Virtues of Travel: Part 11

Since much of my free time beyond family and work has not been focused on writing but on outdoor experiences and environmental advocacy, (whether through the Friends of Colorado State Parks, or my new obsession with birding which has taken me from Alaska to Florida), more than a year has passed since my last post, ‘Change‘ (#10 in this Virtues of Travel collection).  In that time, I have come to realize that my travel and my travel writing has always sought a sense of place.

Though I’ve hit the road many times in the past year, I’ve returned to seeking out this sense of place, a place of stillness and contentment as simple as my daily walk through the park across the street from my house. This is a disruptive place to explore as a “gray wanderer.”

Yet the sequencing here makes sense. If we are connected to a place and we have weathered its changes, and then we have come to love those transformations, a new commitment, over time, arises.  As we come to feel and know the ebbs and flow of a place, our intimate understanding of the place transcends anything we ever thought possible. And so we shift from tourist to traveler to steward.

Sending a postcard home, writing a blog post about a funny or scary travel antidote, or even just ‘staying in touch’ or ‘staying connected’ with that place or with people from that place, no longer satisfies what it means to be an ethical citizen of that place. We are called to a higher commitment and service and purpose. This is stewardship.

We are now compelled to take care of that place, to give it additional time and energy, to ensure that the place is available in all its glory for ‘seven generations to come;’ we know the place is important for a future that we will not live to experience. We thus become true servants to the place, because such a future can only be selfless. As stewards, we venture into the spiritual beyond.

While the dinky beautiful park across the street from my house is not a perfect place, (there’s plenty of highway noise, and trash after weekend picnics and flag football tournaments can be more than frustrating), we need these places direly.  My neighborhood park is part of a greenbelt between other parks and lakes and a river that runs from the mountains to the plains; in our vastly urbanized world, this park is the last bastion for the resourceful raccoon, the migrating birds, and the sly red fox.

Like these creatures, we would be hopeless without such a place and the others like it.  We become stewards, because we have destroyed enough, and there is drastically little left compared to what was.  We become stewards because we must, it is the last action we can take to save the world we love.

What are you stewarding today?

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Virtues of Travel: Part 10

I knew the cold was coming.  This is my 7th winter in Denver, so I could anticipate the arctic air stream dropping just south enough to bring our temperatures to zero, and to dust us with snow and ice and gray skies.  It has happened every year I’ve lived here, but usually not until the first weeks of December.

I was thus more than surprised when only the day after I had finished raking leaves and cleaning out rain gutters, the temperature changed from 59 to 28 degrees in an hour. I expected the change, but not with such quickness and furiousity.

Earlier this month, I wrote about the concept and virtue of connection, and our ability as travelers to establish connection by being open to a place and aware of its beauty and nuances. One outcome of connection is the opportunity to enjoy the process of change that happens to a place.  The seasonal transformations here in Colorado quickly became one of the many reasons I love the state.  So though I don’t loathe the cold, its early arrival challenged me to negotiate the emotions of change.

The change that happens in familiar places and while traveling enables us to engage with a need for flexibility and a willingness to truly go-with-the-flow.  It echoes the sentiments of letting go and enjoying the road you’re on, and encourages us to relish in experiencing the diversity and evolution of a place or a time or even a person. We must let go of attachment to the way things once were and then take joy in the way our road unfolds.

Back in Oaxaca, there was an overgrown garden next door to our home-stay.  I could look down into the abundance of tall grasses, tangled bushes, and stocks filled with singing and feeding birds.  It served as a bit of a natural refuge within the urban life. And then of course one morning I woke-up to the sounds of gardeners clearing it all away, mowing down the grass, and slashing the weeds into neat piles.

I was distraught and unforgiving.  Things had changed in a less-than-desirable way. But in just six weeks, the seasons shifted, and that newly created empty lot became a field of spring flowers, butterflies, and hummingbirds. Though different, the natural refuge re-emerged; the change had brought a new enjoyment. Travel teaches us the virtue of change, the confidence that a phoenix does rise from the ashes.

