Is It Time? Are We There Yet?
“I saw it in their eyes … a burning desire to go, to move, to get under way, anyplace, away from here. I saw this look and heard this yearning everywhere in every state I visited.” John Steinbeck
“I’m going to HEL,” was the way I began a letter to a friend after I’d booked a trip that began and ended in Germany, with cruise stops in in Norway, Sweden, Estonia, Russia, and Helsinki, Finland, aka HEL in airport IATA lingo. Was it just a coincidence we’d arrive there on a Friday the 13th? I also wondered if I’d get lucky in Semback, Germany, as its airport code is SEX, and there was an US Army airbase nearby. It was a glorious trip, and if you’ve been reading my blogs, you know I get around, rather, I got around until, well, you know.
Too many of us define our current situation like Paul Theroux defined a good trip, via negatives—‘I didn’t crash, wasn’t late, didn’t get lost, spike a fever, or throw up and get sick…’ A negative can be a positive, except when you’re positive that if you don’t soon get to go somewhere, you’re going to scream or do something dumb, like stick out your hitchhiking thumb. I don’t know about you but I’m feeling petulant. My thumb is aching to (figuratively) hitch a ride to some unvisited part of the world, Tasmania perhaps, or the Antarctica? HEL, I’ll even revisit a familiar place, as long as it’s far from home sweet here in Tennessee. It’s exceedingly difficult to stand still and wait for the world to change, heal. It’s a bit like going to an airport with the code SEA to wait until a ship appears. How about you? Is your thumb getting itchy?
I say figuratively because I actually only hitchhiked once, in my teen years, with a fabulous, fearless friend, who’s since died—a suicide. She liked the idea of travel, but I could never entice her onto a plane or ship, never convince her to get a passport. Her preferred method of travel was via canvases and acrylics. She’d create achingly beautiful works of art; each picture a story connected to her past. I suspect she traveled only when she needed to hide. The older she got, the more she hid—from me, from the world. Still, we had a few awesome adventures. The reckless escapade we had when we hitched a ride, across state lines, to visit a boy, is tattooed into memory. An adventure is what you call it when you survive a risky journey. An unexpected ending is what you call it when you don’t.
Is it time to tell my friend’s story, to retrace her steps, determine where she faltered before she fell? Perhaps while I’m waiting it out at Chez Moi, I could start outlining the book. It would begin at the end of her life, describe how this land bound lady came to live out her final years in an East Coast tourist town oddly or appropriately named Kill Devil Hills. I could astrally visit the underworld on a sort of existential day pass; see if I can locate her spirit or shade. Am I ready for such a deep, painful dive?
Tom Robbins wrote a dizzy, darling book about a professional hitchhiker named Sissy Hankshaw, an enchanting girl born with two very oversized thumbs. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues is the only one of his books (so far) to be made into a movie. It didn’t translate well. How could it? The romance of travel is a very intimate thing, often requiring sacrifice and suffering. Sissy suffered, even had a thumb amputated. She was torn between a physical lover that wanted her to stay put, and a phantom lover that insisted she keep moving. Guess who won?
Is it safe to talk again about the travel bug that’s infected some of us? Is it okay to admit it’s incurable, nearly impossible to treat, and spreadable? I’ve experienced what some dub the goldish years of travel, when you could get a lst class upgrade, a steak, caviar, & lobster five course meal; and endless drinks for less than $100 (or 50,000 points). The Concorde got you from New York to London in three hours, and it didn’t cost extra to check a 29 inches wide, 70 pound piece of luggage. My suitcase often weighed 70 pounds because I packed matching shoes, leather handbags, hats, and gloves for every outfit; outdoors, indoor, day and night time attire, jewelry, scarves, and undergarments. Too often a second bag, loaded with souvenirs, accompanied me on the return trip.
