In the early 1960s, travel by jetliner was brand new and a status symbol. The glamorous connotations of the jetset have faded-instead airline travel is commonplace, legroom is measured in inches and security measured in liquid ounces. Now every press outlet is stocked with travel writers guiding you to your destinations, and vacations are booked online through discount hotel outlets. It seems like everyone from Kerouac to the guidance counselor to your neighborhood Starbucks blogger insist that travel will revolutionize your point of view-a single unified jolt to the consciousness.
Maybe that's true, but I don't think that's enough - we travel and build up experience bit by bit, like anything. The following are recollections of trips big and small that have built up over the years.
"Like all great travelers, I have seen more than I remember, and remember more than I've seen." -Benjamin Disraeli
Date: Late 1990s
Everything is just sketches in a ten-year-old mind.
None of this comes through in the grainy slides my dad will print.
This is not going abroad but going away where people don't speak your language. The country is dark whistling castle rooms that give way to wine valley vistas. It's learning what wine is, "what's a goulash?" and subsistence living off of street vendor pretzels. Pop back down the alleyway behind the cafe and this is Bonn and up the stairs is the rest of the bed and breakfast, car rides where everything seems like castles when you can only see up out of the window and the signs don't make sense and the history of Baden-Baden. There are old men with lederhosen marionettes at the side of a Black Forest lake before the endless switchbacks.
Above all, Germany is "Is this where I lived?" and "This is where you were born."
Location: Sangre de Cristo Mountains, New Mexico
It's only eleven o'clock and I'm sick of today. The bandana I've tied around my head is already damp and sliding down my forehead. On the sixth day of this hike I'm counting down the days to go (another six), the hours left (more than six, for sure), the miles ahead (roughly forty or so) and the clean socks left (zero). Colin decided we needed to take the long way to this outlook. We finally clear the trees and open onto the ridge. I toss my pack off next to a tree and do nothing for my mood as I watch the spout of my water bottle fall and slake the dirt's thirst. Upset, I grab the disposable camera I've opened for the day and snap pictures in rapid fire, continually winding away as twenty pictures burn into film.
Date: March 2008
A flashbulb pops in the audience.
This is the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels and the Martyrs. Holy music rings through the space, trumpeted between brass choirs at opposite ends of the church. Both the music and the church were two hundred years old when the United States began. This is the old religion, the brazen blare deafening as sound bounces over arches and pillars designed by Michelangelo himself. The music is home again, brought here by American students barely old enough to understand the passage of time in their own lives.
The audience's applause is thunderous.
Date: June 2009
Things are a little fuzzy both to my eyes and the rainy lens of the camera as I snap a triptych of the exterior of this bar.
I am et and slightly tipsy for the first time in my life, staring at the side of the pub, trying to identify American rock legends. Naturally, my dad and I are competing to name all the painted icons. Standing in the cobbled streets of Galway, we've been caught in the net of this tourist spot while doubling back to find a music store. A store, I should add, that we've passed at least three times while hopscotching our way between folk seisuns. We're in town tonight to watch Irish musicians playing their folk songs as my dad and I play ours in similar corners of similar bars at home. We're also here to buy a flute, one that I will never master, but one fated to join a collection of instruments from across the globe.
Date: February 2011
A week from now when the photos develop, I'll be surprised how well sunglasses hide the pain in my eyes. The smile however, is sincere.
I am sunburned. The outlined thumbprint on my ann is proof of that. The shrimp tacos with salsa and ... something (whatever that last word on the menu meant) sitting next to my drink are proof that you can find happiness, perhaps at a plastic table down a flight of stairs from the street in a shock of palm trees next to the bay.
I'll spend tomorrow on the porch covered in shade, nursing the burn and reading Hemingway.
Location: The Maize, Moorhead, Minnesota
Listening to Minnesotans compare travel experiences is often a self-defeating exercise. Just having been on an airplane will set you apart from the rest. In fact, the students behind me are debating who's gone farther: Is Des Moines or Green Bay a longer distance? While we try to set ourselves apart as a school with a strong study abroad program, it hardly makes us world travelers.
