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2014 January — The Meaningful Traveler

January 2014

Remembering what we don’t understand

by Steve Brock on January 27, 2014

Brugge- canals and buildings

As I get older, I understand fewer and fewer things even as I know more. Why, for instance, as I sit tonight on a plane flying home from a business trip in Alaska, do I suddenly think of Brugge, Belgium?

One memory cascades against another. I remember the place as it was when we visited last summer. But I also consider my own memories of how I pictured it before the trip. Sometimes, as if recalling a dream, I confuse the actual with the imagined. Anticipation of a trip can be that powerful that the expectant view of the place competes later with the real memories.

I have heard explanations for why this is, why our memories are as trustworthy as a thief. But still I don’t understand it fully when confronted with its reality.

So what comes to mind about Brugge tonight on this airplane thousands of miles away? Moments. Vignettes. Glimpses.

The crowds when we first arrived. I knew it was a popular city being a UNESCO World Heritage site, but still I had expected intimacy and not the jostling of so many other tourists on the main drags and in tour boats.

Brugge tourists

Water and stone. The numerous bridges and canals restrained by walls of brick and rock, moss and roots and passages of boats and time.

Brugge- canal and bridge

Brugge- canals

Music. Wandering one warm evening in the southern haunts of the old town. As hot air balloons floated I heard the sounds of Bonnie Raitt live in concert a hundred feet away performing in an amphitheater on the other side of an inviting row of trees.

Brugge Balloon

Smiling later as I passed her modern tour busses parked cozily along a centuries-old street.

Bonnie Raitt Busses

Light. A morning exploration of the town, in particular the old Godshuizen (or almshouses), a cluster of houses built for the poor by rich merchants from the 14th to 18th centuries.


Or the filtered sunlight of the lonely (at that time of day) chapel at the Beginjnhof, a 12th century nunnery still in use today. I sat in reverent silence there until a nun entered as I was leaving. We mutually reacted with surprise and smiles as if the presence of another was both unexpected and yet somehow fitting.

Beginjnhof Chapel

Food. The heavy iron pots that embraced the Flemish Stew at a particularly cozy restaurant while the “Fries Angel” hovered nearby with inexhaustible replenishments of pommes frittes.

Flemish Pot

Or the delightful meal we scarfed down, grateful that the owner had squeezed us in on a busy night between existing reservations.

Why I recall all this now with no known triggers (smell being the most common), I do not understand. But I do recognize the familiar nature of meaningful travel to revisit itself upon us months or years after a trip.

I don’t have to understand the wonder of travel to appreciate it. I have only to be grateful for it…and remember.

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The one less traveled – Part 2

by Steve Brock on January 17, 2014

Arches before sunsetLast August, I accompanied my son, Sumner, on a cross-country road trip to the Midwest. Destination: school – he was about to start college in the southern Midwest. This was a trip of logistics, a relocation of him and everything he will need for the next four years, to a place far from home.

But that didn’t stop us from making it a fun journey.

We planned our route in ways both spontaneous – we made no reservations – and yet intentional: we timed our travel to get to one stop, Moab, Utah, in the late afternoon.

The reason for this orchestration of time and place was so that we could experience Arches National Park (just outside of Moab) at sunset. We arrived in Moab a bit later than planned, dropped off the better part of Sumner’s worldly goods at our budget hotel, grabbed a quick dinner and raced the descending sun to Arches.

We’d been here on a family trip about five years earlier, so the layout of the park was familiar. Our plan was to hit a few of the major arches, then drive to the trailhead for the two to three hour roundtrip hike out to Delicate Arch which we’d missed on our previous visit. The latter is the poster child for the park, the one you see in all the promotional photos. It looks like how the St. Louis arch would appear if made out of Play-doh by a three-year old.

We never made it to Delicate Arch.

We stopped initially at “Park Avenue,” an area of skyscraper-like rock formations, then headed to Double Arch passing by Balanced Rock along the way. But as we left Double Arch, we found a stretch of rock bathed in the warm orange of that rapidly setting sun. We stopped, parked off the side of the road, and, being thoughtful visitors, avoided stepping on the desert vegetation on our way to scramble on  huge mounds of sandy reddish rock.

We were two kids delighting in this massive playground. At one point we looked at the time and realized that if we left right now, we could still make it to Delicate Arch by sunset. We figured that if we got there, we’d see something famous – the arch itself – but we’d also encounter numerous other visitors.

