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2014 March — The Meaningful Traveler

March 2014

Traveling in the dark – Part 1

by Steve Brock on March 28, 2014

Foggy RoadSeveral months ago, my family drove down to Bend, Oregon. We left the Seattle area after work, had dinner along the way and crossed the Columbia River just east of Portland.

By then, it was quite dark and our route – chosen by our trusty GPS on my phone – took us through what seemed like miles of twists and turns through Portland suburbs. Eventually, we found the highway – marked only by the street name, at least at first – that would take us to central Oregon.

I’d never gone this way before, so I had no idea what to expect. But one think I certainly did not plan on was the dense fog that soon began to engulf us.

In the limited visibility of the fog, we could just make out a string of rustic hotels and restaurants along the way, indicators we were nearing some sort of recreational area. I knew that Mount Hood was out in this general direction, and I wondered if these were places serving people as they traveled there.

By the time the buildings started to thin out, the fog lay like a dense blanket over the highway. It got to a point where for miles – scores of miles – we could barely make out the edges of trees lining the road. Occasionally, we could detect the dim glow of some light – we assumed for some building – as we passed. But with the exception of the occasional oncoming car, our entire world was a wall of gray illuminated by our headlights, the only distinguishing feature being the highway stripe down the center of the road.

As we drove, we were listening to a book on CD. And depending which of the three of us – me, my wife or my son – you asked, the fog made the story better…or too intense. We’d chosen a young adult fantasy from the library – the “Beyonders” series by Brian Mull – and at the densest point of our foggy journey where I actually considered pulling over due to limited visibility, the story got very suspenseful. We listened as the main character worked his way down hidden passages to find a book covered in human skin with a live eye that suddenly opened on its cover.

“Cool!” said I. “Ewwww! Creepy!” said my wife. “Shhhhh!” said my son.

After several more miles of this, we saw a haze of lights off to our left, evidently some sort of industrial space. Orange lights glowed from apparent towers and spotlights attempted to cut through some other area, with limited success. It was bizarre to see and, I’m sure influenced by the book we were listening to, our general consensus was that it was a staging area for an alien invasion. That seemed the obvious choice from its appearance in the fog.

You never know…

Eventually, about fifty miles from our destination, the fog lifted. But the night was so dark and we were so far from any town that the visibility only increased marginally. We still had no idea what was around us.

Journeying with limited senses changes your perception of travel itself. Driving for several hours with so few visual cues was initially novel, then a bit scary and finally, a new normal. It’s funny how something like fog can take a routine experience and radically change it.

But it wasn’t until we returned home via the same route in reverse a few days later that we realized how truly amazing our journey through the fog had been…

To be continued…

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You can go back, but…Part 2

by Steve Brock on March 18, 2014

Freiburg Baechle (mini-canals)I hadn’t planned on having a Part 2 to the last entry on my return – my re-visit – to Freiburg, Germany. But Cathie’s comment to it triggered a thought worth exploring more.

The question was, can you go back to a place you spent a lot of time in years ago and do so with fresh eyes? In general, I would say yes, given that enough time has gone by and that you’re aware of the need to see things anew.

So why wasn’t I able to do that in Freiburg? Because it wasn’t the place itself that created the nostalgia. It was the people I’d known in that place that made it almost impossible to re-visit the same location in an objective manner.

When we have deep emotional ties to people in a place, that place is forever affected in our thinking. As a sad example, we have some friends who recently lost their infant child. Now, they feel compelled to move from their apartment because just the walls of the building remind them of their departed son.

Some places stick to us like that and remind us of the people we can’t help but associate with the locations. I can’t look at the river in Freiburg and not think of times lying on its bank with friends talking about dreams of the future. Or see a particular street and not recall quiet walks with other friends, discussions that today seem both naively idealistic and yet somehow lacking in my busy “adult” life.

