The Road Less Traveled
Observations on Taking a Different Path
“Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific — and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.”
John Keats, On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken
Two famous poems by two famous poets, addressing similar themes, but reaching arguably different conclusions. One concludes with happy astonishment, almost exultation; the other ends in cryptic mystery to some people. But they are somehow interconnected, at least for us.
On one hand, it’s clear that Keats was explaining the thrill of experiencing something new and undiscovered for the first time. For Keats, it was staying up all night to read George Chapman’s translation of Homer. The poem has become a classic, and it is often cited to demonstrate the emotional power of a great work of art, and the ability of great art to create an epiphany in its beholder.
I experienced this sort of “epiphany” Keats did when, in the summer of 2007 while in Dublin with my wife, I saw Caravaggio’s painting “The Taking of Christ” in the National Gallery of Ireland and was immediately emotionally overwhelmed.
The moment dramatized in the painting derives from the Gospel of Mark, 14:44: “Whomsoever I shall kiss, that same is he; take him, and lead him away safely.”
In an act of treachery almost mixed with passion Judas has just handed Jesus over to the Roman centurions. We do not see the actors in this drama straight on. No one looks out at us directly; everyone is cast in partial light or rendered in profile.
The fact of almost unrelieved darkness produces tragedy, mystery and foreboding. It also suggests the universality of the event. There is no garden, no background, no setting, just the action, a snapshot caught at the moment, with neither preparation nor aftermath. What we see, Caravaggio suggests, might occur anywhere.
Theologically, everyone betrays Jesus. Every single one of us.
This all hit me with the force of some tremendous emotional blow as I stood alone with my wife in the gallery looking at the masterpiece.
But it doesn’t have to be a great work of art to create an epiphany in the eye of the beholder. It could simply be looking for the first time at the Yosemite Valley, or the waves off Oahu’s north shore, or driving through the Shenandoah or Blue Ridge Mountains.
On the other hand, literary scholars argue over what Frost actually meant in his poem about the road he did not take and the one he did; the proverbial road not taken. Some say Frost’s protagonist was lamenting what might have been if he had taken a different road. Original interpretations held that the protagonist was looking back with quiet satisfaction over having made the right decision on which path to follow. Some modern critics, perhaps reading too deeply into things, say the writer was looking back with regrets over having taken the wrong path.
I am with the originalists.
We took the path less traveled by, and it has made all the difference in my life. And that’s why I know I made the right decision, because I have experienced several times over what Cortez did when he gazed on the Pacific for the first time, “silent upon a peak in Darien.”
I could’ve stayed on the road I was on, the one traveled by the overwhelming majority of people. It might have been easier. It was definitely the safer path. It was a better-paved road, one well-laid down and mapped out, one with more certainty in its outcome. It was the road followed by the vast majority of people.
The well-trodden road had plenty of gas stations and rest stops along the way. There was little chance of finding myself lost out in the wilderness with nowhere to turn for help; someone would be there, for a price. But that price could be any number of things; numerous obligatory duties, and still other prices and duties that people held close to their chest, silent, secret, ephemeral. Nothing was ever open and transparent on that path. The biggest price was conformity; conformity with others’ way of life, living according to their expectations; what they wanted me to do.
That well-paved highway led, perhaps, to a job with a law firm or corporation in a small, college town, one in which you might have to put in 60-hour work weeks for a paltry salary for the first decade of service. It would be a small enough salary to barely make ends meet, yet large enough to keep you under their control and on the hook; to make you dependent on them and their whims, the latter of which changed as quickly as the weather.
It would be just enough to give you a glimpse into the American Dream, one that would help purchase a tidy, but small little bungalow in which to start your new little family. Much of your pay would be spent on weekends at Lowe’s or Home Depot purchasing materials to fix up your tidy but aging structure. You and your wife would have to fix the fixer upper.
And that more-trodden road would have consisted of attending local bar meetings, obligatory daily lunches at high noon, and the equally obligatory happy hours at the watering holes where the big fish in the small pond held court about how awesome they were, making all that money in that little town.
Saturdays during the fall would be spent at more obligatory functions such as pregame drinking parties at the bosses’ homes, everyone tritely decked out in their obligatory outfits in the school colors, people engaging in banal discussions about the team’s prospects for the new season, or worse, the current political situation.
Indeed, what is more trite, stifling, and downright boring than people with very limited life experiences talking about politics? You would hear some guy roll out his view on some political issue and think, “Dude, you’ve never been outside this town. Why should I care what you have to say about anything?”
And the feeling holds true to this day.
I started down that path for a short time. The problem was, the more I went down that path, the more I disliked it. Actually, I have to be honest: I hated it. I detested it.
It was a path on which my wife was discriminated against because she got pregnant with our first son early during her employment. They actually said it out to her out loud and in-person. A similarly-situated male who started the same time she did got a raise and she did not. All on the same day. She quit the next day. But I wonder how many women over the years have had to put up with conduct like that. To put up with this garbage was one of the requirements of taking the more -well-trodden path.
I have no idea what would’ve happened had I not turned around, walked back the way I had come, and found the barely visible trailhead for the other path. I don’t ever think too deeply about it, because the prospect of it is too depressing to consider too seriously. I leave it deep in the past, where I’ve tried and mostly succeeded in burying it. But I still remember, because I have a very long memory.
I think you get the picture.
But it wasn’t like the new path was absent challenges, obstacles, and trepidation. I gazed down it and it seemed to disappear just a few yards from the trailhead. When I looked at the map, the topography looked difficult. The path went over high hills and through deep valleys. There were storms to endure and rivers and streams to navigate. And I had no idea where it might lead.
This was a path we had to hack out of the wilderness, at least at first. We were “blazing” our own trail, with no help from anyone, except God. No one helped us. We did it alone.
No one helped us; we did it alone. And we still to this day, remember.
It was almost like they all wanted us to fail. Or come back “home,” to their path. The one that started and ended in the same place: A hamster wheel to nowhere.
It was very difficult making our way down the other path, and there were a few times we considered turning around and going back to the other one, though never seriously. That was unacceptable.
And then one day, I suddenly realized something: There was nothing back on the other path for me or my family. We could not go back. We wouldn’t go back. Whatever the costs, we were going to plow our way down the path less traveled. There was no going back.
In the final analysis, we took the path less-traveled, and that gave us the opportunity to experience what Keats felt when he wrote his immortal poem. Had we stayed on the more frequently-traversed path, we never would have.
The path less-traveled took us all over the United States and — eventually — the world. It took us to places and gave us experiences we would’ve never seen had we remained on the other path. There would have been no writing career on the other path because there would’ve been noting to write about.
And the decision we made to follow the path less-traveled has made all the difference.
Glen Hines is the author of five books, including the recently published Of Time and Rivers, and the highly-regarded Bring in the Gladiators, Observations From a Former College Football Player Who Was Never Able to Become a Fan, all available at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble. He is the writer and producer of the book and podcast “Welcome to the Machine,” available on most podcast platforms. His writing has also been featured in Sports Illustrated, Task & Purpose, and the Human Development Project.