Thursday, February 19, 2015

Speeding through time zones

at the Hoover Dam, circa 2002

Crossing America at 65mph

 When I was 23 I stood at the edge of Old Faithful with throngs of other tourists waiting for the big geyser to erupt. After ten minutes of waiting I got fed up and we left. I went to Yellowstone National Park, I stood next to the geyser, and I left without seeing it erupt because I was impatient. That is just embarrassing.

Hans and I were driving across country, from Montana to Connecticut. We had done the trip the previous year and we had made a real vacation out of it. Six weeks: Graceland, the Texas panhandle, White Sands National Monument, The Grand Canyon, Vegas, California. Our return trip was more of a trip than an adventure, but we tried to hit some big sites on the way. Like Yellowstone. We were speeding across country; we were speeding through the time zones. How much did we miss by sticking to the interstates as opposed to the Blue Highways?

Intentional travel. Slow down, see the sights

In his book Along the Edge of America, Peter Jenkins runs a boat along the Gulf Coast shoreline from the Florida Keys to the Texas-Mexico border. He writes "I could not have done this particular boat trip when I was twenty-two. I had to . . . learn to slow down, to be vulnerable, to understand both how different and how alike people can be." (p. 274) I hear you Peter Jenkins. I can say, without a doubt, that if I were at Yellowstone today, I would wait for that geyser to erupt.

How long does it take to get to know a place and its people? The argument for "forever" can be made. Or, "you'll never know a place till you live there." Back in my college years, Swedes told me that you never break the ice with Swedes until you get drunk together. (And Swedes can get rip-roaring drunk.) In a place with four seasons, like my home state of Vermont, you can say that you never really know it till you've lived through the grips of winter in January, mud season in March, and leaf-peeping season in October.

But what about the traveler? If you have a two-week vacation, is it even feasible to think that you might get to know a place, or its people? Or should you just scrap the idea of finding cultural and social connections and just book a room at an all-inclusive?

Don't even.

Create memories, make friends, find a sense of place

I have some fantastic memories from my travels, from places we only stopped for one night, or spent one afternoon or three days.
  • There was the family on the west coast of Puerto Rico who were our personal tour guides for a day. They wanted to get into the tourism business, we were their guinea pigs. Win win.  The next day they invited us to their house for Thanksgiving, and the day after they came sailing with us. We spent three days together but those days were so rich and so full.
  • I'll never forget the night in Bequia when we watched the returns roll in for the 2008 Presidential election. We were the only Americans, the only tourists in a bar/fried chicken shack and we celebrated raucously with the island's residents.
  • And, most recently, there was the mechanic in South Carolina who, after diagnosing our engine as dead in the water, invited us to his boat to show the girls his shark tooth collection. It was a glimpse into a different life - a cigarette-smoking, soap opera-watching life - that reminded me that we're all unique, but still the same. I shudder at the damage to the girls' lungs in those 10 minutes we were aboard the boat, but the mechanic and his wife were so sweet with the girls and they loved boats. As Freja likes to say: same-same.
Of course, while a week spent lounging on a beach chair at an all-inclusive would be infinitely relaxing, it's just not for me. When I travel I crave social connection, human interaction, newfound cultural insights. Being away from home and outside of my comfort zone does not stress me out or make me anxious. Quite the contrary. Stepping outside of my daily life is precisely what relaxes me.

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