Travel Stories

Away PT.2

In my last post, I told a story about how I took a solo trip to Europe a few years back but after I wrote it I was reminded of an earlier solo trip, one not so glamorous but equally important.

Years ago, when buying a ticket to Europe was so far out of my budget that it might as well have been Mars, I needed a get-away. Bad relationship, bad job, bad twenty-something crisis.

I had a car and enough money for gas and food but little else, so it had to be somewhere I could do round-trip in one day. I picked up a map and looked for places within three hours drive.  On the bottom of the map was a small ad for Arcola IL with a pretty photo and a promise that it was worth a visit. It became my destination.

Before this moment I’d never heard of Arcola. You might not of either. It’s a small place (less than 3000 people), tucked off I-57. Its claims to fame, though, are pretty cool. It’s touted as the “birthplace of Raggedy Ann & Andy” because the creator of those characters, Johnny Gruelle, was from Arcola. It’s also in the middle of Illinois’ Amish country and the “broomcorn capital of the world.”

I knew none of this when I picked it. This was before the internet so all I had on Arcola was that ad about the town’s charms. Good enough.

Arcola lived up to its promise. It was charming. I ate pie, bought roadside fruit, went to a quilt shop (I had just started quilting at the time), and wandered in and out of shops. I bought a Raggedy Ann doll that I still have, and I spoke to a woman who was disappointed I’d chosen to visit a week before a big fair they had at the end of every summer.

“We have food, and music, and all kinds of fun,” she told me. “It’s the biggest thing you’ll ever see.”

I still remember that line. I guess I could have taken it as naïve – that she thought this small town fair was such a big deal, but I didn’t – and don’t. Because it was a big deal. It was a celebration of the rewards of hard work and the all too fleeting pleasures of life. She was talking about being present in a moment of joy. Being with friends. Just being.

When I left Arcola and drove home, I felt better. Running away, even for a day, helped. I watched the cornfields turn into suburban streets, and finally parked outside my apartment by Wrigley Field. I called a friend, and we went out for a hot dog and Cokes, sitting outside on a wooden bench outside one of those summer-only stands. We chatted about nothing in particular, and enjoyed the still warm night. It wasn’t the Arcola festival, but it was a celebration of sorts.

Sometimes now when I’m tempted to think that travel means a plane ticket and a hotel room, I’m reminded of that day. Getting away, getting the sometimes much needed perspective that only distance can provide, can be just a gas tank away.



Away Pt. 1

Tallinn, Estonia

Right out of the gate, I suck at blogs. Just so you know and will lower your expectations immediately. I don’t really like blogs, to be honest.

I suspect that it’s because blogs feel indulgent “look at me” sort of things, and much like all social media, comes with the implicit understanding that the writer is carefully editing out the dull bits of life that comprise 23 ¾ hours of every day, and blowing the teeniest bit of excitement all out of proportion. I’ve seen blogs where laundry comes with “hilarious” stories, or tuck-pointing the house is turned into a ten-part drama. All fine, I suppose, if you’re into being the star of your own reality show. Not judging (Yes, judging. Obviously judging. How gullible are you?)

I was not raised to be the center of attention. The youngest of four kids with a widowed mom often working two jobs, I was raised to not cause problems. Family, subsequent relationships, and crazy bosses all taught me not to cause problems. Ask around (if you know anyone I know) and they’ll tell you I am unflappable. I can not be flapped. I’m calm in all storms, unexcitable on almost all occasions, and generally the last person you’d expect to do anything crazy.

But that all has a price. I’ve gained weight in the last few years as I became increasingly exhausted and annoyed. My solution was to buy bigger pants, pretend it was the brand’s fault, and crop photos that showed my stomach bulge or double chin. I’ve taken to cropping my photos more and more until now, in most pictures, there’s little more than a finger showing.

I’ve shuttled between work and family and books and hobbies until I’d muddied the difference between joy and obligation. And I, for a long time, lost interest in writing for anything other than the certainty of my paycheck.

Then I ran away.

Helsinki, Finland

I took a trip by myself. Which, for reasons I’m unclear on, elicited quite a lot of pity from folks around me. A “no one wants to go with you” kind of pity, and a wondering about the state of my relationship. Nevertheless, I persisted (sorry that was Elizabeth Warren)….Nevertheless, I bought a plane ticket.

I’ve taken solo work trips before and even solo road trips. But both had a purpose. I was working or I was driving to a specific destination. I wasn’t vacationing. I’d never gone alone just to go.

But I did. First Helsinki, then Tallinn, then Stockholm. Ten days, three countries. An amuse bouche of travel to places I’d never been but wanted to go. And you know something? I loved it. I loved the quiet of my own thoughts, waking up to a schedule that was completely mine to decide, the not having to concern myself with someone else’s needs.

Stockholm, Sweden

Was it lonely? Yeah, sometimes. I’m not here to lie. Sometimes I felt weird standing in line for an attraction, surrounded by selfie-loving couples, and families struggling to keep all the kids together. But other times I felt sort of, honestly, liberated.

And then I had walked into this design shop in Helsinki. I was just wandering, and the window caught my eye. Inside a woman about my age told she’d just quit her day job to open this shop, with designs based on her photography. I was the only customer at the moment, so no one was pulling her away, and of course, I had no one hurrying me along either. We talked, this woman and myself, for about forty minutes – about changing direction, about being afraid and fearless, about following dreams. Would I have had that conversation with family, friends, or colleagues nearby? I doubt it. I bought a throw pillow cover and remember her, and that moment, every time I use it.

There’s been more moments of connection like that since, and every one of them reminds me how much I love to see and experience the world. I’ve taken solo trips since, but also trips with family, friends & colleagues, and I’ve loved them all.

My cabin on the overnight ferry between Estonia and Sweden

I’ve had a blog before. Because I’m not good at blogs, it was unfocused. I’m going to try again. This time I’m going to focus on travel, big and small, because it’s both a passion of mine and the focus of my new World of Spies series.

I hope you’ll join me, and also help educate me, on places to go, and the best ways to get there, be there, and see everything.