The Travel Bug
These days, I get off the Metro a few stops early and walk into work, which is my only form of exercise. It also gives me the chance to daydream. There are parts of DC that remind me of the places I’ve been. The stark poverty around the train station in Brasov, Romania, the urban decay feel of some of England’s medium sized towns and, on rainy, grey days, coming out of Queen Street station in Glasgow. There’s even a touch of Seville here and there.
Travel, for me, has always been about being alone. Searching for myself, perhaps. And so my memories are punctuated by stark, lonely moments:
Waking in a cramped hotel room in Seville, the rain pouring outside. Showering, dressing, then stepping into the downpour at 5am and heading for the train station. Finally giving up, hailing a cab, catching the first train out, and arriving in Cordoba ahead of the tourists. In the early AM storm, I was alone, except for the glum and silent service people who make our world go around. At Cordoba, I had the Mezquita all to myself for about an hour as the storm tapered off and the sun woke up, and I wandered the grounds and through the columns inside unhindered, as if I was some 7th century Emir. Even the gypsies left me alone, waiting instead for the flood of affluent tourists.
At Arcos de la Frontera, on a self-guided tour of the remarkably well preserved Roman sewer system, alone underground in tunnels built by men 2000 years forgotten.
In New Orleans on my 26th birthday, wandering the Lower Garden District at 6am. Quiet houses and streets, watching the city slowly wake up.
In the UK, there are countless moments. Not the least of which is that path in Brampton, which haunts and calls to me every day.
In 95, I caught the earliest possible bus, teeming with schoolchildren, out of Salisbury and, for 25 blissful minutes, had Stonehenge all to myself. I had a similar incident on the Isle of Lewis at the far more impressive Callanish Stones, staying at a B&B within walking distance. The same with the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, where I waited till dusk and hiked through a driving rain. There’s an almost apocalyptic feeling when I’m alone at these tourist hotspots. As if I’m the last man on Earth, with nothing to do but travel around to where people once congregated.
Route 66 through New Mexico and Arizona. I spent three weeks and drove 3300 miles criss-crossing those states, always returning to the Mother Road and pushing west. That trip, in 2004, captured the lonely feeling I crave on my vacations, driving deep into a slower, rural, long forgotten America on a dead road. A ghost road. At times, hours would pass without a sign of life except for the impossibly long snakes of desert freight trains, a glint of an experimental plane over White Sands, or a slumbering sheriff in a cruiser beneath a decaying billboard. The ruins of motels, gas stations, factories, and homes that dot the wide spots along southwestern 66 drive home the same apocalyptic feeling.
The bug. That Brampton path calling. My daily threat to follow US 50 coast to coast. My occasional weekend explorations of US 40 and US 1. Once bitten, there’s no settling down. You become more cautious as you age. You sleep in and no longer stand in the Spanish rain at 5am. But it’s still there. Every time I get behind the wheel of my car, even if it’s just for a quick trip to the supermarket, I want to take off and veer onto the highway. Drive till nightfall, escape, explore. I pass a turnoff for the airport on the way to a friend’s house and it’s all I can do to keep from taking that turn, parking in the long term lot, and buying the first ticket that catches my eye. Every day at work, belched out of the subway car or cramming into it at Union Station in DC, I pause to look at the train departures board. I’m forever drawn to those trains to New York, Chicago, New Orleans, and all points north, south, and west. Connections, transfers, and even those commuter trains heading to sad-sounding bedroom communities in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Virginia catch my eye.
Delays and waiting are part of this infection. I’ve always loved delays, waiting for planes and trains, watching the people, reading leisurely, and caught in the nameless, faceless swirling current of travel. A nobody adrift in a sea of nobodies, every movement in someone else’s hands. Follow the boarding call, line up, sit down, shut up.
Even on the bus during my stark commute to the Metro where I’ve memorized every site along the path, I catch myself daydreaming. Thinking of that early AM bus to Stonehenge, or the long, eccentric route from Glasgow to rainy Lochgilphead, or coming into Prague from the airport in the dead of night.
In a feeble attempt to get my heart pumping, I’ve started walking everywhere, adding hours onto my commute and tearing myself away from the Demon Netflix Watch Instantly library at lunch. I’m up to six miles a day, and even on foot I daydream about all those places I’m reminded of as I pass through anonymous suburbs, industrial wastelands, gentrified city blocks, commercial districts, hotel districts, tourist havens, and trainyards…
Yes, it’s time for a vacation.