew nothing, and the ignorance that followed was too much for their questioning souls to bear. Defeated and unable to make sense of life, yet no longer knowing how to question, they would seek out the only solution they knew; one more road coma.

The thought of such emptiness terrified him and gave him a new appreciation of the choices he had made. And now, as he drove toward home on Highway 41, he knew there would be times in his life when he would have to travel that road, and he knew it would be O.K., every once in a while, to indulge in a little road coma, just to pass the time. He also knew, however, that this could not be his only road. Every once in a while he would have to steer off into something new, into terra incognita, just to make sure those aspects of himself he believed to be his, truly were, in fact, his.

Once more he felt as though he had reached some sort of balance, and he reached out and squeezed her leg.

“What?” she asked.

“Oh nothing,” he said lightly with a smile, “just enjoying the view.”

She laughed, knowing full well he had just returned from one of his mental jaunts. He smiled back, knowing she knew, and loving her for it.

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