I wrote my last post to explain why I haven’t been writing of late. I had hoped upon coming back to the states to begin the arduous project of turning my blog into a travel memoir of sorts. I sought feedback from a writer whose poetry reading I’d happened upon in Middlebury, Vermont. He was kind enough to read my blogs and suggested that I identify a theme, purpose, or even a mission for the book. He pointed to my blog as a rich store of raw material and noted that my travels were unusual for an American: how and where I travel, and the fact that I do it alone. I could still talk about many different things. But having an agenda would help make the book happen.
He noticed several recurring themes: one in search of family history, though not for purely historical reasons. The need to find roots because those in America were disturbed or ripped up. Another theme of healing oneself through travel, with examples of travel memoirs focusing on this including Eat Pray Love and Wild. Another about being born in the wrong age, and being drawn to places that offer a taste of living in another age, a kind of time travel. Without necessarily being a historian, I am drawn to places that represent a time I wished I had lived in.
He suggested that choosing a strong uniting premise will help tell the right story in the right order. If it is about healing, what happened and what I am healing from and how travel helps. Or if it is about family history, who am I in my family and why do I need to know more about my family and how it got that way, as well as how I got to be how I am. He asked me to imagine being someone else looking at the list of trips and asking why I went to those places, what was I looking for, what did I find? The book could be a long and surprising and reviewing answer to those questions.
I delved into the reasons for my love of travel. The travel bug had been ignited in part by my family’s 4 month trip to Europe when I was 5. My parents were teachers and had a window of time in the summer to explore. We drove a car to New York (a drive away car for someone who needed it there), flew to Luxembourg, bought a new ’68 VW bus, and started our journey. My memories are spotty. I remember losing my stuffed animal while we were in France and being inconsolable. It turned up later at the bottom of my sleeping bag. I remember staying at a kid’s camp in Livorno, Italy for 2 weeks while my parents went to Florence to see museums. I’d elected to go, but was pretty upset when I found out that no one spoke English. It was language immersion at its finest. Needless to say I could speak a fair amount of Italian when I left. I think that one of the draws of travel for me were my memories of being together as a family.
Even when my dad would periodically leave us (like the time he made new friends with some man in Austria), he eventually came back, and I felt more together on those journeys than I ever did when we were at home. Not only were we together, but we were happy. Both my parents loved travel. My mother had traveled alone in 1959, hitchhiking to Morocco with some new friends from Paris. My dad loved traveling, growing up in Poland during German occupation and spending much of his childhood outrunning the Russians and Germans with his family. Despite the traumas of war, I think that it had also been an exciting time for him. And once in the US, he had driven a car from California to the Bahamas, stopping at various points and exploring the beautiful country. He never told me about his travels, but I found a photo book after he died of photos from that trip. I remember him playing the harmonica on windy, one or two lane European roads while driving with the other hand. He liked to play chicken with cars. More than once I was sure we were done for, particularly when we drove down the Dalmatian Coast in Yugoslavia.
I have wanted to travel ever since. My family took several more grand adventures together, a month and a half trip to Mexico in 1972 (I was 10) and another to Canada. Due to work obligations, I didn’t get the chance to travel till after I got ill with scleroderma. But that dream had remained, smoldering in my consciousness, and world travel was on my bucket list. Then in 2007, a friend from church, Tom Gott, invited me to join him and his friend Baker in Croatia for 6 weeks, sailing around the Dalmatian archipelago. My father had just died, and I was heart broken. I asked my father’s spirit about going on the trip, and felt him answer affirmatively. I imagined that he would be happy for me, as he had been a sailer in the Bahamas (had hosted Walter Cronkite’s family) and had always dreamed of buying a boat and sailing around the world. But circumstances changed once we arrived in Dubrovnik. Unfortunately, once we arrived in Dubrovnik, Tom got very ill, and Baker took him to the hospital and urged me to travel on my own. I wouldn’t have gone if I’d known I’d be on my own. But it gave me a taste for travel, and the confidence that I could do it alone.
The next summer I traveled to Turkey and Italy, Latvia, and Germany. I spent 3 months in Turkey and learned enough Turkish to get around, speaking semi-conversantly by the end. I hitchhiked a bit and was charmed by the kindness and hospitality of the people. I stayed on the west coast, fell in love in Selcuk, got into a complex relationship with an alcoholic, and finally extricated myself after coming home.
In 1997, I had hiked over one thousand miles along the Pacific Crest Trail. I hadn’t intended to go for more than a 150 mile near Mt. Shasta, California. But the trip had been infectious, and although I spent many long days walking alone, it was a powerful journey which etched deep memories in me, ones that I won’t forget. On that trip I had some healing from the deep loneliness plaguing me since childhood. On another backpacking trip I made from Tuolumne Meadows to Mammoth, I lost my tent over Donohue Pass. In the fading light, I raced up the trail in search of a small bundle among the bounder strewn trail. At some point, I heard a voice say that I was close. Within a few minutes I came upon my tent, which was critical as I didn’t have shelter and was at 10,000 feet. As the light faded off the high peaks, I had the sense that all my ancestors were there, sending me unconditional love. I began weeping uncontrollably. It was a moment of great beauty and connection.