Where we were – picture two small insects meandering across the upper belly of a huge stone version of Jabba the Hutt– we saw no arches or any of the named sights of the park. But neither did we witness any other human beings. We stood, ran, climbed and exulted  in our private corner of this national park. And so we remained there.

We had chosen the way less traveled.

Arches after sunsetWe missed Delicate Arch at sunset. We also missed all the crowds. Instead, we gained so much more in small yet meaningful ways. The photos here show the view from “our” rock followed by some fun on the way out trying to capture images of the park in the dark.

We didn’t have THE experience of Arches. But we had OUR experience.

Arches after sunset - car lightsThat may seem like an obvious choice, but the siren call of the popular cries loudly when you’re faced with the fork in the road. Go with the well-known or march off the map. It’s easy conceptually to say, “Well of course. We should always go our own way, blaze our own trails, etc.” But in reality, I’ve done that and I have missed out on some things I wish I’d seen instead. So the choice between the way most traveled and that which is least traveled isn’t as easy as the Frost poem might lead you to believe. It does require wisdom when choosing.

But here’s what I was reminded of that evening in Arches: if you choose with the right mindset (in our case, opting to spend time together, father and son in our own beautiful spot rather than running feverishly to see what others have deemed beautiful), then there likely isn’t a wrong choice.

Arches after SunsetThe important point – the heart of meaningful travel, actually – is to recognize or focus on what you have rather than what you miss.

We may have missed Delicate Arch, but we came away with this powerful reminder from that trip:

There will always be other paths, some more traveled, some less. But if you are content with the one you choose, that will make all the difference.

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The one less traveled – Part 1

by Steve Brock on January 8, 2014

Yellow woodsSome friends recently gave my oldest son a record player. Vinyl is now his prey. Everywhere he goes, he hunts his quarry hoping to find the perfect old record.

He hit the jackpot two days before Christmas. He and his brother went exploring in my in-laws’ attic and found box after box of LP’s ranging from classical to jazz to Christmas to some albums my wife and her brothers had growing up. Remember The Knack? We found that, put it on and I have to say, once “My, my, my, my Sharona” gets into your head, it camps out, builds a residence and resists all efforts at eviction. (For those of you too young to know what I mean, I assure you, it isn’t a good thing.)

Of all the records they uncovered, the most interesting to me was an old recording of Robert Frost reading his own poetry. I thought it might be funny to hear, but in less than a minute, there we were: three generations sitting around the phonograph mesmerized.

When he got to arguably his  most famous poem, The Road Not Taken, I expected to recite it along with him, at least the first and last stanzas:

TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler… 

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.


But two things occurred. First, I realized how little I know of the middle parts of the poem, words I’ve long forgotten even as the final line gets used and mis-used repeatedly in everything from book titles to car commercials to blog post titles.

Second, as I listened to the way Frost wrapped his New Englander intonations around the words (sounding almost cranky at times) something very strange happened. I heard this well-known poem in a manner that was both familiar – I could even see the words in my mind’s eye as I listened – and yet completely new.

“…And sorry I could not travel both and be one traveler…” Even now, two weeks later, the line still surprises me with the fullness of what lies within those words.

Here’s the funny thing: Had I looked up the poem in a book and read it, familiarity would likely have won out. I would have probably reacted with some comment about, “Oh yeah. That old poem. Yellow woods and all that…” But hearing it, particularly in the words of one of our nation’s greatest poets, a man long since passed away, changed not only my experience of the poem but how I was able to receive it.

And that’s exactly what travel itself does for us. It changes the familiar and helps us experience life with fresh perceptions. The old becomes new and is, in some ways, even more precious because it is like encountering an old friend or finding a once cherished item you’d given up as being forever lost.

One of my goals this year is to see the world. Really see it. Perceive it with more of my senses. Experience the old in new ways. Especially the world that is all around me every day. But it may take a different kind of travel to get there. Perhaps traveling not as a global explorer, but as something much simpler. Perhaps it means traveling as one less traveled.

Who knows? It could make all the difference.

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Pastpresentfuture travel

by Steve Brock January 2, 2014

Going back to the same place isn’t that surprising except when you can be present: to the moment, to the past and to the future all at the same time

Read the full article →