I think of racing with other friends late at night, crisscrossing the many Baechle, the water runnels/mini-channels that line the old streets of Freiburg. Or hanging with German friends in a crowded pub whose owner seemed to have an odd obsession with German punk and, curiously, the music of the American singer Steve Winwood. Or enjoying a piping hot bratwurst on a cold afternoon staring up at the cathedral as a friend shared a more private side of himself than I’d ever known before.

All these people, these memories, are tied to this place. So to see it with fresh eyes is not only difficult, but something I may not be even willing to do. Seeing the place anew – creating new memories – runs the risk of erasing or at least diminishing the old ones.

Memory is such a fickle thing that I’m not sure I’m willing to take that risk. Too much good – too many memories of wonderful friends – are tied to that place. I think the older we get, the more tightly we clasp these memories – nurture and protect them – even as we realize how ephemeral and even unreliable they are.

As someone who constantly harps on living in the present, I find this idea of clinging to memories hard to admit. But I think it’s true and it explains why we can’t – or don’t want to – see some old places in new ways.

How about you? Ever been to a place so connected with friends or family you care about that it is hard to separate the place from those people?

We tend to travel to experience the new. But sometimes we find value in the old as well. How we balance these two desires is one of the joys – and challenges – of traveling…and of being human.

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You can go back, but…

by Steve Brock on March 5, 2014

Freiburg Cathedral

Let’s revisit the idea of a re-visit, shall we?

A re-visit is when you go back to a place you’ve visited before. Sometimes, that can be rewarding because you see details or new elements of the place you missed the first time. Other times, it can be disappointing because the wonder and novelty you associated with the place the first round no longer exists. It’s like watching a rerun of your favorite show.

Rerun. When’s the last time you heard that term? I can’t recall when I last saw a rerun of a television episode. I don’t watch enough network TV for that to happen nor am I forced to watch reruns because of a lack of other viewing options, what with Netflix, Amazon, iTunes or others. In short, we have so many other new shows available on demand now that we don’t have to go back and watch even old favorites.

But we still do.

Similarly, we often revisit a special place, somehow convincing ourselves that we can still have that original, magical experience.

So, how was that rerun?

I should talk. That form of denial or misplaced hope may explain why last summer we visited the town in Germany where I spent my junior year in college. The city is Freiburg, located in the heart of Germany’s Black Forest. Initially I tried to avoid going back there – I did try – but then my sons thought it would be fun to see where Dad went to school. Oh, why not? What’s the harm? So back to Freiburg I went, family in tow.

As we approached via car driving in from the East, I found myself remembering places and I found the surrounding countryside even more beautiful than I had recalled. Maybe this will be a good experience after all, I mused. But once we got into town, two things happened that reinforce my belief that revisiting certain places may not lead to the most meaningful of experiences.

Freiburg Street

First, the city both had changed and it hadn’t. How’s that for insightful? What I mean is that much of it was familiar. I recognized many of the streets (like the one above) and even the buildings such as the old city gate with the McDonald’s sign on it.

Freiburg Old Gate with McDonalds sign

In the same way, the Muenster, the Romanesque Cathedral in the heart of the city seemed familiar.

Freiburg Cathedral Candles

I have to admit, however, that I never noticed this, uh, well, unusual gargoyle before.

Freiburg cathedral gargoyles

Yet even what I recognized as being the same, wasn’t. Not exactly. For example, many of the walls around the town, once so quaint and historic, were now covered in graffiti. It was like visiting Disneyland and seeing trash all over the place.

Second, I had both changed and hadn’t. So instead of viewing Freiburg with fresh eyes, I came with this bundle of hope and nostalgia, recollections about the place, the people I’d known there and even who I was then and who I am now. The problem was, I couldn’t see the place for its own sake. Instead, I kept making comparisons which rarely comes off well: No one likes to date someone who is always comparing you to their past flame.

Does this mean you should never revisit a place? Of course not. And is Thomas Wolfe correct that “You can’t go home again” meaning you can’t return to the places of your youth to relive them? On that, I’m not so sure. Perhaps you can. But you need to do so with your eyes wide open knowing that those eyes may be seeing much more…or much less…than is actually there.

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