Updated: Jan 9
When some people think of travel, they imagine setting aside several hundred dollars to visit an all-inclusive resort. They imagine a river cruise they’ll take once they retire—once the bills are paid, the responsibilities handled, the day-to-day toil done.
But travel isn’t really like that, not for everyone. I think of my traveling adventures as “in spite of.” That is, in spite of heartbreak, in spite of poverty, in spite of direction or expectation.
Travel, for me, has always been a gift, bestowed whether the time was right or not. Inserted into my days to teach me something or take me out of my head. It’s always been something like grace: I never deserved it, but there it was, to make me humble and bring me joy.
I was a student on a scholarship in Vienna when my parents called, long distance, to tell me they were getting a divorce. I remember walking along the Ringstrasse that night, processing the news in the solipsistic way a 20-year-old processes news. Yet, feeling safe.
It was safe to walk the damp cobblestones. It was a wonder to be there—my first trip abroad.
I walked, looking up at the imposing buildings, feeling far away from my siblings and sad (though not surprised) about what had broken back home.
I think I cried, but I remember the misty evening more than my tears. I remember looking through the light rain under the streetlights at the historicist architecture that was bigger, older, and grander than I was. Everything was all right, I thought, because I was in Vienna.
The next divorce was my own. And thanks to the generosity of my father and brother, I booked a flight to Peru.
There’s a picture of me from that trip, at the top of a viewing tower above the Nasca lines. I’m wearing a hat—I don’t think I’d bothered to get a haircut in weeks. I’m also wearing a wry smile on my face, and my eyes are not focused on anything. That picture probably reflects, pretty accurately, my state of mind at the time. I did spend much of that trip in the backseat of a car or bus, lost in a miasma of confusion and regret.
But then there was Machu Picchu! And I found myself staring in wonder at ancient stones joined together as if they’d grown there.
There were the Andes, a herd of llama on the side of the road, a flat blue lake that seemed as cold and remote as the mountains. There was the ocean, and the fish prepared in tiny villages, and the wonderful variety at the marketplace.
I was rescued again. Everything was okay because I was in Cusco. In Lima.
There’s a reason we love travel narratives, and it’s the same reason we somehow find the courage to leave a job, fall in love, or pull ourselves out of bed to take a shower after a deep depression. It’s the same thing Joseph Campbell writes about: it’s the way we find our bliss. Even at the lowest times, and even when we don’t expect it.
There’s that memory of standing on the St. Charles Bridge in Prague and being in love with someone who’s in love with someone else.
The camping trip on the north rim of the Grand Canyon and the experience of feeling, rather than seeing, the depth of that enormous gorge at night.
There’s a long drive to Austin, with my dog in the passenger seat, to visit my best friend and feel young again.
And the trip to New York when my brother and I argued with our mother and then roamed Avenue A in Manhattan, looking for a good bar.
See, this isn’t an uplifting Eat, Pray, Love thing. You still go home, or to a new place, wherever you find one. You still get in your own way and have to take care of your own shit. I still don’t make enough money, yet, to travel the way I want to. I still sink into ennui, forgetting to enjoy the little wonders of my own town.
When my family visited Scotland together, we journeyed to the northernmost point of the highlands to see what we imagined were our “ancestral lands.” There, we learned that Sinclair was pronounced less like sin-CLAIRE and more like SINKler. We also got to know a village called Kiess.
This place was little more than a crossroads with a hotel on one side of the street and a cemetery on the other. As we sat in what appeared to be the only bar in town, the bar at the hotel, we noticed folks coming in wearing 80s prom dresses and wedding gowns. Well, this was strange—
They explained that they were hosting a themed fundraiser, and would we like to join them? We walked a block or so up the road to a large hall where they were selling raffle tickets, drinking Irn Bru, and dancing to—I swear to God—country western music played by a quartet of high school kids wearing identical black suits and skinny ties.
Well, what else was there to do? We jumped right in.
I’ll admit to not remembering many of the details of that night. I drank plenty of beer, then scotch, then more beer. I do remember dancing with Simon, a builder who was an inch or so shorter than I was and who gave off an adorable Martin Freeman vibe. He was kind enough to walk us back to our hotel at the end of the night.
The next morning came very early. I shoved my belongings into my bag and stumbled after the family members who’d been smart enough to turn in early. All together, we climbed into the back of an SUV. We were off to visit the nearby ruins of the Sinclair-Girnigoe castle that day, and we couldn’t miss it.
We were the only ones on the site when we arrived, and it was a clear, beautiful morning. Despite my headache and queasy stomach, I was enchanted. We walked around the ruins. Took photos. Walked down the rocky slope to the North Sea, and back up again to that edge-of-the-world view.
My hangover caught up with me at one point and I lay down. The tufted grass held me and I remember little gusts of wind and the sound of birds.
Everything was all right. Everything would be okay.