The Non-Hero's Journey / by Karie Luidens

Hi from New Mexico! As promised last month, I’ve successfully loaded up my car, hit the road, and relocated from Seattle to Albuquerque. Three days, six states, 1429 miles, and 5490 feet in elevation gain later, here we are. 

As I planned the route for this recent road trip I realized that my reading list has been hinting at the journey for a while. It seems I’d been unconsciously drawn to books that unfold on the road, most obviously in the case of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. This summer I devoured Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, a transcript of David Foster Wallace and David Lipsky’s five-day road trip back in 1996; when autumn arrived it was Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a less-literal depiction of Hunter S. Thompson’s (road) trip in 1971. The last book I finished before taking to the highways myself: Three Kinds of Motion by Riley Hanick. 

Apparently I had motion on the mind. And apparently I wasn’t alone—humans have found travel meaningful since time immemorial (or at least since Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey). Many of the world’s great myths and histories follow an expedition, from religious pilgrimages to knightly quests, Frodo Baggins to Luke Skywalker.

Many of the world’s great myths and histories follow an expedition, from religious pilgrimages to knightly quests, Frodo Baggins to Luke Skywalker.

Why do we find journeys so alluring? What prompts writers to send characters on arduous trips, and what pulls readers to follow along?

Some scholars of comparative literature claim that the “hero’s journey” formula is hardwired into humanity. Joseph Campbell, the most eminent among them, writes that “The usual hero adventure begins with someone […] who feels there is something lacking in the normal experience available or permitted to the members of society. The person then takes off on a series of adventures beyond the ordinary.”

Something is lacking (here). Travel is the response (to go elsewhere). See, for example, lines from some of the music I’ve been playing lately: 

I’ve got a hunger twisting my stomach into knots
My brain’s repeating, “If you've got an impulse let it out”
But they never make it past my mouth
This is the sound of settling

That complaint is from Death Cab For Cutie’s The Sound of Settling, which is followed by a song from their next album:  

Cause in my head there’s a Greyhound station
Where I send my thoughts to far-off destinations
So they may have a chance of finding a place
Where they’re far more suited than here
And I do believe it’s true
That there are roads left in both of our shoes

From hungry dissatisfaction to the long-haul bus station, it sounds like lyricist Benjamin Gibbard is itching to embark on a classic hero’s journey. Perhaps that’s why I’ve been listening to these albums on repeat: I, too, felt hungry to embark on a new adventure. 

In that case, according to Campbell, the hero’s journey model dictates that Gibbard and I should go full circle and end with a homecoming: “It's usually a cycle, a coming and a returning,” he writes. “A decisive victory is won: The hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” Think of Frodo feasting in the Shire with other happy hobbits, or Luke surrounded by celebrating Ewoks. Hell, even Kerouac and Thompson made it back to New York and L.A., respectively and miraculously.

But not me. My road trip was a one-way deal: Seattle to Albuquerque, no return route required.

This adventurous life journey I’m on may not be particularly heroic by anyone’s standards, least of all Campbell’s, but at least it’s ‘beyond the ordinary.’

When I hold up my journey to Campbell’s formula in my mind, I find the end is missing. I’ve got the bulk of the narrative in place—I took off on “adventures beyond the ordinary”—but the final chapter defies convention. With no victorious homecoming in sight, I guess I can’t consider myself mythologically heroic after all. 

Pilgrims, knights, hobbits, and Jedis have noble missions to complete, but not all of us need such grand motivations when we decide to set out into the world. Call my road trip a non-hero’s journey, then. I itched to leave not for the sake of returning more fulfilled in a completed circle, but simply intent on ending up elsewhere. Perhaps that’s reflected in my soundtrack’s recent transition from Death Cab to Regina Spektor:   

Think of all the roads
Think of all their crossings
Taking steps is easy
Standing still is hard

Regina doesn’t express a deep lack that needs to be filled. It’s simpler than that: sometimes standing still is, just, hard. Staying in one place for too long can feel like being caged. Why settle for that when so many roads await you out there? 

In my moments of stillness up in Seattle I devoured others’ travel stories, in book form and even in song—as many kinds of motion as I could. They tided me over until I could create my own kind by picking up and moving once more. I may not be on much of a mission; this nomadic life I’m leading may not be heroic by anyone’s standards, least of all Campbell’s. But at least it’s “beyond the ordinary,” and that’s enough for me. 

Bill Moyers: We're not going on our journey to save the world but to save ourselves. 
Joseph Campbell: But in doing that you save the world. The influence of a vital person vitalizes. 

Interview transcribed in The Power of Myth