Reading Unpacked: How Reading Helps to Cure My Travel Envy

In his song “The Inner Light,” George Harrison wrote, “Without going out of your door, you can know all things on Earth.” I realize he adapted the idea from the Taoist Tao Te Ching and that he is actually speaking about enlightenment, but it sure does make me feel better when I see my empty suitcase shoved in the back of my closet.

The thing is sometimes I feel like everyone I know has been somewhere worth going to, and I can’t help feeling left out. Sure, I’ve been to some cool places:

NewYork

 

GrandCanyon

But the truth is I can’t help feeling like I’m missing out on something, like there’s this big wide world out there that I haven’t seen and everybody else has (maybe a little bit of an over exaggeration, but just go with me on this).

Bookshelf

Typically, when I start feeling a bit bored and blue, I turn to my books. What better way to forget your own petty annoyances than to get involved in someone else’s fictional ones, right?

Therein lies the Ah-ha! Moment when I realize I couldn’t be more mistaken about my lack of expedition experience.

BooksasTravel

I am a firm believer that reading is the only way to get anywhere without going anywhere. Except maybe to the local library or bookstore. This one is my favorite.

Anyway, when I start getting travel envy, I think of all the places my books have taken me and feel an immediate sense of relief, not because I’m proving that I’ve been somewhere, but because my vision of what these worldly places should be is untainted by the experience of reality.

BooksasTraveltextbox

 Take The Shadow of the Wind.

TheShadowoftheWind

It’s one of my favorites, a book I’ve returned to multiple times. In its pages I’ve wandered the streets of Barcelona with Daniel. I’ve seen its best parts. I’ve seen its dark parts, too, at least the way Zafon paints them. And I have to say that the Barcelona I see in my mind is one I have fallen in love with, especially the parts that may or may not really be there (like the cemetery of forgotten books—if you don’t know what it is, you should definitely find out).

ShadowoftheWindtextbox

I’m sure the real Barcelona is lovely. I even wanted to go there for awhile (I still haven’t ruled it out.). Then I realized that going there would force me to sacrifice the city I’ve constructed for myself because you know what they say: once you’ve seen something, you can’t unsee it. And I’m just not sure I’m ready to relinquish the fictional city I love for a real city I honestly don’t know much about. Call it fear. Call it rationalizing. Whatever.

There are a lot of reasons for a lot of people to disagree with me about this. They’ll say it’s a cop-out, that I’m just trying to find a way, any way, to make myself feel better for being state-bound. I suppose there’s probably some truth to that. If someone handed me a plane ticket and said, “Go,” I don’t think I’d say no. But that’s not really the point, is it?

The point, my friends, is this: we are unbelievably lucky, those of us who know what it is to see so clearly in our minds something we’ve never actually seen in real life, because when resources or circumstances prevent it, we are still able to whisk ourselves away to stories, lives, and places infinitely more interesting than our own. So I’m not suggesting a forfeiture of travel in favor of the couch in the living room (although that couch is pretty darn comfy and doesn’t require a passport or a suitcase). What I’m saying is that the stories we read are both a consolation and a prize, but not a consolation prize. They allow us the pleasure of experience AND the beauty of imagination. And who knows? Sometimes what we imagine can feel as good as the real thing.

signature

For M.C.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about all the places we’ve gotten in the car and driven to: El Paso, the Grand Canyon, Richmond, New York, D.C., Orange Beach, Virginia Beach. I have a great appreciation for road trips, particularly ours. It was at this time last year that we began our weekly trips from Richmond to Nashville, getting the house ready to settle into. The thing about road trips is they force you into such close proximity that animosity cannot sustain itself. We argue, we bicker, we sulk. Then we get over it. Because not getting over it means hours of no noise but road noise, which is stupifying in its consistency. The only available alternative is to move forward both metaphorically and physically.

Captivating road trip conversation is yet another reason to go in the first place. When we run out of things to talk about, the trip will inevitably provide a topic of conversation. For example, halfway through Texas I had no clue what else to say. I felt like I’d told you everything about myself that you’d care about, and my mind frantically mined itself for something clever to say. That’s when we passed the windmills, remember? They are fodder for conversation in and of themselves, especially at night, their insufferable consistency and solemnity offering a bleak support for the harsh solitude that is central Texas. I miss those conversations.

I want us to take road trips again. I want us to go places, just us two. And maybe the dogs. I want to find new places and see new things, even horrible ones, with you. I want to create with you the stories we’ll tell for the rest of our lives. In order to do that, though, you have to keep with me. You cannot abandon me to myself and expect me to create the most positive definition of my life, of our life. You can’t leave me to my own devices because they are faulty and cheaply made, the only tools that can come from a factory of anxiety and depression. I cannot tell a good story by myself. So what I’m asking you, the case I’m pleading, is that you never disappear from me.

Never take yourself away from me because I can’t understand distance. In the same way I have no concept of distance measurement, so, too, emotional distance holds no inherent definition for me. I cannot be distanced from you without anxious fatigue. I need you with me, or I am not myself, and my story becomes tangled in all the things I never was and all the things I’ll never be. You are me as much as I am.

Please don’t disappear from me.

Are We There Yet?

A timeless question uttered by innumerable children (and countless adults, if we are to be honest with ourselves). Generally when this question finds its way to the conversation, we are at our wits’ end. We have run out of the patience we promised ourselves we’d maintain upon embarking on the journey, and now it becomes all about the destination.

So what do we do when we arrive only to find that the journey, cliche as it sounds, was the best part of the experience?

This isn’t to suggest that the destination isn’t worth the journey. Take Carlsbad Caverns, for instance. The caverns themselves are breathtaking. Words large enough to describe what has happened there underground do not exist. It is both alarming and humbling to look up and see the literal weight of the world supporting itself right above your head. Yes, Carlsbad Caverns are unquestionably a destination for which making a trip is completely justified.

