I’m just home from traveling to Cambridge, Massachusetts, which was a WONDERFUL trip. And that got me thinking about how traveling has changed for me over the years. I remembered when a friend wrote me the following email about travel plans:
My husband has this habit of trying to sew up ALL loose ends in life before going on vacation. He goes into hyper-responsible mode. His anxiety about traveling results in him cleaning the freezer, going to the Salvation Army with old clothes, you name it. It completely sucks out one of my favorite things pre-vacation, which is anticipating reckless abandon. Last night as I was lying in bed he asked me what electronics I could get ready to recycle before we leave on Thursday. I mean REALLY? Are you kidding me?
This made me smile, and it made me think about traveling with men.
My first husband was an uber-planner. We started taking trips together in the mid-seventies, back when our travels were a violation of the Mann Act. Our planning methods seem quaint and archaic to me now. He would stop in at the AAA office and get little plastic-bound triptych maps, very detailed flip-books with all routes traced out for you. He traced our actual route with a red pen.
In a small notebook, we recorded all gas purchases (amount, price per gallon, total charges) and odometer readings for eventual gas mileage reckoning. He was happy to be the planner, and I was happy to learn how the hell to read a map, estimate distances with the rule, figure out how to backtrack when he’d charged off on a wrong turn.
Wrong turns happened because he was an aggressive driver, passing and jockeying and speeding along to get past every single vehicle he possibly could, and then I’d announce I wanted to stop, and then we’d get back on the road and he’d find all those cars and get ahead of them again. This annoying, aggressive driving style seemed to contradict the cheerful ease with which he would stop at any and every wayside, overlook, local museum, you name it, he’d stop and look at it. We’d snap photos with our Instamatic and get back in the Duster and keep going.
We traveled a great deal and on the cheap, staying at Motel 6 when we could afford it, camping or sleeping in the car when we couldn’t. We grew up and outgrew each other, but the boxes of Instamatic photos remain. In the hazy, soft tones of those old square photos, I see a chronicle of my strange and rootless teenage years, my only security the young man with the wild hair at my side.
My second husband and I jumped feet-first into parenthood within months of getting married, so we didn’t do much traveling the first years of our marriage. It took six years for us to get up the nerve and the money to start traveling, and I’d missed it. It was also quite a different undertaking, traveling with a man AND children.
For this, I had three jobs. The first job was every speck of the planning, reserving, deciding, purchasing. The second job was all the packing for myself and three kids. To do this, I kind of took a note from my first husband’s obsession with gas mileage. I would make comprehensive lists of each day’s activities and decide on outfits for each, making sure that each (somewhat matchy) group of three outfits had shoes and hair doodads to match. Outlining a novel has nothing on this.
My third job was all the child-wrangling. For the actual plane/train/automobile part of it, that meant packing special trip backpacks with books, art supplies, games, toys and snacks. All that was done to convince myself that they would be entertained on the plane, that it was actually possible to divert your children adequately so that they didn’t whine, kick, bicker,complain, cry, knock over the coffee of the person beside them, throw their dolls over the back of the seat to land in the lunch of the person behind them, wet their pants and generally make the trip into a living hell (they really weren’t that bad) (most of the time). Managing that hell was my job, as was taking care of all three kids for every minute we were at the actual vacation destination.
My second husband also had three jobs, as far as traveling. His first job was to pack his own stuff the morning of our departure, generally using as many suitcases for himself as I had used for myself and the girls combined. His second job was to haughtily and continuously complain about every single decision I had made concerning airlines, flight times, hotel reservations, and clothing worn by anyone but himself. And his third job was to take lots of breaks. Breaks for conversation with other adults, shopping, Scotch in the hotel bar, cigars by the pool, and whatever else he needed to do in order to take care of himself and make sure he had a good time, because he found traveling so stressful.
After divorcing my second husband, I discovered the joys of traveling alone.
