I’ll never forget the first time I visited Paris.
The weeks before my first trip to Europe, back in May of 2000, were filled with a a joyous anticipation that was almost painful. Europe was to be the land of a thousand adventures. I’d backpack with a Eurorail pass, and go wherever romance was calling. What would if feel like to behold blue skies over the Mediterranean next to Barcelona where the Torello’s come from? How cool would it be to smoke a huge joint in Amsterdam and wander wherever in a zombified state? Hey, what about drinking wine with hot chicks at a Parisian youth hostel? Or…
I’ll spare all other rose-colored notions I had in mind as a 23 year-old. Rest assured, though, there were plenty.
Then I got to Paris. The reality hit: dog merd, omnipresent traffic and crowds, signs you can’t read, cultural norms you don’t understand, and, among many other listable things, the screams of Spaniards everywhere for Madrid and Valencia playing in some European soccer championship in Paris that day. This last circumstance meant every hostel and hotel I went to was booked solid. Every. Single. One.
Then I lost my guidebook. In Let’s Go: Europe 2000 were maps and countless pieces of golden information. Without it, I was just some lost American wandering the streets of Paris filled with some strange dread I’d never felt before. I thought in the weeks leading up to my first trip to Europe, no matter what inconveniences I’d experience, all would be sunshine and rainbows. Demoralization would not happen.
Well, it did. And I was considering going home right then and there. “What if the entire trip is filled with such uncertainty? What if…”
Of course, two huge beers and a nice Frenchmen telling me, “Go to zuh toooreeest offeese,” allowed me to find a hotel far away from the hubbub. Morale returned. All became wonderful again. I was in a land of fairy tales again.
Yet, I’d not forget how emotionally whipsawed day one had made me.
My point is that traveling is like a box of chocolates. You’ll never know what emotions it will produce.
Of course, many emotions are exhilarating. Over the past four months of traveling, there were many such moments… Seeing the Yosemite Valley from the Tunnel View at sunset after a long drive from the Mojave… the clouds breaking at Mt St Helens after thinking I wouldn’t even see the base of the mountain after driving 3 hours… sunset at the Black Canyon on the Gunnison after dealing with traffic and construction and Commirado liberals… These happy moments broke through fog, fatigue and frustration. They changed my state instantly. They were why I travel.
At the same time, some moments can be miserable and, often, you don’t know when they’ll hit. You don’t know when the romantic glow of your endeavor is going to fade entirely. You don’t know when you’ll find yourself in circumstances that are so miserable you consider turning around right then and there, as those first two hours in Paris taught me.
Anticipating how to mitigate misery when traveling is harder than you realize. You have to anticipate what will make you miserable in the first place. You have to see past your tendency to romanticize the experience, and see raw elements as they will be.
Camping on the North Rim of Grand Canyon sounds great, eh? You live in Kansas and have never been west of Denver. Seeing this grandest of western landscapes will make your life perfect for the time you’re there. Nothing will go wrong.
Ok. You know you’re camping at 8000′, right? You know it can drop into the 40’s at night, right? Did you bring warm clothes? A warm sleeping bag? Is your tent good enough to keep you dry during a thunderous downpour at 1:30 in the morning? Getting everything you own soaking wet in 45 degree weather at 1:30 am is going to kill your buzz.
Or how about camping in the heat? I know you’re “tough” because you’re from the humid East Coast, and the dry heat out West is nothing. But, you’re not as tough as you think. Trust me. That sun is stronger than you think. Camping around Moab, Utah in June before the monsoons, where there is no shade, will also kill your buzz.
Of course if you’re not camping (because you’re a wuss), and you’re willing to spend thousands to stay in hotels the whole time (as opposed to extending significantly your travels), sure, life can be far more comfortable (for the far shorter time you are traveling in which you’ll likely see only the main stuff and nothing uniquely sweeter). You’ll always have good temperatures. You’ll always have shelter.
But, still, your car can break down on I-70. You can be denied entry into Arches National Park because you didn’t know they have a reservation system in effect. You can break your Nikon battery charger in Tropic and be unable to take any photos with it because the closest battery is in St. George over 100 miles away. Your impetuous brother can throw a hissy fit because the air conditioning is not strong enough to cool his fat ass while driving through West Texas…
I’ll shut up now.
But, again, traveling is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’ll get. Your emotions can blind-side you. Rosy expectations can instantly disappear. One minute your swooning because you see the Eiffel Tower. In the next you couldn’t care less because Spaniards screaming with that weird lisp have taken all the hotels.
Still, though I’m a little emotionally fatigued from the 17,000 miles I’ve driven over the past four months, and the rosy shine of Western landscapes is not so bright now as I type these words, I know, with all my heart, that shine will return, and, if the Good Lord so designs, I will travel again. I will experience those ecstasies and agonies that make life worth living.