In the beginning, back in March, I didn’t mind not being able to travel. Since nobody was able to travel, I felt a sense of camaraderie with my fellow hunker-downers (to borrow Leslie Jordan’s phrase). We all shared the same experience of canceling trips, putting plans on hold, and hoping that, soon enough, we would travel again. When it became clear that there would not be a coronavirus vaccine this year, I had no problem imagining a summer of road trips. International trips could wait until next year. In the meantime, I enjoyed seeing people pivot with their social media posts. I actually found myself feeling more connected to them through their quarantine pictures than through their travel pictures.
But then, I started to see posts from the Icelandic social media sites I follow. Iceland was ready to open for business. It was so tempting. I had been to Iceland once before, to see the Northern Lights. I always wanted to go back during the summer. And now it was being dangled before me, enticing me with its wide open spaces and natural beauty. But my state of Maryland had yet to move into phase one of reopening. Our numbers weren’t quite there. I had to wonder, would I be welcome in Iceland?
By Memorial Day weekend, the state had moved into phase one, with all but the two counties bordering D.C. relaxing restrictions. It felt nice to be making progress. I thought again about Iceland. But then, well, the pictures came out, of crowded beaches and pools where people were not social distancing, and many not wearing masks. It made me nervous. It made me mad. Like when your next-door neighbor is out of town and their teenager throws a house party and it gets out of control and then the police show up. And you think, you should have had just a few friends over, kid. Nobody would have noticed. Now you’re grounded for the rest of the year. Now we’re all possibly grounded. Again, I wondered, would I be welcomed in another country?
Other countries have begun to create bubbles, allowing for regional travel. New Zealand and Australia, the most exclusive club to get into. The European Union, a club for members only. That’s okay, I thought. The U.S. is a big country. Back to the road trip idea. It’s just that, those bubbles look so appealing. I can’t help but be a little jealous. I’ve read it may be possible to go to the Caribbean this summer. But I’ve also read we should expect a strong hurricane season. So, forget it. I’ll just lay low with my fellow hunker-downers. Except, where have they gone? My social media feed lately seems to be filled with posts discussing where to go, when to go, how to go. Are these people already booking travel? Are they allowed to? People are starting to move again, and I’m still waiting for phase two. I’m still longing for the day I can get a pedicure.
The common assumption in all the discussions of resuming travel is that we will want to travel again, and soon. But the question I have yet to see addressed is why. Why must we travel? I thought about that this week as I watched the protests across the country after the killing of George Floyd and felt a sense of hopelessness over the people occupying the most sacred spaces in the government. With November seeming so far away, I began to think of travel as an escape. Iceland, stick that swab up my nose, if that’s what it takes.
I’ve used travel as an escape many times, at moments when my life felt monotonous and I needed to live another life for five to ten days. But I’ve also traveled out of desire to see the world – to see other cultures, other climates, other communities. I believe that most people who consider themselves travelers venture beyond for this same reason. As I look at how multiple crises have been addressed in my country over the span of just a few months, I am grateful that travel has exposed me to other systems of government, other social contracts, and other forms of community. I have seen things that make me appreciate what my government offers, but I’ve also seen things that expose what my government lacks. I have learned not to take my rights for granted, but I have also longed for the same level of security and support offered by other societies.
I’ve thought a lot about the first place I will go when the restrictions are lifted. I’m sure we all have. I long for a return to places that hold a special place in my heart. Scotland, of course. Hawaii, where I lived as a teenager. Why do I prefer that over a trip to someplace new? I suppose it’s for the same reason I found unexpected comfort in eating tuna sandwiches when I had to cut my take-out budget. Tuna sandwiches took me back to my childhood, back to a time when life felt more relaxed. A trip to a familiar destination would be a similar reminder of a time B.C. (before coronavirus). But perhaps the trip after that will be something new. Once I have my travel sea legs again.
Why will we travel? We’ve all been housebound and need to get out, of course. But why will we go where we choose to go? Because there’s a deal? Because we know that it’s safe? Will our bucket list of destinations be the same after this? When we first went into quarantine, I wrote that eventually things will return to normal, just as they did in the years after 9/11. But now, while I believe the little things will return to normal – as I write, I’ve received notice that my state is moving to phase two and I can finally get that pedicure – the bigger things will not return to normal. This experience has left far too deep of an impression, particularly upon the younger generation. And this is a good thing.
After that first trip, let’s ask ourselves why as we plan the next one. So that we can travel responsibly and with consideration. So that, if you find yourself stuck in a middle seat on a crowded plane, you can question why you are there and be satisfied with the answer. Which reminds me, it’s time to start planning that road trip.