I was seduced at an early age by travel. My parents didn’t understand what they were doing to me when they packed up the car every summer for our annual cross-country excursion. The hours – the days – of staring at passing landscapes mesmerized me. The travel bug not only bit me, but infected me, worming its way into my dreams, until later the dreams metamorphosed into an obsession. The obsession haunted me the rest of my life. A career and a steady paycheck couldn’t hold me down. I had to keep moving.
“Mom, Dad, I have to tell you something . . .” I started off in a hesitant voice. My parents eyed me from across the kitchen table, my dad slowly putting down his newspaper. “Our son is going to tell us that he’s gay,” they must have thought to themselves. “Or that he’s committed some sort of heinous crime.”
It was worse. “I’m going to quit my job and go overseas . . .”
It was their own fault. They had dragged my siblings and me across the country every year. Along with the long cross-country car trips came the slide shows my dad presented to neighbors and friends of our most recent vacations. The photos of Hawaii and Florida – exotic places to a nine year old – showed palm trees and banana trees, vegetation that couldn’t survive the cold climate in our central California hometown. The exotic images seduced me.
Salinas was a town of gray cold weather, of fog and drizzle. It was a conservative community where children were raised to be obedient and subservient to the powers that be. People obeyed the rules. But summer meant traveling, and that meant escape. On the first day of our annual summer road trip, my father would guide the station wagon south down Highway 101, with me looking out the back window, bidding a silent farewell to the school bullies and the petty, vindictive school teachers, and the miserable gray weather. We were headed to exotic climes! We were bound for the mountains and the desert and the amber waves of grain!
In this day and age a cross-country trip may seem like a mundane event, now that our world is globally connected by the Internet, and businessmen travel on a daily basis from coast to coast. Back in the late 60s’, however, to simply go to Disneyland, hours away by car, was a major excursion. The notion that it was possible to travel beyond this country, to cross an ocean to another continent, was a minor feat, and to a child not yet ten incomprehensible.
The Handleys who lived across the street, however, had been all the way across the Atlantic to Europe, and when they returned, they invited everyone in the neighborhood to hear the stories of their epic journey on a Boeing 707. With a sense of wonder Mrs. Handley described the soot-stained churches and the museums. Everything there was so old! But there were drawbacks to the old world, and Mrs. Handley shook her head. “Amsterdam is full of hippies! They take narcotics and go around naked!”
The stories stayed with me, of far away places, of the people who went. I saw the hippies along Highway 101, young people with long hair and guitars thumbing their way north to San Francisco. They were breaking the rules. I heard stories of how they traveled not only to Amsterdam but kept going further East. They ended up in places like India where they smoked dope and slept on beaches. My mind couldn’t wrap itself around such exoticism. I pictured palm trees and naked girls with flowers in their hair.
The travel bug kept burrowing deeper into my psyche. Years later as a teenager, on my first trip beyond the comfortable confines of the U.S., the travel bug began to mess with my head.
At sixteen I traveled with a church group in a converted school bus to far away Mexico. The bus rattled east to Texas and then made a right into Mexico, into the dusty Chihuahuan desert A church in a small village outside the city of Chihuahua needed re-roofing. We were coming to help.
After our good deeds in Chihuahua were completed, the bus rattled farther south where the road took us into mountains covered in tropical foliage. Other than a rusty pick-up rumbling by, there was no one out here. In my sixteen-year-old mind we were beyond civilization now – no shopping malls or movie theaters. The foothills turned to mountains. As the school bus shifted into low gear to roar up to a mountain summit, I stared across a broad valley to a desolate village of thatched huts perched on a distant mountain slope. I envisioned poor Mexicans living there – short-statured, unassuming people – like the Mexicans who lived in the poor part of my hometown of Salinas.
The bus reached the summit, and the engine heaved a sigh as the driver shifted into a lower gear. Beyond the mountain in the hazy distance I could make out yet another chain of mountains.
But what was beyond that distant horizon of mountains? It could only be yet more mountains and more desolation. And there must be yet even more huts with poor Mexicans living out there. How did these people live beyond any civilization of TVs and record stores and malls? My sixteen-year-old mind couldn’t fathom it. Who were these people, and what did they do with their lives?
The thought of such overwhelming desolation was too much, and I found myself shaking my head like a wet dog violently shakes its dripping fur. I needed to rid my mind of the vexing concepts.
Years later I came to realize that travel meant simply more than visiting a foreign land. Travel – not tourism – forced you out of the tour bus, and messed with your mind. A tourist followed the rules by following the tour guide, but a traveler broke the rules. By straying from the crowd you met the locals in the bazaar, or tried an exotic local dish, and it was those experiences that stuck with you. Travel made you shake your head sorrowfully, guiltily, at witnessing the hopeless poverty of a slum, or made you gasp at the first sight of the Taj Mahal or Eiffel Tower. Travel led you to sleep on the beaches with the girls with flowers in their hair.
I wanted to share those feelings. The photos that I took of my travels couldn’t do justice to what I had seen, so I tried to capture the impressions and emotions with words. I began writing down my trips. My early stories were purple-prosed and awkward. A few readers – God bless them or damn them – were brutally honest with their criticisms.
I tried to describe how the travel bug had wormed its way into my soul, a parasite that sapped me of any sense of stability or grounding. Reading back the clumsy words, I recalled those trips and the impressions they made – the beauty of a place as mundane as a sleepy Kansas town or as breathtaking as the picturesque Swiss Alps. I continued writing, attempting to paint the images with words. The travel bug had infected me, and had messed with my mind. I would never be the same.