Before long, we will make our descent down from the plane’s cruising altitude of 38,000 feet. Four and a half hours have gone by in this 5.5-hour flight, and it’s gone by more quickly than most. Besides, the Romanian husband and wife next to me have been traveling for 24 hours straight. They’re loving the inflatable neck pillows right now as they snooze away. I just want the turbulence to stop. Every bump sends my mind a so-far mercifully incorrect message: we’re going down.
The flight I’m on wasn’t the one I originally booked. I was supposed to return from Charlottesville, Virginia, where I’d gone for my college roommate Mike’s wedding, on a flight tomorrow. But yesterday afternoon, huddled in my room at the Holiday Inn from the unseasonably 90-degree October heat gripping the East Coast, I decided parting with a C-note was worth it for the chance to be in my own bed a night sooner. But it wasn’t just the heat.
Travel is a constant push-pull effect in my life. When at home, I constantly look at my thousands of travel photos and spend hours in the basement editing video shot on various trips. For Valarie and me, imagining and planning our next destination is a constant topic. In the last three or four years, mostly with her but sometimes without, I’ve been to a host of countries, some of them multiple times: England, France, Japan, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, The Bahamas, Scotland, Sweden. (I suppose England and Scotland probably only count as one, Great Britain, but I still think of them as seperate. They do, after all, have separate soccer teams.)
But there are also times like last year, in the first stages of my Japan trip. We’d completed about two-thirds of the 11-hour flight from Portland to Tokyo, but a passenger’s medical emergency (which turned out to be nothing) meant that we had to turn around the plane and fly to Anchorage, Alaska for the night. In the couple hours it took us to return eastward, I actually got it in my mind that I wanted to catch a plane in Anchorage back to Portland. I’d been so depressed about leaving home that I was ready to turn down what to many (including myself) would be a dazzling journey. Japan is quite possibly even my favorite country in the world to visit. But the gloom that overcame me in the days leading up to the trip, and as we flew out of PDX, was incredibly difficult to overcome. Thankfully there was the surreal pleasure of watching a plane load of largely Asians taking photos in the empty Anchorage airport in front of a gigantic taxidermied polar bear.
On one hand, I’ve since an early age had a romantic sense of wanderlust. I’ve always had the mindset of a collector, and I think of the places I visit as my ultimate collection. Notice how eager I was to rattle off the list of countries I’d been to a couple paragraphs ago? I even add up the number of countries my parents, friends and Valarie have been to, as if it’s some kind of competition.
But I’m also an unequivocal creature of habit. I find solace in having a sense of how the day will unfold. I’m not fond of surprises. I can see in my mind most days a succession of espressos, walks in the neighborhood, cooking dinner, watching a little soccer on TV, and perhaps best of all, regular visits from our cat to a spot on my chest as I lay on the sofa. When I’m removed from my little lair on Mulberry Street, I often start getting depressed a few days before it’s time to leave.
Of course some of this has to do with the exhausting marathon of travel. When I was a kid, my dad would regularly leave his day job at the restaurant for Air Force reserve trips. (Talk about a schizophrenic existence: making turkey sandwiches and taking out the garbage to analyzing satellite and spy-plane reconnaissance photos.) I remember telling him as a kid how envious I was about getting on an airplane a few times a year, and clearly in some way that rubbed off on me a lot. At one point I remember him saying, “Once you fly a few times, it becomes just like a bus ride.” I strongly doubted I’d ever become that cynical. But air travel does really, really suck sometimes. The waiting is endless, the environments saccharine and confining. Even on a great international trip, at the beginning and end of it you always wonder a bit if it was worth it.
If there’s a silver lining here, perhaps it’s that I need both the push and pull of travel. There’s a born hermit in me, I think, looking to spend my days in the basement editing video with my parents’ old stereo playing the classical station. But what am I editing down there? Travel footage. And after every trip, I neglect several days of work to edit my still-camera pictures. You could say I’m obsessed with documenting these excursions. And if I stop traveling, I’ll run out of material.
Once on vacation I said half-jokingly to Valarie, “I can’t wait until this trip is over so I can remember it fondly.” Like, the trip to Charlottesville I cut short this weekend? I can’t wait to upload my photos of the Thomas Jefferson-designed University of Virginia rotunda. When I took the pictures, it was so hot even at 10AM that the sweat coming down my forehead and scalp began seeping into my eyes and making it difficult to see. But in the picture, I’ll only see the architecture, and the blue sky made even bluer by my camera’s polarizing filter.
In perhaps even better news, though, the captain has turned on the fasten seat-belt sign, and we’ve begun our descent. They hope we’ve had a pleasant journey. As always, I haven’t and I have.