As the son of a pilot, I've been privileged enough to grow up in airports and travel from an early age. Yet I don't call myself a world traveler. To me, that implies some element of permanence, dedicating time to living abroad and exploring many cultures over decades of travel.
The rest is just snapshots.
Location: Tokyo-Narita Airport
Date: May 2012
Breeze down the Tokyo jetway, through the line for security-this is no big deal-take off my belt, shoes,jacket, wonder whether my Cobber ring really has to come off. It's the same routine planet-wide. Grab my backpack from the bin, shoes back on, duck around the corner and ... stop. I can't read the departure sign. Any of it. I have been on more planes than school buses and spent more nights sleeping in airports than I've done all-nighters. And now, across the globe, I'm illiterate. More startling, I'm lost.
What more can I do but take a picture of the moment: characters I don't recognize on a departure board thousands of miles from home.
Location: Hong Kong
Date: May 2012
It sounds crazy: bring seventy students and staff to a country where the language is entirely unlike their own, with the guidance of two tag-teaming, Chinese-speaking professors. Going to Europe is one thing - at least the alphabets and languages have the same roots, and English is common. China is different.
How fitting, then, that our first day in the country is spent at an international middle school, tucked away outside the city and perched high above a dark bay speckled with millionaires' yachts. The building itself is practically abandoned, and a mist falls about the school as we carry instruments into the band room we're using to practice for the day. Only after settling in do we realize that the shimmering back wall is made of floor-to-ceiling windows opening over a hundred-foot drop. At the foot of the hill is where the school has gone for the day; it looks like the elementary students are having a soccer tournament. Behind them rise mountains covered with lush palm trees.
At the end of the rehearsal, we're distracted - a hawk of some sort is drifting in and out of view, riding the thermals. Dr. Jones finally relents and tells us to turn in our chairs for the next piece, 0 Magnum Mysterium. He steps back, eyes closed, his baton falls slowly, and we begin.
Half a world away from home and it all falls away. Everything outside of the music is peaceful: silent mountaintops hung with mist, the hawk floating in front of the giant windows, watching the children play soccer as we play. There is no language barrier within music. No language barrier when no one is here to speak.
Our photographer, padding behind us, snaps a picture that none of us notice.
Location: Fargo, North Dakota
Date: December 2012
The window from floor six of the hospital gives a great view of downtown Fargo. On a winter's night, the snow catches the light and adds a shimmer to the glisten of Broadway. Above and below me are nearly 600 hospital beds and possibly the most diverse population in the city. Everyone needs hospitals.
There are people who have never left the state. A woman points out her flowers, explaining where each one came from while at the same time she slowly pieces out her Christmas plans. This morning a man put his jacket on backwards. As his son teased him for acting drunk, he slurred, "It's the whiskey I had with breakfast" in a slow rancher's drawl as he placed a Stetson hat on his head.
There are those that give you the briefest glimpse into their lives, with all the turns that we can't see. A man still groggy from surgery recounts how he bought one of John Wayne's old movie horses that everyone else had given up on, thanks to a broken horseshoe. It's a story that sounds like hope in the wake of a bitter divorce. "She took my dog."
A former EMT tells me she realized she was going into tachycardia when her training kicked in, and she forced herself to calm down. She doesn't say it, but she knows she may have saved her life through sheer willpower.
The hospital also hints at what lies ahead. Floor four is pediatrics and the birth center. You can tell when visitors come for fourth floor. Floor seven is oncology, where the patients we get to know best age before our eyes. Almost miraculously, we never see death. I only know the morgue is in another basement. A woman notices my Cobber ring, and learning that I still haven't graduated, smiles. "Aw, you're still a baby!"
Tonight, as I leave the hospital, I turn around to capture a Christmas tree lit with white lights, stained blue by the electric ribbon that encircles the hospital. You can only faintly make out the windows housing patients.