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Virtues of Travel: Part 9

On a cold January evening, I stood on a bridge over looking a Venetian canal.  The low fog wrapped around my feet as it whispered down Venice’s narrow streets. A sole gondolier navigated his boat to a dock beneath the bridge, emerging from the cold night like a ghost, of course. Instead of unloading the usual passengers, he carried a series of boxes into a near-by store … the non-motorized gondolas are not just a tourist attraction.

Lights glowed from near-by windows that overlooked the canal, and even a few street lanterns illuminated the fog and the lapping water and the Gondolier’s movements. A stillness washed over me in that moment, a sense of full contentment, a sense that I had arrived.  I had arrived at a place in which I belonged in that moment, in that time of my life.  And even as I write these words more than a decade later, that same feeling of calmness returns.  I belonged there.

As travelers, both in unfamiliar lands and right in our hometowns, I think we seek connection to the places through which we wander and live.  That feeling of belonging is an indicator of such connection.  And I don’t think connection is restricted to just one or two places at any given time, or even only a handful of places during our entire life.  We can connect to multitudes if we walk with awareness and openness.

The paths to such connection are many … we connect because of the aesthetic of a city or the spiritual energy of open space and the natural world. Or we connect through cuisine and culinary delights, or we build relationships with important people at pertinent times in specific places, or we connect to a culture, possibly one deeply rooted in our blood. Maybe we connect because our family was there before us, because we touch the same earth upon which our ancestors walked. It’s also possible that connection just happens to us through the experiences that occur while we’re in a certain place … our time spent there, the reasons we’re there, the reasons we stay, lead us to connection.

And as we return to a place again and again, whether physically or through our nostalgic imaginations, that connection roots deeper into our lives.  We understand places more intimately, we’re aware of more nuanced details, and that stillness returns with even greater ease when we arrive.

Like many other places I’ve been privileged to travel to and enjoy, my time in Venice reminds me of how critical stillness and connection are, especially in our fast-paced world that seems to be growing more virtual everyday. In fact, I think it’s time to log-off and head there right now.


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Letting Go

Virtues of Travel: Part 8

So what is Preparation’s greatest complement and necessary ally in travel?  Yes indeed, Letting Go. It might seem a defeatist’s mentality at first, that after all that preparation at whatever level you chose, you must be prepared for all of it not to matter.

Despite a willingness or intention to just “go with the flow,”  we tend to be creatures of comfort, planning, and structure.  When things don’t go our way, emotions of frustration, anger, even a bit of sadness and depression easily takeover our outlook.

Preparation, as in training for an athletic event, gives us the skill set, know-how, energy, and strength to experience.  Letting Go, allows us to experience whatever ends up coming our way.  Preparation helps us build the ability to walk the path. Letting Go allows us to enjoy whatever journey that path brings.

Letting Go is thus a practice. Letting Go is something we learn how to do over time … how to have expectations, but to be willing for time to transform those expectations into the experiences that we need, and the life we are meant to live.

And while this might come off as a series of live-in-the-moment platitudes, I firmly believe in this practice, and I’m fully aware of how difficult it is to in-act. I know what frustration it can bring when time gets spent taking care of the unexpected or experiencing something we haven’t prepared for. But that frustration, that inability to let go, keeps us from the true journey.

We want to prepare, so that we can leave home, let go, and enjoy the road we’re on, being patient so that we can relish in the surfaces and the deep beauty of the places to which we travel and to the places with which we connect.

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Virtues of Travel: Part 7

While reading my brother’s recent posts on training for his 100-mile run, I began contemplating the importance of getting ready for travel.  To succeed, he has to be disciplined about the types of trails he’s running, about training in heat, about consuming proper nutrition, and about abundant stretching, yoga, strength training, and core workouts.  I am envious of his efforts and his careful preparation.

Many great travel experiences require similar levels of planning ahead: researching the destination and the routes getting there, exploring places to stay and see, learning about the local cultures, foods, and adventures, thinking through the climate and the exposure and the risks and deciding what will go in your pack and what to leave behind. It’s a magnificent process.

