Here’s the latest from one of my favorite guest posters, Robert Waite (who I’ve known for longer than I care to admit). Whether or not I agree with Bob on any particular travel issue, I always find his work to be thoughtful, provocative, and always beautifully crafted. In this piece, he had me hooked by the first line: “I miss travel.”
By Robert Waite
I miss travel.
Not the airport part, nor the inevitable logjam whenever I try to motor my way to a client. That’s not travel; that’s self-inflicted torture.
What I am talking about is the anticipation of experiencing new vistas, or the excitement of returning to a special place.
In this age of social distancing, physical travel has all but ceased. Sure, you can watch endless re-runs of Rick Steves on PBS or Anthony Bourdain on CNN. Or you can re-read Paul Theroux’s classic travelogue, “The Great Railway Bazaar”, or any number of Bill Bryson tomes.
But that’s not the same.
Like Paul Theroux, I lived within earshot of the Boston & Maine, whose rail bed ran on the other side of the Ipswich River from our Massachusetts home. And, from an early age – again like Theroux – I longed to be on it.
I also longed to write about travel. Whether just keeping a journal or writing for publication, the act of committing thoughts to paper, for me, deepened the experience, forcing me to note details and nuances I might have otherwise missed.
My first travel stories appeared in a Massachusetts newspaper in 1971. It was a two-part series drawn from a 32-day road trip, driving 6,600 miles from England, across the channel and continent, to Cold War Moscow and back – in a Triumph Spitfire! The series highlighted time in Cracow and Warsaw, Poland, staying with relatives of family friends.
Travel writing will not make you rich – the biggest paydays came from the Washington Post and the Boston Globe, $500 – but it is a fun sideline. It also helps me push personal boundaries, including camping out two nights on the ice in Antarctica; hiking up to mingle with mountain gorillas in Rwanda; being chased by an amorous camel in the Negev; zip-lining over Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe; learning about pre-contact Hunger Games on Easter Island.
But here we are today, many of us hanging out in our jammies with no place to go. What to do?
Things will get better. You will travel again. But it will be different.
I have never been a fan of big cruise ships. I used to say to avoid them like the plague, not thinking that I would ever mean it literally. I do like boats, having grown up near the ocean. But, for the time being, I would even avoid the smaller cruise ships.
I would also avoid aircraft. Yes, I know they filter and re-circulate air a gazillion times a minute and they promise to leave the dreaded middle seat open – but I would wait awhile to take flight.
So here’s a suggestion: When things get better and you’re finally comfortable, take baby steps. Visit local or regional attractions when they open up. They need you – and you might be surprised by what you find.
For example, if you are in New England, think about heading to Vermont. If you’re coming from Boston on I-93, that will require driving past the ever-crowded New Hampshire State Liquor Store – but do so. Set your GPS to Plymouth Notch, Vermont.
There you will find the Calvin Coolidge State Historic Site. It is picturesque; it is in the middle of nowhere; it is likely as safe a place as you’ll find.
But the real reason I suggest it is that it reminds us that, long ago, there was once a Republican President who was modest, self-effacing and verbally spare. Coolidge went on from these humble Vermont beginnings to become Governor of Massachusetts; Vice-President to Warren G. Harding; and, with Harding’s sudden death in 1923, President. But, at heart, he was always a taciturn Vermont Yankee.
In short, Coolidge was the antithesis of the current occupant of the White House.
As one who has visited the grandiose edifices dedicated to LBJ, JFK, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan (and whose mind boggles at what a Trump Library might look like), the Coolidge site is wonderful in its simplicity. Also worth a visit is the nearby Plymouth Cheese Factory, once owned by Cal’s father.
Some Offbeat Ideas
While you are in the neighborhood, you might pop over to Manchester, to visit Hildene, the summer home of Robert Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s oldest child and the only one who survived into adulthood. The house, a mansion really, sits high on a hill and the interior contains much of the original furnishings. The guided tours are excellent. There is also a wonderfully appointed private Pullman rail car on the grounds you can visit.
Other regions have similar small gems. There is the wonderful Spam Museum in Austin, Minnesota, which celebrates the meat product that, if you believe your guide, won World War II; enthralled the Monty Python troupe; and is consumed with gusto in places like Korea, Japan, Hawai’i and the Philippines.
In the South there is Avery Island, Louisiana, near New Iberia, where the McIIhenny family has been concocting Tabasco Sauce for five generations. The island is actually built on a salt dome. In addition to a small museum, you can see the peppers being grown and visit the factory where the sauce is bottled. It is also worthwhile to tour the extensive surrounding landscape, as it features unique wildlife, including a wide variety of cranes and other birds.
For those out west, there is always the Idaho Potato Museum in Blackfoot, ID. This compact but complete attraction tells the history of the potato; features a life-size Marilyn Monroe cut-out in her role as Miss Idaho Potato (yes, she’s wearing a potato sack); and even has a dining area that promises “Free Taters for Out of Staters”.
These are just a few examples – my point is that there are a lot of interesting and sometimes quirky places to visit close at hand. By showing up you can help them get back on their feet.
So do think about traveling again, but take it one step at a time. And when you do decide to try something more adventurous, I know a camel that is itching to meet you.
(Robert Waite has been writing on travel for 50 years. A former newspaper editor, he served as press secretary to Senators Edward Brooke and Bob Dole. He currently resides in Ottawa, Canada.)