Over the decades, there were times I wished I could be like Johnny Appleseed, who wandered across America, barefoot, in uncoordinated rags, planting apple trees. Or lamented that I couldn’t follow in the tiny footsteps of one of Tolkien’s hobbit characters. They managed to fit essentials into a small sack. In later years, I admit, I’ve been a bit lazy. I’ve booked chartered trips, where someone else does the driving and schlepping of luggage, and takes care of excursion and dining details. Or I’ve booked a cruise ship vacation, where I only have to unpack once. I can literally have my passport stamped in seven countries in eight days, eat at countless restaurants, mangle three or four languages, and be entertained from dawn till midnight. But my favorite kind of trip remains one where I wing it, travel solo or with my brother, and let the place and its people reveal itself. Sometimes a place will even share a secret, if one is patient and stands very still. After a year of practicing staying at home, just think of the secrets the first new place you visit may reveal.
I loved reading Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. Travel with my canine companions can be daunting. My weim sticks her head out of the sunroof. This makes her jowls flap in the wind, drool escapes, and often lands on my right cheek. My Staffordshire bulldog likes to ride shotgun and bark frequent commentary on what she sees. After a trip to the park, the windows bear their nose prints. On one trip, the car reeked of dead fish. My weim had waded into the lake, snagged a dead fish, brought it to shore, and rolled over it multiple times. My other dog followed suit. I used a hand towel and bottle of water to clean the fishy parts off them as best as I could. At home, they both got a bath, so did the car, and finally me.
For years, I’ve plotted a slightly different sort of trip from the one Steinbeck took across America with his poodle Charley. He traveled in a customized camper named after Don Quixote’s horse. My trip would be on a motorcycle. I’d have to travel light, with little more than what George Carlin had in his bag right before he got down to bare basics in his skit in A Place for my Stuff: comb, condom, lighter, pen, smokes, wallet, and attitude. I estimated I could fit two changes of clothing, an airport approved baggie of toiletries, my road journal, maps, and a few paperbacks in the saddlebag. My sad, tattered copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was essential; I’d use it to trace the route Pirsig documented in his book. I would call the journey Travels on a Harley. I still haven’t taken that trip nor dozens of others.
The question is WHEN, not WHERE or WHY we’ll be traveling again. As a writer, I deal with where a story takes place, where it’s going, and why. I also control the when. The universe works differently. World, I’m not getting any younger. I’ve been tested, and my patience’s been tested; it’s negative. Open says me, open borders, gangways, and museum doors. Replace travel bans with traveling bands. I’m tired of saying I missed the boat. I want to be sea-duced, reach cruising altitude again. I think it’s time. I’ve polished those boots made for walking and reread 101 Places to See Before You Die. I’m still 22 places shy.
I’m ready to be off my rocker and onto something that moves fast and far, ready to take the road not taken. I’m ready to resume being that crazy lady with RLS (restless lip syndrome) that blurts ‘did you know Sorrento means sirens in Italian? What do you think happened to Spartacus’ body and the Lost Colony of Roanoke, D. B. Cooper, Jimmy Hoffa…?’ Or, ‘here in Fort Lauderdale, mosquitoes travel in gangs. If only we could get them to suck fat, not blood.’ Dare I say I’m even ready to be inconvenienced by long TSA security lines, patronized by a 20 year old Barista at a Star Bucks in De Moines, and kept waiting by a Vegas casino parking attendant?
Will there be a 2021 Ripper Conference in London, where the 2,021st theory about who Jack was is presented? Will a bunch of crime writers/solvers gather in Nashville late this summer to exchange ideas about the fine art of murder and decide in which chapter the killer should be revealed? Will we gather at the pub and ‘ever ready, stand our glasses steady, drinking to those dead already and those next to die’? Will families gather round tables to talk turkey and will Who’s gather in Whosville this December? Are we there yet?
Most of all, I want to take so many new trips they all run together, like fine whisky in ice (I stole that line from a country song). I want to hear about your new views, new vistas, once travel resumes. What did you see in the rear view mirror? What’s behind you now? What’s in front? May the road rise up to meet you, rather than slamming you in the face like it did me a few Paddy’s Day’s ago. Whoops, too soon? Slainte!