Of course, depending on your personality and your disposition, your level of preparation will vary. For many wanderlust souls, preparation might even be nonexistence as you throw your thumb towards the asphalt and head into the sunset without a care.  But even that is a conscious decision to not prepare … preparation, whether acted on meticulously, avoided intentionally, or everything in between, is part of every traveler’s journey.

Sure, I would love to throw caution to the wind, but after years of hitting the road, I’ve found that I believe strongly in packing lists, guidebooks, reading histories of people and places, and even the trip to the travel clinic for necessary vaccines. Like having a home from which to leave from, I enjoy the grounding which preparation provides. I also benefit from a travel companion who is a master at travel research and planning.

Some might be reading this and asking, wait, isn’t he the gray wanderer?  What kind of wandering spirit is this over-prepared fanatic?  That answer will have to wait until next month, for the 8th virtue is preparation’s ultimate complement.

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Wander from Home

Virtues of Travel: Part 6

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Spring is a stunning time in Denver … crisp mornings alter between hot and mild days, afternoons fill with rain and thunderstorms, and evening brings perfect sunsets over the Rocky Mountains.  We take to the yard, preparing summer gardens, completing long over-due landscaping projects, chasing weeds, and most enjoyable of all, watching the trees ebb into green and the roses arise from their winter slumber. I know this season and place intimately; I cherish these moments at home.

I didn’t always feel so happy about the idea of “home.”  My wanderlust and vagabonding kept me somewhat on edge, awaiting the next suitcase, plane ticket, and passport stamp. Home meant roots, ties keeping us from heading out the door, responsibilities …

But over the last few years, I’ve felt a stronger reward from trips, a better awareness during each present moment while traveling, and a deeper connectivity to the places we’ve visited. With my most recent spring landscaping project and rose care (pictured above), in preparation for summer journeys ahead, I’ve had time to reflect on these new levels of appreciation. I believe I’ve become a happier traveler because I’ve created a home.

And home needn’t be walls and a roof, land that you own, or an unruly yard that demands daily attention. Home might instead be a place of friends and family, a community gathering, a religious fellowship, a relaxing place in your mind. In whatever manifestation, home is always there, waiting for your return. And it is in the act of this returning where so much wandering gains its greatest meaning.

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Enjoy the Road You’re On

Virtues of Travel: Part 5

I often contemplate the concept of sliding doors … in a religious context we might discuss it as fate or destiny … what I’m after is how we understand all the decisions, all the small moments, all the twists that brought us to life as we now know it. This is an age-old discussion, and maybe a tired one at that. But when it comes to travel, it’s a necessary subject to consider.

I remember a train station in Italy: a rural stop without infrastructure, maps, or indication of where we needed to go. Our destination was a lesser-known hill town, one of those beautiful castle-like cities posed with such grace above the rolling vineyards and olive orchards in the Tuscan countryside. The picturesque. You might argue heavenly. Another profoundly perfect cliche.

But we probably weren’t going to get there.  Without taxis, shuttle buses, or even tuk-tuks (those are of Southeast Asia, not Central Europe anyway), the town would be a seven-mile trek.  It seemed like a nice day for a walk. We set out.

Within a mile, one of our travel partners stuck out her thumb.  “Let’s just get there,” she exclaimed. And though we hesitated at first, it only took two tries for a car to pullover.  I thought a blonde from New England might struggle a bit more to hitch a ride.

Through our broken Italian, and the driver’s broken English, he assumed that we were headed to the much more popular Sienna, a few miles back the other direction. We didn’t realize that until we arrived at the city gates. And by then it seemed unnecessary to force the destination … the comical miscommunication had brought us to a stunning place.

So I suppose we could have ended up just about anywhere that day. But we ended up there, in Sienna. And that evening, as I stood gazing at the giant Piazza del Campo, the red brick glistening in the moonlight, the laughter of the last patrons leaving the sidewalk cafes, the night sweeper with his fine bristle broom brushing the ancient dust back and forth, I knew I was where I was supposed to be. All other forks in the road, diverging highways, turns the other direction, missed trips to some unknown hill town, faded away.

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