Going solo was completely effortless, like entering a no-gravity zone. I packed light, knowing that if I forgot something, I could buy it somewhere. I drifted weightless as a cloud into airports, on and off planes, out to cabs or shuttles. If I missed a connection, I bought a cup of coffee and read a book. If I forgot to bring something, I bought it. I went to whatever restaurants I chose, and the tabs were tiny. I dawdled in museums. I slept in, stayed out late. I had forgotten that it was possible to relax on vacation, but like riding a bike, it all came back to me. Buying one theater ticket instead of four, bypassing the American Girl store entirely, spending the afternoon in bed if I was too tired to sight-see. What a luxury it was. Eventually, I actually missed my girls. That might have been the greatest luxury of all.
I also learned how to travel with my daughters. Not long after the divorce, I took the girls to Disneyland, and we had a blast. Then, they got older and could pack for themselves. If one of them didn’t bring the right thing, she could borrow it from a sister. The girls usually slept all the way wherever we were going–something magical that happens in the teen years–and they exercised autonomy and free will as far as activities once we arrived at the destination (which tended to be a lake, so, they could just go to the dock and do whatever it is teenagers do at the lake) (I didn’t need to know really) (no one ever drowned so it was fine).
And I could, as a last resort, level one of my stony gazes at whichever of my children was complaining about boredom or a sibling or the lack of a can opener and say, “You know, this is my vacation too.”
As I age, I find that sitting jammed into a plane seat for six hours is pure torture. The occasional offer of a glass of ginger ale and a bag of “savory snack mix” does nothing to alleviate the pain of enforced, cramped immobility, and any man who travels with me must endure my shifting, stretching, groaning.
I’m aware that I’m a sissy.
I prefer to travel in a car. Stopping at clean motels with soft beds. Listening to music I like. Enjoying the peace of the road. Conversation should be minimal and pleasant. And I will not stay in motel rooms that are creepy or gross. Don’t ask me to define “creepy and gross.” I know them when I see them. I will draw myself up with the horrified snobbery of the Dowager Countess if expected to stay in a room that is either. And the BED, what about the BED, what if the BED is HARD. A HARD BED is my worst nightmare.
And once we find a room that is to my liking, I will insist on keeping it ultra-tidy for the duration of our stay. I will talk in my sleep. I will snore. And in the morning, I will get up waaaaay too early.
I am aware that I’m impossible.
I believe that traveling together is a test, a crucible.
Some years ago, I went out with a man who lived up in Washington. He rode a Gold Wing, and he was incredibly funny in an entirely inappropriate way. Every weekend, we found somewhere to go. These trips flowed like long shots in movies, smooth and unbroken and entertaining. We saw each other for an entire summer of jaunts, and the ease with which we traveled together disguised the fact that we had almost nothing in common. We were both funny and tall, and that was the sum of what you could call compatibility. In case you think I exaggerate, he ripped the sleeves off his shirts, chain-smoked, enjoyed Larry the Cable Guy, and collected coffee mugs from all the events he attended for his sobriety program.
But the travel was fantastic.
I’ve had relationships cement themselves into serious, and I’ve had relationships completely fall apart on trips. The close quarters, the sheer duration of contact. It’s a killer. It’s not just men who are under examination during travel. I’m being tested, and failing.
A friend of mine took a girlfriend somewhere exotic, like Bora Bora, where they slept in open tiki huts on the beach. In HAMMOCKS. I don’t actually remember where they went, just the horrifying details, like communal meals, questionable bathroom accommodations, no WALLS, what the holy hell? He was so excited about a trip that sounded absolutely awful to me, and I kept ribbing him about it. They had a blast. He came home shouting his love for this woman to the stars. And they got married. And they are still married. Years and years later.
Whatever future travel test I have to pass, I only hope it does not involve sleeping in a hut.
Christmas travel is happening this year. I’ll be visiting a daughter who is working on the east coast. She doesn’t have enough time off to make the trip home and I really miss her, so I’ll be leaving home for the holidays. I have to trust that Christmas will be okay without me, which is difficult for the self-appointed Fairy Godmother of Christmas Celebration.
In my first marriage–my starter marriage–we always traveled for Christmas. Often we went by car, barreling through the northern passes on our way back to Montana, where he would drop me with my family in Missoula and carry on to his own family and their opulent gifting in Bozeman. Once we moved back to Montana, I’d drive my own way over the passes on my way to Portland. In a tiny Datsun. With barely an ounce of fear, really, because that was how I did it in those days. I believe that in the six years I spent with this man, we spent one Christmas together. It was the only year we had a tree.
