I miss travel the way I miss an old friend — the absence is there even without pausing to focus on it.
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As the final weeks of summer in the Northern Hemisphere race to a close, I can’t help but think of a travel season coming to an end with far too little travel having occurred. The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted the rhythms of so many of us, leaving us sequestered at home, often fortunately with family, but unable to venture out to explore the world around us the way we might have planned. I miss travel the way I miss an old friend — the absence is there even without pausing to focus on it.
In many respects, I have been traveling all my life. I was born in Tokyo, Japan in 1958, the third child of an American couple who had already lived in Japan for five years as Lutheran missionaries. In 1959, we came back to the U.S. for what was then described as a furlough. My first arrival in the U.S. came not from a flight, but from a trans-Pacific crossing on a steam ship called the SS President Cleveland into San Francisco Bay in the summer of 1959. I obviously have no recollection of that arrival, but I can easily imagine the beauty of San Francisco and its bridges looming large as it came into view.
My family returned to Japan in 1960 and lived there until permanently returning to the states in 1965. We settled in the Midwest and, like many, our travel was all about the great American family road trip. We drove to see family in other Midwestern towns and we occasionally ventured a bit farther afield to see the National Parks out west. I remember riding a trail horse in the Grand Tetons and seeing the carved presidents at Mount Rushmore, sites that haven’t changed much in the intervening decades. I don’t remember ever being on an airplane and it was only very rarely that we ever stayed at a hotel.
As I became more independent, my travel adventures started to become my own. Initially, they involved camping and the wilderness. When I was 12 or 13, my folks gave me what I think of today as my first travel book: it was called With Pipe, Paddle and Song, by Elizabeth Yates, and it told the story of a young man in French Canada in the 18th century who was part of the fur trade. While I never got into pelting furs, it wasn’t long before my favorite means of travel was canoeing in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, a wilderness region on the border of the U.S. and Canada, where, even today, one can dip a cup into the lake and drink without fear, where fish are plentiful for dinner and where the night call of the northern loon can bring romance to a summer evening.
During my college years, it was back to the great American road trip, albeit typically with friends not family. Drives to the Gulf Coast of Florida, to Padre Island, Texas, skiing in Big Sky, Montana, even a long-haul drive searching for sun that didn’t end until we got to San Diego. Done right, these drives and millions like them give us a chance to see the land we live in, the towns and country sights that make up our communities and the extraordinary diversity that has long been apparent to anyone who travels. During these years, I remember savoring William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways: A Journey Into America, a book rich with observations about what we can see if we keep our eyes open.
As college drew to a close, I finally managed a return to international travel for the first time since living in Japan. With a good college friend, we took three and a half months to see Europe and the Near East, with the bulk of the summer in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Israel. With barely two nickels to rub together, I managed to have one of the greatest experiences in my life but to also lose 25 pounds on a diet that to this day seems to have consisted of not much more than bread and jam. That trip included long walks in many places — in cities like London and Oslo and Paris, as well as areas in Bavaria and the Alps, and even in the cedar forests of Lebanon and in dusty mountain scenes in Jordan.
In the almost four decades that my wife Ruth and I have traveled together, we have seen dinner being prepared on the taffrail of a paddle board on the Yangtze; watched soccer being played as far as the eye could see on the beaches of Casablanca at sunset; seen the sunrise from the top of Mount Moses in the Sinai; and seen mile after mile of blooming sun flowers in the afternoon sun of South Dakota. Even as I write these words, I am struck by the fact that these recollections are not just memories, but each could be its own book – of beauty, adventure, the context of our lives and of the world at the time.
Quite obviously, my life has been blessed with the opportunity for frequent travel, as part of work and for purely personal reasons. Travel is always eye-opening to me. When your eyes and ears are open, what you learn is priceless. An example of this is the latest travelogue written by my friend Iqbal Ahmed, An Open Book and Empty Cup, which is filled with powerful observations of London today, its sights, its culture, its community. It’s a great read and it will take you to London almost as powerfully as a trip itself.
Whether it is the streets of London or a drive through the Western United States, the places we go stretch us. They literally open our horizons, broaden our perspectives about life and give us memories that bring us back again and again. I miss travel and I cannot wait until I am back on the road. While there are days when it seems far away, I’m absolutely certain that the time to travel again is coming soon. When it does, I hope our paths cross.
Sorenson’s love letter to travel was first published on LinkedIn.
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Photo credit: Sunrise in the Sinai peninsula, where Marriott CEO Arne Sorensen has had some of his fondest travel memories. Lee Horrocks / Flickr