Below is a draft of the beginning of a book I’m working on. What’s it about? That’s part of the problem–it’s about too much: traveling, COVID-19, getting old, seeing too many contradictions between happy travels and refugee travels, between our green living world and the firestorms of the future.
But here’s the start. Tell me what you think.
Those who like to feel that they are always right and
who attach a high importance to their own opinions
should stay at home. Aldous Huxley, 1926
The irony of working on a book about travel when much of humanity is under house arrest is not lost on me. Youngsters may get work release, but it’s pretty much an indeterminate sentence for us over-60s. By now, in the summer of 2020, the experience has lost its newness, its adrenaline, its challenge to personal creativity. Let’s learn Japanese! Let’s perfect sourdough bread! Let’s hand-sew quilts! Let’s read Ulysses! No, none of these. Mostly I feel like turning over and going back to sleep.
We’re clearly in for the long slog. Cleaning out closets and sorting family photographs just isn’t going to fill the time I used to spend running around buying things, chatting with friends in bars and flying to interesting international destinations. Even the energizer bunnies of my acquaintance are losing their zippy personalities. No more streetside greetings. We turn away from each other on narrow sidewalks, hoping to shield our lungs from showers of virus. I no longer mouth an automatic smile under my homemade mask. The elbow bump had the lifespan of a fruit fly. I feel a mild depression coming on.
We wait for the vaccine, which we assume will exist and will work like magic. Not just for me, but for everybody. Until then, we can’t go anywhere. Never have so many canceled so much.
When I write “us over-60s” I don’t mean over 60 years old. I mean over the whole 60s decade. I’m in my early 70s; even without COVID-19, the idea of “journey” is taking on a darker existential meaning. And unlike most journeys, this one is a one-way trip—no returns, no changes to the itinerary. Although assumptions of immortality are common among the young they tend to fade with age, for me it’s been the reverse. I was sure I would die in my 20s; and now, despite everything, I find it hard and sad to imagine the world without me.
I have lived for the past forty years on a pleasant Seattle residential street in the same comfortable house, not too big, not too small—running hot and cold water, indoor plumbing, electricity, central heating and high bandwidth internet. Being cooped up here would be a divine heaven for well over half the human beings on Earth. As a prison, it’s light-years better than any I’ve seen or read about, even the enlightened ones in Denmark or Norway. Our house wraps me like a shiny high-tech space blanket with pockets. It’s warm, safe, pleasant, handy—so why do I wish to exchange it for a stiff, dusty, moth-eaten, but magically functional flying carpet?
I dream. I dream of journeys, past and future, real and pretend, mine and others. My travel imagination is profligate, selfish, amoral. I know all the environmentally devastating reasons to wave toodle-oo to jet travel, arrivederci to sipping espresso in Venice, sayonara to meditating on the cloud-pruned black pines in Kyoto’s imperial gardens, tashi delek la to hiking through Bhutan’s rhododendron forests, güle güle to eating tomatoes and olives at dawn on Turkey’s Lycian shores, and farewell to gazing at Denali’s magnificent profile unobscured by clouds. I know the bad and the beautiful, but shut my eyes and skitter away from inevitable stasis, existential or otherwise.
Instead I imagine casting my lot with Hermes, the Greek god of travel. And I know I’m not alone. A son of Zeus, Hermes had wings sprouting from his sandals, his hat and his staff. Haven’t we all had flying dreams? Flying dreams are the most commonly reported dream theme. I certainly remember mine from childhood: ecstasies of swooping around telephone poles, loop-the-looping around the wires, and then escaping, skimming faraway past the pointy fringed tops of the Doug fir trees, off to who knows where. Flight for us humans has always been the ultimate motion, the definitive trick. The god Hermes also has a reputation as a trickster, popping up all over the place, deflating our assumptions, exploding our pretenses. This endeared him to Jung. And perhaps to me.
Homo sapiens have been traveling for tens of thousands of years. Something might be better just over that hill…where does this river go?…is there gold on the other side of this ocean?…maybe we could start over, do better on Mars. Humans are migrants, explorers, wanderers, tourists. We roam, we stroll, we stride, we drift, we run. Our senses and brains are hardwired to notice motion, change, difference. Our survival has always depended on this focused alertness. We didn’t get to the top of the food chain by sitting still, by staying in our caves.
Every individual person’s trip is different, because our blankets (and our carpets) are all different. Even when we travel the same route, our experiences are all over the map. Many travel books are memoir: how the travel writer discovers a physical, spiritual or intellectual new world on a journey that changes her life (bittersweet, but always for the better). But travel literature—ask any bookstore owner—is incredibly capacious, and memoir is only one of a half-dozen of its faces; there are also shelves of travel books disguised as philosophy, advocacy, science, history, adventure, fiction. It’s a genre that, like its subject, has no respect for boundaries. Rick Steves broke out of his down-to-earth travel guide persona to write Travel as a Political Act, advocating travel as the key to a better, more peaceful world. Paul Theroux, likely the most prolific of adventuresome travel writers, published a compendium of other travelers’ mediations on travel called The Tao of Travel. Jenny Diski wrote a wonderful travel book called On Trying to Keep Still. There are dozens of entertaining volumes that describe bad trips, one titled I Should Have Stayed Home.
Years ago, I read Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel. It was a used copy, with an inscription. Someone had received it as a gift and eventually had sold it to Twice Sold Tales, a used bookstore in my neighborhood. The giver’s inscription reads: “Happy travels. Open your eyes and your heart! Wherever you are is exactly where you need to be.” Then there’s this: “P.S. I can’t remember if I enjoyed this or not, but it seemed fitting.”
So will my version seem fitting? Will you enjoy my journal of journeys, this trail of travels, my flight with Hermes? There will be some wandering, and a little wondering too. Not much zipping, however, as I contemplate why we go, how we go, and how we decide what baggage we carry with us. There’s not much about where we go, except, for some excitement, I toy briefly with space travel and time travel in Chapters 7 and 8. Nor is it so much about me, but a little bit, yes.
Travel is a maze of contradictions, plans frustrated, foolish expectations, missteps, conundrums, dead ends, paradoxes—and new life.
Come on along.
P.S. Nor do I ignore all the good reasons to stay home.