John Steinbeck’s valuable book, “Travels with Charley,” tells the tale of his 1960 trip around the United States in a pickup camper, accompanied by his poodle, Charley. Beginning in New York, he covered the whole northern tier of states, took a left at the Pacific, made his way down the coast, and headed back by way of Texas and New Orleans. Towards the end of the book, when he’s somewhere east of Mississippi, it dawns on him that he is no longer traveling. He was just heading home.
I know the feeling. I started writing this at 8:46 a.m. on a day when I’d been up since five. I was sitting in perhaps the most uncomfortable chair in the universe, adjacent to Gate Number 2 in the Cusco, Peru airport. An hour later we boarded a plane for Lima, where we spent what was left of the day packing and napping. The next day we were again up at an ungodly hour for a taxi ride through an awakening city to catch another plane, headed for Miami, then Minneapolis. Our daughter met us at 10:30 that night, and to show our gratitude we evicted her from her bedroom in hopes of getting a decent night’s sleep before we made the four-hour drive home. Then we started the routine of unpacking, watering the plants, apologizing to the dog for being gone, and laundry.
I don’t know how long Steinbeck’s trip was, but in my case, I’ve found I can only travel for about two weeks. After that, no matter what my route, I’m just headed home.
It was a fantastic trip. Of course, in all honesty, I can say that about almost every trip I’ve ever taken. As a man without hobbies, the closest I come to relaxing is to hop in some form of transport and go someplace I’ve never been. That may seem odd, because those who know me well will tell you the closest I come to happy is when I go through the door back into the house my great-grandparents built, in the only place where I’m ever really at home.
One of my favorite things about traveling is explaining where I live. Miguel, our guide in Peru, asked where we came from. He was familiar with California, New York, North Carolina, and Utah, none of which are a perfect match for western Minnesota. I told him it was flat. He gestured and asked, “Like here?” “Here” was a restaurant in the village of Ollantaytambo, nestled in the mile-wide Sacred Valley, surrounded by mountains.
I laughed and said, “No, like this,” and patted the tabletop. He then asked about the weather and the conversation went a little further downhill, because no ever believes the sort of weather we can have. Miguel tactfully changed the subject, so we never got to the part where I tell him about early morning mist rising over the slough, Canadian geese flying across the face of the full moon or the sound of coyotes in the night, matched by the deep, challenging “Woof” of our resident Newfoundland.
A couple of days later we were sitting at a table with a couple from China and I told them the story about getting mugged in Buenos Aires. The man laughed, kindly I thought, and said, “I bet you come from a place without locks on the doors.” I thought it was a pretty perceptive comment, especially coming from someone we’d just met, because we do live a place without locks, without suspicion, and with a level of trust many parts of the world find amazing.