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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Virtues of Travel: Part 4

For my own part I am pleased enough with surfaces– in fact they alone seem to me to be of much importance. Such things for example as the grasp of a child’s hand in your own, the flavor of an apple, the embrace of friend … the sunlight on rock and leaves, the feel of music, the bark of a tree, the abrasion of granite and sand, the plunge of clear water into a pool, the face of the wind– what else is there? What else do we need?

– Ed Abbey, Desert Solitaire

For a self-proclaimed literary junky, for someone who enjoys diving deep into the inter-complexities of our existence and the nuanced subterranean explorations of how we function, this quote from Abbey probably resonates with me more than most anything else I’ve ever read. A genuine appreciation for surfaces is really all we need.

And in our travels through Europe, Latin America, and Southeast Asia, Lindsay and I came to this realization time and time again. We loved to show-up to a city and wander its streets, marveling at the architecture, seeking high places to enjoy skylines and panoramas, indulging in street food, and sitting at a corner cafe, drinking a beer and watching the world go by.

Though rich with cultural centers, museums, and indoor activities, we found ourselves often avoiding these places, more driven by the surface of a city’s present moment than its relics and its past exposed in display cases. We preferred a $3 bus pass to some remote neighborhood that most travelers might not explore, in lieu of a $10 admission ticket to an exhibit crowded by tourists.

This is not to say that our way was better, or that it was the only way to travel … not by any means.  Instead, it’s to understand that we each have our own way of traveling and we must find what it is that we enjoy.  We define what we need for our wanders.  And so, for our own part, we were more than content with a city’s surface.

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Virtues of Travel: Part 3

Unfortunately, the adage, “live in the present moment,” has become cliche enough that we too often disregard it.  We move at lightning speed throughout our day, never taking the deep breath to fully enjoy where we are and who we’re with. And the “fully” here is a matter of recognizing that nothing else matters other than that person and that moment.

But the more we wait during travel, the more the energy of relishing in the present moment becomes habitual … a great habit to form.  Think of a young baby waking to an unfamiliar world: instead of disregarding that world, even if they’ve seen it before, they open their eyes wide to soak in all that they can.

My three-month old daughter opens her eyes in this way every morning.  It is miraculous to watch how everything is brand new to her, even if she saw it yesterday … and how excited she is as she recognizes the beauty of everyday objects like photos and picture frames, staircases, lights, and the patterns on the closet door.

The savvy traveler opens their own eyes in this way as well, relishing in each moment, glad that they are in this new place, looking out into the world with the eyes of a child.

Are you relishing today?


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Virtues of Travel: Part 2

chickenpatienceI’m standing in-line at the grocery store, a long line, the wrong line, (you know, the one you thought would move faster than the others, but it turns out to have the customers with the most items, credit cards that won’t process, and the clerk that loves to talk). And it hits me. All my life’s wanderings have resulted in learning a few things from travel that apply to everyday life … lessons to share with Brennan. Why not focus my monthly writings in 2014 on these virtues of travel?

For example, my last post looked at Brennan’s birth as the greatest journey, offering the first virtue of travel: we already possess the confidence, intuition, and will to thrive in this world. The hardest part of travel is taking that first step out the front door.  Once we do though, we discover that we have the ability to take the next step, and the next, and the next.

The second virtue then is still waiting in-line for me here at the grocery store.  In fact, it comes from simply that, the act of waiting. How many times while traveling do we wait for delayed flights? How often do buses not show-up?  Can you remember the countless freeways you’ve encountered jammed with traffic? Sure, having patience might allow us to endure all this waiting. But what if patience goes deeper? What if patience has more to do with transforming the waiting into arriving?


from Wikipedia Commons

I remember feeling stranded in Gryon, Switzerland, waiting for the funicular. While the Swiss might be known for their punctual public transportation, something had delayed them.  I was furious.  How could they be late?  We’ll miss our connecting train! It will take us an extra day to get back!

I ranted for some time.  Then Lindsay, in the way that she so often does, calmly said, “look, the clouds are clearing from the mountains.” Gryon is a stunning place, and in my impatience for our ride, I forgot that.  We weren’t stranded. We had been given a gift to sit and enjoy this stunning mountain panorama for a few more minutes, (or a couple extra hours as it turned out to be).  How fortunate!


from Wikipedia Commons

Okay, but the Alps are pretty different distractions from what’s around us during daily frustrations like waiting in line at the grocery store. Are they though? That clerk up there slowing everything down is genuinely interested in her customers’ stories.  Instead of purely transactional interactions, she’s creating moments of profound human connection. How often do we take time to create those? The snow falling outside is incredibly beautiful to watch … how often do we stop and soak in that subtle bit of nature? Patience doesn’t just help us persevere the waiting, it helps us see what’s available to us in the present moment.  I unwrap a chocolate bar from the shelf next to me and savor a few bites over the next five minutes, bites I usually consume haphazardly.

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The Greatest Journey

There is a life-force within your soul, seek that life.

There is a gem in the mountain of your body, seek that mine.

O traveler, if you are in search of That

Don’t look outside, look inside yourself and seek That.

— Rumi

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“The miracle of life,” and “life changing,” and “you won’t understand until you have one,” and “the most amazing thing ever.” These are the platitudes we’re likely to hear when discussing the birth of a child.  But they are not trite or meaningless; they are profoundly true. Unfortunately though, these statements also don’t entirely give justice to the experience of a baby traveling into the world.

A miracle, the noun most often used to describe birth, gives us the sense of a deep unknowing, of something beyond our understanding. What is incredibly miraculous to me about birth though is that the knowledge of how to make this journey is nestled deep inside humans’ DNA, and was hard-wired into our unconscious instincts evolutions ago. Birth is a dance between the mother and child, filled with awe-inspiring rushes of courage, strength, will, and a wisdom that emerges from both mom and baby about how to cross the threshold.

While only a few inches separates our existence in the womb from our first breaths in the world, the trip is complex, diverse, imaginative, and breathtaking: a perfect analogy for the entire life that follows. So we owe it to ourselves to confidently take the next step of our living journey, knowing that That gem of power, of happiness, of our will to survive and thrive, is already in us, and has been for eons.

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