After more than one year of traveling from the comfort and safety of my armchair, a growing stack of captivating travel writing beside me, I will join my family and hit the road west this week. By the time this column is published we should be approaching Taos, New Mexico, and long-awaited adventure deferred during 15 months of sheltering at home in San Antonio.
We are not alone. A good friend and neighbor drove to Nuevo Laredo this week, parked his car at the airport and rented a vehicle with Mexican license plates for a road trip with his 5-year-old daughter to San Miguel de Allende. It felt safer to travel without advertising his Texas connection. If Instagram is any measure, they are having a marvelous and liberating time.
Others in my circle of friends, relatives, and co-workers are booking flights to other cities and even other countries. A San Antonio Report board member is with his extended family in the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador. I am envious of that bucket-list trip, yet in no hurry to board an airline where I might be seated next to some misfit who wants to quarrel with a flight attendant over the airline’s mask requirement. I am fully vaccinated, but a commercial airliner is one enclosed space I am in no hurry to occupy.
It is still early on our path to resuming travel, with countries gingerly reopening amid growing evidence the coronavirus will not go away. The pandemic is diminished here in the United States but still afflicts the unvaccinated. The virus is morphing and moving from developed nations to more vulnerable, impoverished nations. Vaccination campaigns, unfortunately, have been treated as national undertakings. Universal vaccination should have been a global mandate.
My wife, Monika, and I tried to book Amtrak seats for September to travel from New York to Montreal to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary in the city of my family roots, but that proved premature. The Canadian-U.S. border remains closed to nonessential visitors. We will be in New York to attend a memorial service for our longtime friend and fellow journalist Christopher Dickey, who died suddenly at his Paris home last summer. For his widow, Carol, organizing a memorial service in France that nonresidents could attend proved impossible, so we will meet in New York.
That will be my first post-pandemic travel by air.
All signs point to great pent-up demand to leave home and travel after more than a year of canceled vacations, postponed weddings and memorials, family and campus visits, and countless other activities. Clearly, many people are eager to spend money on travel after months of staying at home. One colleague abandoned plans for a family vacation in Hawaii. Demand is so high, prices of everything from airline tickets to hotels have risen with it.
The travel bug is loose in San Antonio, too. Have you been down to the River Walk lately, or strolled through the Pearl on a weekday or weekend evening? Restaurants and bars are mobbed with locals and visitors alike. Three downtown and Southtown restaurant operators have told me in recent weeks the only thing preventing them from fully reopening is the lack of staff.
As I do hit the road, I remain grateful for the unexpected year of sheltering that led me to revisit so much good writing that helped me develop as a writer and journalist. One of my last meaningful exchanges with my friend Chris Dickey happened early in the pandemic as we compared notes on great travel writers of the 19th and 20th century whose books we were revisiting. I was at at home, sick with COVID-19. It so happened Aldous Huxley’s 1925 collection of travel essays Along the Road was one such volume. You can read Dickey’s wonderful piece in the Daily Beast on this early 20th century English snob and his insightful yet condescending observations about tourists in general.
Huxley’s observations in the essay Why Not Stay at Home? on complaining tourists making their cranky way through various foreign locales made me laugh out loud. He could never get away with such writing now, but Huxley was a man of his time a century ago.
I spent some of my most formative years living and working in Latin America, in and out of war zones, so last year I reread several books that helped drive my desire to live there, including Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia (1977) and Paul Theroux’s The Old Patagonian Express (1979), books I read as a young reporter working at the Brownsville Herald, living on the border, improving my Spanish, and dreaming of the day when I would head south of the border on assignment. I was lucky: Arriving in Central America in 1981, Monika and I, as newlyweds, actually did travel on wooden trains, among many other adventures.
We made it to Patagonia, first during the Falkland Islands War in 1982 and again on a return visit to Argentina a decade or so ago. Still, the Amazon, the Galapagos, Machu Picchu, and the distant northern reaches of Chile all remain on my bucket list.
I don’t need to experience all destinations in person. Some are best savored from my armchair, which is why I reread British travel writer Sara Wheeler’s Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica. I am fascinated by the scientists who endure year-long assignments there while content to keep my comfortable distance. At the same time, a second perusal of Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams, and I admit, binge-watching Season 8 of the History Channel’s Alone (available on Netflix) made me eager to travel to the far and frigid north.
What reading will I take on my own family’s journey west? Democracy in America, written in 1835 by the visiting French political observer Alexis de Tocqueville. I read it as a college assignment, but need to consider it anew, asking myself along the way if we are forever divided as a nation and people, or if we will somehow find common ground again one day.