The True Price Of Gas

The truly sad price of gas we might not feel the immediate effects of is that the great American pastime of the road trip may be coming to the end of the road.
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With my travel memoir, Queen of the Road: The True Tale of 47 States, 22,000 Miles, 200 Shoes, 2 Cats, 1 Poodle, a Husband, and a Bus With a Will of Its Own, a "hilarious reading adventure" (as one of my blurbers says, and who am I to argue?) out on June 3rd, I've started doing interviews on the book tour circuit. As a psychiatrist, I was excited by the opportunity to connect my book to a question I've often heard expressed in my office by people of a certain age: "Is this all there is?" Many times, this leads them to fantasize about drastically changing their lives. My husband and I actually did.

It wasn't easy. When Tim (also a psychiatrist), first said he wanted to "chuck it all" and travel around the country in a converted bus for a year, I demanded to know, "Why can't you be like a normal husband in a midlife crisis and have an affair or buy a Corvette?" Obviously the better shrink, he convinced me to set forth with our sixty-pound dog and two querulous cats in a 340-square-foot bus, traveling through 47 states - with no agenda. Queen of the Road is filled with juicy personal stories of my and Tim's own transformations along the way, and I was looking forward to interviews overflowing with questions like, "How did it feel to set out on such an adventure?" and "What have you learned to share with others?" No such luck.

Something political happened on the way to the book tour: I'm being cross-examined about the price at the pump. "Don't you feel guilty wasting diesel fuel in that gas guzzler?" Presented with all the indignation and gusto of the media feeding frenzy surrounding Jeffrey Dahmer, I find myself wanting to respond, "Just how many trees have you killed today?"

I wish I had some snappy retort as I do for when people discover I'm a psychiatrist and ask, as if I've never heard it before, "So, have you been analyzing me this whole time?" My answer: "Why? Do you think if I were a proctologist, I'd want to look up your butt?" But, I don't. Instead, I think how interesting it is that this issue comes up because the price of gas has increased - it's not like the effect on the environment of burning fuel suddenly became a bad thing. When we took the trip four years ago, and gas cost half as much, no one seemed to care. But now that we are all suffering along with our planet, the media are taking a righteous stand.

But, the truly sad price of gas we might not feel the immediate effects of is that the great American pastime of the road trip may be coming to the end of the road. Car travel is already down over the first holiday weekend of the summer, Memorial Day, and the trend is forecast to continue. What a shame; for the road trip is one of our last, shared activities, binding us as families and as a national culture. Where else do we get together and talk? During dinner? With all the varied schedules in the house - not to mention the TV blaring - that's unlikely. And, where else do we get to meet other families doing the same things; enjoying being together and exploring our great land? And how else can we come back to our homes and share what we've seen and experienced with friends, neighbors and co-workers who have traveled other places? Now, people can't even afford a ride to another state, let alone cross-country. And with the next big travel weekend of summer coming up on America's birthday, July 4th, I just have to wonder how much poorer we would all be as a country if Charles Kuralt had never shared with us his insights and experiences - obtained via motorhome.

In my practice I see again and again that it often takes something terrible for people to realize what the important things are in their lives. That's why so many inspirational memoirs center on some tragedy. My husband and I didn't want to wait for something terrible to happen to us before we changed our lives. If we hadn't taken this trip because of the price of gas, we would have paid an even higher price in terms of our quality of life: The "bus thing," as we came to call our year-long adventure, taught us the importance of living our dreams - now. Of not putting things off until we're potentially too old or ill.

We met so many diverse and interesting people all over the country, and found that we all have one thing in common - wanting to love and be loved. Spending time just talking, just being, is about as meaningful an experience as one can have. Sure, people say that's what's most important in their lives, but they don't really live that way. By spending so much quality time together on the road, we learned that lesson well. And while, yes, we were living in a luxury bus, we couldn't take much stuff with us (although I certainly tried). So, we also learned the importance of simplifying our lives, allowing us to better support our relationship - not our things.

Finally, we discovered we should never let the spark die. I hadn't wanted to go on the trip because my life was comfortable - too comfortable, in fact. We are afforded amazing opportunities in our country, and we all work very hard to achieve our goals, yet we get there and feel like there's something missing. What I hadn't realized is how rote and routine my life had become, that it's crucial to keep challenging and stretching ourselves. As a result, Tim and I actually ended up being grateful for our many misadventures: fire, flood, armed robbery, my developing a bus phobia and finding ourselves in a nudist RV park, to name just a few.

That's why we have decided (deep breath in, deep breath out) to sell our home and live in the bus full time. As much as journalists are intrigued by and appreciate the stories of our life-changing journey, they continue to relentlessly go back to the issue of the cost of a trip made in a big bus conversion. I honestly don't know if we could have taken the trip today with prices double what they were then. But this I know: Tim and I worked hard all our lives, put away money and used a chunk of our retirement savings to fund our journey. America may be the land of opportunity, but just because you come from a poor background, work your way through school and can now afford to do something out of the ordinary, don't expect people to be happy for you. There have been critical questions and snide remarks about that, as well.

Do the questions come from a real concern about gas guzzling and the environment, or do they stem from disdain for our pushing ourselves out of our own comfort zones to try and live a more adventurous life? I dedicated Queen of the Road to anyone searching for his or her inner bus. For us, it happened to require an extensive road trip in a "gas guzzler."

Not that I'm feeling guilty, but please consider this before succumbing to the press' knee-jerk reaction: Our bus had solar panels on the roof. We didn't have to heat a house in the winter or cool one in the summer. In fact, we rarely had to heat or cool our bus because we spent the winter in the south and the summer in the north (largely Alaska). Unlike most hotels, motels and restaurants, we recycled everything and certainly washed linens far less than daily. If a town didn't have a way to recycle, we hauled our refuse in our bay until we came to one that did. Furthermore, appliances in an RV are designed to be much more energy efficient than those in a home, whether it's a dishwasher, washer-dryer or refrigerator. Additionally, the average U.S. citizen uses 100 gallons of water a day. Our 175 gal water tank lasted the two of us a week. And, we never watered a lawn.

Finally, yes, while our miles per gallon were much less than a car's, we didn't drive every day - far from it. We often stayed in one place for a week or longer, and used our tow vehicle for day trips. We weren't commuting five days a week in separate cars like most couples. And, for the record, we're not energy wasters when stationary: Since I work at home, I have no commute. We recycle everything, reinsulated our house, installed an energy-efficient, clean-burn fireplace insert, as well as a swamp cooler, and are in the process of installing water-saving toilets. In fact, our utility bills are so low, our accountant told us to recalculate them, since "unless you're sitting in the cold and dark, this has to be a mistake."

But there is no mistake. And we, heads held high and hands steady (except when they're holding the great wheel of our beautiful bus conversion), advocate getting on that bus yourselves - in whatever form it takes. Get out of the ordinary and mix things up a bit, even for a day. The price of gas truly isn't always what it seems.

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