By: Molly Pease | Photos Contributed by: Sina Iranikhah
Like most college students, I have attempted to read Jack Kerouac's “On the Road.” The process is a lot like eating a package of marshmallow Peeps. At first you get the sugar rush, speeding through the unbroken stream of words, no paragraph indentation in sight. Then the excitement of unbound freedom swells in your brain and sinks to your throat. Eventually, you have ingested too much and have to put the book down, hoping to try again next Easter.
I do hope to read most of Kerouac's work at some point, if only to understand what all the “free-spirited” college freshmen are talking about. In the mean time, I found an easier way to educate myself on themes of freedom, America, travel and art: a shortcut through others' experiences. I got the CliffsNotes on travel from students who are country-crossers and art-makers. First I sat down with spoken word poet Maddie Huffman and then-photographer Sina Iranikhah.
I had the pleasure of talking with Huffman, a junior English major from Marietta, on the morning of a mutual hangover. When she is not reading books that are twice the size of the first Harry Potter, Maddie writes and performs poetry around town. Before entering college, she traveled around the country for three months by living out of her car. She says that her experience instilled her need to write.
“That summer is when I started journaling. I was writing almost every single day, which I miss dearly. It gave me stuff to write about, so the people I met became the characters in my stories. I'm not much of a picture taker, so I tend to just write and describe things,” Huffman says.
Huffman described her adventures with stories rich in detail and character: a patchwork of people who stitched together a better understanding of this country. Before she even left for the trip, waiting at the bus stop, Huffman ended up giving all her money to a woman whose leg had been burnt by her husband. The woman desperately needed to escape, so without hesitation, Huffman handed her half of her savings. As the trip became more frugal, the help of strangers became more important.
“I was freezing on the bus, and this little old African-American lady came over with a blanket. We shared it for a few hours, talking. And then she left,” Huffman says.
“Short-term interactions help you be more compassionate. If you're able to lend yourself to a stranger and give them what they need in that moment – whether it's a blanket or someone to listen – than you've made a connection,” Huffman says.
In some ways, this can be the hardest part of traveling: learning to let go. Each step of the traveling process is moving further into the unknown. First, you must let go of everything that is holding you back from leaving. In the act of traveling, you must let go of plans, of expectations, of partners, of love affairs, of instantaneous friendships, of places... and money. There is a lot of letting go of money.
“I've always had a harder time leaving places and then leaving people. Like it'd be hard for me to leave my campsite cause I'd felt like I made such a home for myself there,” Huffman says.
Iranikhah is a junior marketing major from Johnson Ferry and an ingenious photographer. Iranikhah and two friends spent 95 hours in the car over spring break driving from Athens to California, passing through sixteen states. Iranikhah says he cannot quite remember how the idea originated, but he knew that spring breaks are finite and so he rented a car and left. As a photographer, traveling through the most gorgeous, diverse landscapes of this state irrevocably altered his view of a camera's ability to capture a moment.
“I have been looking at this desert for 50 miles now, how can I take a different perspective? To me, photography is a way to convey a message and evoke emotion in the viewer. It allowed me to add depth to the landscape,” Iranikhah says.
Iranikhah not only documented his trip but also better understood it through the lens of his camera. The photos he took were beautiful and deliberate. They captured both a focused physical aspect and the emotional energy of the moment. You could feel the energy of each movement that led to the actual shot: the fear and palpable awe of a photo taken two feet away from a Roosevelt elk after a morning of searching for them or the magnitude of the Redwood forest evoking the reality of our own smallness in this world.
“The first time we walked into the Redwood Forest and saw some of the bigger trees, it felt like we were on another planet. They've been there for four to five hundred years. If a tree can get through the bad times so can you if you dig really deep. If something can stay upright for that long, so can you,” Iranikhah says.
“Driving these 95 hours, I thought of our ancestors who made this same trek on horseback. The sheer determination that must have taken is nuts. If you truly believe in something and think it's worth it, you can move mountains,” Iranikhah says.
Both Huffman and Iranikhah’s experiences show that going across the country inherently imbues you with a sense of connection to this country and its past. Iranikhah admitted that it is easy to get caught up in the negative of this country with the overwhelming heartbreak broadcasted on the news each day. He says that this is why traveling is so therapeutic. It reminds you that there is a unique beauty to this country.
“Traveling made me love the country a lot more. My dad emigrated here from Iran and worked his way up. I appreciate living here. Seeing the West Coast makes you feel lucky to be living in the country with so many things to see, so many different cultures. It's an incredibly diverse country. We were built upon a culture of acceptance and love. You hear the different accents and slang but at the end of the day if you're from the states, you're from the states,” Iranikhah says.
It seems important to artists to find both that diverse sameness. Artists have the urge to explore their art through different landscapes and to use art as a record of their surroundings and feelings within a finite time and space. Once they have captured it, they move on.
When asked for any advice to give to others interested in traveling, Iranikhah gave a solid piece of advice: “Just do it, you only get one shot, you gain an appreciation for who you are and where you come from. It's easy to [get] clouded by the negativity coming from news about this state and country, but when you go out and see the beauty and scenery, you remember the good in the country.”