One thing that people say to me, fairly frequently, is that it seems like I’m always traveling somewhere. It’s an illusion, but one I enjoy. Who doesn’t like to be thought of as a person on the go if most evenings that person is at home on his or her couch watching tv with his or her dogs?
I do travel some and I always take pictures and I always post a few of those pictures, so, well, I can freely admit, my Instagram is a somewhat hungry bid to make people I know, and even those I don’t, think that I’m out there, really LIVING.
A few weeks ago, I was in San Francisco, visiting friends but also visiting the city itself, a place I once called home. On one day, my friend Kim and I walked from the Embarcadero into Russian Hill then along Polk to Market and then the Castro. If you haven’t been to San Francisco, that might seem like chatter, but if you have been there, perhaps my saying Embarcadero or Russian Hill or the Castro stirs memories of your own.
Don’t feel bad if you’ve never been to San Francisco, I’m not writing about a specific destination. I don’t want to ignite anyone’s FOMO. (Although when it comes to travel, I do have plenty of my own ache for the places I’ve yet to visit: Paris, Rome, Alaska, New Zealand, to name a few.)
No, just for a moment, I’d like for you to think about a place that you travelled to that you loved. Think about who you were with, what you ate, what you saw, where you stayed. Acknowledge how many times in your memory you return to that trip.
I have an unscientific theory about what makes travel successful. I think the best trips are a fusion of the familiar and the new. I mean, it’s just something that occurred to me as I traipsed up and down the hills of San Francisco, looking for familiar, beloved landmarks and also marveling at new towers, or new restaurants. On this trip, for the first time ever, I went into City Hall and took in the majestic staircase and Baroque dome. How had I missed this in all my previous trips? I honestly don’t know, but what glee, even giddiness, I experienced on this last trip, when I discovered something old and new.
In the last few years, several times, I’ve made the journey from Los Angeles to my hometown to visit my parents. I generally take Interstate 40 which runs along Route 66. It is such a familiar drive that there are cities or restaurants or coffee houses or buildings or downtowns I make a point of visiting each time. It seems like there is always a small, dusty town with an old theatre that is in some state of repurposing. There is always the one diner that has more cars in the lot than the rest. These little towns, some of them hanging on for survival, they make me feel alive. I love these small towns, in part, because I am from one.
On these long, but peaceable drives, I listen to music and audiobooks and podcasts. I note that ultimately, all songs, all books, all podcasts are united by a common theme, someone is telling another person their story. This is my love, this is my pain, this is my hope.
There is a Hampton Inn just off the 40 in Albuquerque that I return to often. In my memory, and also in my travels. As hotels go, it’s not all that remarkable, but it’s clean and modern enough and over the years, I’ve developed a relationship with it. Time and again, I’ve driven for hours, until exhaustion, and checked into this Hampton Inn that has welcomed my weary soul. I have a ritual where I stop at the nearby Whole Foods first and get a sandwich and chips (and maybe a bottle of wine) that I bring with me to the room to enjoy like a king. I’ve stayed at the Hampton Inn when I was happy and I’ve stayed there when I was grief stricken. I first stayed there on my way to Kansas the year my dad had a surgery we did not know if he would survive. I watched Bunheads and drank Sauvignon Blanc and agonized. Three weeks later, I was headed back to Los Angeles, still unsettled, still worried. My dad’s surgery had unexpected complications and he was sent to a rehab facility. I needed to return to my job and also, I longed to be reunited with Eric and the dogs. I felt guilt for leaving my parents, still not out of these particular woods. Again, there was an episode of Bunheads, and a Whole Foods sandwich and a glass or two (or three) of Sauvignon Blanc. And this room, these familiarities they did not bring me joy, exactly, but provided a comfort.
My dad did get better and there were happy years that I stayed at my Hampton Inn and each time, I revisited the darkness of those first visits. It could have stirred up pain, I guess it did, but also, it made me feel grateful. My dad was alive, gardening, golfing, even working. My little Hampton Inn was a reminder of resilience and hope, my father’s and even my own.
Of course, you know that my dad did get sick again. I stayed there on my way to Kansas, just a few hours after my mom called to tell me that they had started him on hospice. I needed my Hampton Inn by then. My safe, familiar place.
Four weeks later, I stayed there again after my dad died, still weak from a flu that had ambushed me the day after his funeral. I took two Tylenol and an Ambien and called my mom and cried more than I’d cried on the day he died or the day we buried him added together. I sobbed like a broken child, which I was. My mom told me, over and over, “We will get through this, we will get through this.” And my room at the Hampton Inn, the one that had borne witness to so much, in its way, echoed her assurances of hope.
This familiar vs new theory that I so cavalierly introduced a few paragraphs ago, I should have also said, is a spectrum. Some of us lean more toward the new adventure while some of us need more to return to the old haunt. If you know me even a little, you know that I love revisiting the things that have meant something to me in this collection of years I’ve accrued.
I think about that Hampton Inn, my Hampton Inn at least once a week. I also return to those many drives through western states, in crippling heat or perilous snow or magnificent lighting storms. Just like the songs and books and podcasts that accompanied me, these trips, they are part of my story. I sail into the night, windows down, hair flapping, the smell of summer or winter or fall greeting me. This is life, I think. And it is.