20120111-170620.jpg

Getting to the point, it is perhaps the people inside that offer as much amusement as the stalactites and stalagmites. Upon entering the caves, whole families wrought with the pleasure of being out of the car and the anticipation of what lies in store for them eagerly make the initial decent. Despite the warnings of the park rangers to “only whisper” because of the echo, children find it difficult to contain their enthusiasm, and parents find it equally difficult to contain their tempers. By the time these families reach the bottom, they are as ready to find themselves on the journey home as they were to find themselves making their arrival.

“Why didn’t you tell me there was more down here to see?!” the husband bellows to his wife (inasmuch as a person can bellow in a whispered voice).

“It says it right there on the sign,” the wife explains in that tone of exasperation so familiar to a woman who has endured both an exasperating car ride and a rather difficult and unexpected (why walk when they have elevators that take you all the way down to the bottom?) hike to a cave she did not want to see in the first place.

“I did not drive all this way to see only part of this thing. I wanna see the whole thing. Now, how do you get over to that part?”

His wife has apparently interpreted the question as rhetorical as she is no longer acknowledging her petulant husband.

Meanwhile, the children have run into one of the far reaches of the main cavern, forcing their parents out of their argument and into a frenzied effort to decipher the cavern map, and the other tourists are simply trying to avoid being caught in the crossfire.

20120111-170703.jpg

Further up the path, a young couple accompanied by a belligerent father attempt to captivate the moment via digital camera. The younger gentleman readies himself to act as photographer only to find the batteries have long since outlived their usefulness. Ever the helpful soul, the wise father makes an attempt to offer his sage advice:

“What’s the matter with that thing?”

“Well, Dad, it appears the batteries have died.”

“Batteries? I thought you replaced the batteries before we left?”

“I did, Dad, but I replaced them with old batteries from the drawer.”

“Old batteries? You mean used ones?”

“Yes, Dad.”

“Well, that’s just no good.”

Score one for belligerent old man. There is something to be said for stating the obvious, and an important lesson was learned by all. Hopefully.

Yes, the caverns are a sight worth seeing. And so are the faces of the families making their departure. They sullenly rip the doors open on their Minnesota minivans, resigned to the vicious ride that awaits them and thankful that family trips only happen once every summer.

Hello, Hello

Goodbyes are never easy, even when we think they are. Even when we think they should be. Some of us can move on from them, transitioning to whatever is next with little turbulence. For the rest of us, however, goodbyes have a way of exposing how much of ourselves is contingent on other people, places, circumstances. They have a way of revealing to us how flawed we have actually been.

Saying goodbye immediately opens the door to reflection. We are able to see ourselves and our lives (and how we’ve lived them) as if the drunk goggles have been freshly removed. We understand what people really mean to us, how much they’ve influenced us for better or for worse, consciously or not. We see situations for how they really were, not how we perceived them to be. And we are forced to grapple with how the part of our lives to which we are saying goodbye helped to make us who we are. Sometimes the leap from start to finish poses more questions than answers, and sometimes the effects of particular parts of life are left to simmer beneath the surface. But a goodbye always helps to illuminate both things well done and room for improvement.

If, as Newton declares, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, then the cure for the malaise induced by goodbye can be located in hello. Hellos are beginnings. Hellos haven’t been tainted with undesirable circumstances and human foibles. Hellos are a second chance, a consolation prize for the discomfort of goodbye.

The end of this chapter in my life begets the beginning of a new chapter. I’ve said (most of) my goodbyes, and I’ve regretted opportunities taken for granted. I’ve beaten myself up over what I should have done, over taking things for granted, over not seeing potential when it was blatantly obvious. And it’s been uncomfortable, lamenting lost opportunities and wasted time. But now…

Bring on the hellos.

No Vacancy

Have you ever noticed that the lodgings you see abandoned on the side of the interstate are always motels, not hotels? And they are infallibly present at the exits we don’t want to take, the ones that seem to lead to nowhere. I see these places, and I can’t help wondering what happened to them. Where did all the people go? What did it look like in its heyday (if it ever had one)? Why did it close down? Who were the first people to stay in it? Who were the last?

They sit recessed from the road only enough for nonexistent cars to park in front of the rooms, which, more often than not, are now doorless. There is a notable lack of glass in the windows, but sometimes the mini blinds that once hung there have been left hanging askew, bent and twisted. The brick is, of course, its original color, indelibly marking the decade from whence the structure sprung, but the paint is certain to be peeling away from the trim and gutters. The furniture is long since gone, probably with the last drifters to occupy the place, but the signs out front still advertise vacancies and color TVs in every room. They are the original signs with hundreds of multi-colored lightbulbs that were so popular in decades past, and it’s not hard to imagine that their blinking in the dark might have once signaled a welcome stop for those on their way to somewhere else. The signs stopped blinking a long time ago.

No road trip would be complete without spotting one of these relics. In fact, it may seem to some that the trip is not complete without them. And we never like to actually get out and examine these places. There have been far too many scary movies based on them for that. But still they sit, reminding us that we have always had the impulse to wander, to stay in unfamiliar places and sleep in beds that aren’t our own. There have always been those to cater to the need of the traveler for temporary lodging, but look at what they’ve become. Today we have Hampton Inns and Embassy Suites at nearly every exit. They are shiny and clean, and many of them are new. But what will happen to them in years to come? Will we continue to see them as bastions of repose for the weary traveler, or will we eventually relegate them to use in horror movies as we have their predecessors? Will they continue to house those of us on our way to bigger better things, or will they eventually sit vacant, functioning only in the memories of those who stayed in them?