My second husband and I announced our intention to stay home and create our own Christmas traditions when our second daughter was born. My mother didn’t mind, as she hated Christmas (yes, such people exist). His mother was a mighty domestic potentate, and demanded appeasement. We calmed her by coming to her home for Thanksgiving and Easter each year. Again, my mother wasn’t upset. She didn’t so much dislike Thanksgiving and Easter, as she simply had no interest in hosting them. As long as I made plenty of non-holiday visits, my mom was fine with not seeing us.
My mother made some tentative Christmas visits to my house over the years. Mom approached the holidays with such a high level of wariness, and so much suppressed fury, it wasn’t always easy to have her there. She was tense and suspicious and ready to spring out the door at any moment. She could be persuaded to partake in a meal, but this had to be handled very gently. Just, you know, the idea, the aroma, the possibility. No pressure. And she’d have a plate, but then they’d need to go, down and back in one day, eight hours of driving for a short visit, but it was all she could handle.
As a child, my mother’s attitude about Christmas (which started in about 1970–before that, I remember her enjoying it) was a crushing disappointment. All I wanted, as a kiddo, was to enjoy the season without reservation. I didn’t care so much about presents–our home was not one for opulent gifting–but I was excited about the tree, driving around to look at lights, Christmas cards, Rudolph on the TV and carols on the radio. How baffled she felt as we raptly watched Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, loving every moment, while she felt nothing. She didn’t get it. That made her angry. She called it “Holiday depression.” We called it “Christmas rage.”
My mother’s holiday tirades left me feeling tremendous guilt over how much I enjoyed all the trappings of the season. But as I got older, and created my own Christmas holidays, I no longer felt guilty. I felt smug. I was doing things right. And yes, I went overboard, compensating for what I wished I’d had as a child. It was manic, what I did to the house, how many gifts I wrapped, how intently I played the music, planned the menu. And then it happened–a string of sad, bad holidays. No details are needed, because these events aren’t even funny in retrospect.
I realized after a few rough years, that my excess of Christmas cheer was not contagious. It was, in fact, oppressive. No one else but me seemed interested in setting aside the difficulties of family life for the space of two days in order to have a “perfect” Christmas. I had turned into the sister in the green dress in “Home for the Holidays.” I felt sad and incredibly stupid.
I also started to feel sympathy for my mom. The trappings of the season infuriated her. I could imagine how awful it was as all around her, people blindly wrapped themselves up in mindless commercial cheer, staggering through malls like holiday zombies.
But once the pressure to provide a holiday was lifted from Mom’s shoulders, I think she came around. She could go to a friend’s house and have turkey, or stay home and watch Masterpiece Theater with Dad, or come to my house for a tense visit, or ignore it all entirely. No prescribed steps, no have-tos. I hope it got a little bit better for her.
I have toned it down, people. But my baseline Christmas cheer has been a tenuous saving grace this year. Like so many in America, I am deeply concerned about the four years ahead. So I have retreated into holiday mode; decorating my home, planning my seasonal celebratory activities, listening to CDs that are supposed to cheer me. The wrong song can plunge me right into maudlin. It’s been a conscious choice to concentrate on the holiday. My other alternative is to fill up on despair while reading about disastrous cabinet appointments and wondering if public education, civil rights and the Earth’s atmosphere will actually exist for any future grandchildren I might have.
So if I’m a little quiet, it’s because I’m girding myself for what’s ahead. I won’t be buying many gifts this year, because I have other plans for my money. I’ve doubled my United Way gift and dedicated all of it to Planned Parenthood. I’m going to make a monthly contribution to the ACLU. And by God, I’m going to start eating Kellogg cereals again. I wonder if any of it will make a difference, but I have to try.
For now, I will light the candles, trim the trees, inhale the scent of cinnamon, open my heart and close my eyes. They will be opened soon enough.
Happy holidays to all of you. Let’s hold each other in our hearts.