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Archive for the ‘travel’ Category

Maybe early toilet training is to blame (when is it not?). But, for whatever reason, I am all but useless the day before I travel.

I’m not too bad in the morning. If I get an early start and apply self-discipline, I can do a few hours’ work, if I’m lucky. But by noon a restlessness sets in, and I want to up and traveling.

Since I can’t travel yet, distractions begin to tempt me. I check my mail with increasing frequency, and visit favorite sites more often than the frequency of their updates would warrant. I wander downstairs to check for the mail. I stop to snack. I wipe a corner of the counter, and gather up the newspapers.

As these distractions multiply in frequency and number, they start turning into packing almost imperceptibly. I begin putting small items aside to pack. I get out my clothes. Then, without any conscious volition, I drag out my bags and start packing.

Never mind that if I iron and fold my clothes now, they will be too rumpled to wear on the trip. A nervous excitement has gripped me, and I’m no longer in control. I pack my socks and underwear and toiletries. I choose books to read on the trip, always putting at least one with my carry-on luggage. Even after I think I’ve finished, I keep remembering small items that I need or at least would prefer to have with me. Often, I have half a dozen after-thoughts.

When I’m done, I may still have fourteen hours or more before I leave. But I don’t care – so far as I’m concerned, I’m already on vacation. I resume my restless prowling around the townhouse, picking up books and putting them down, and starting music and stopping it after a few minutes. I may even nap – and why not? It’s not as though I’m going to manage more than a few hours’ restless sleep that night.

Possibly, I would be calmer if I traveled more often. I don’t think so, though. Even a short, mundane trip, like tomorrow’s to Calgary, leaves me crippled by anticipation. Place the blame on an over-active imagination, work that leaves me under-socialized, or early toilet training, as I said.

I certainly can’t be blamed. I’m traveling tomorrow.

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The prospect of flying reduces me to the state of a kid on Christmas Eve. And that’s not just a metaphor, either. The night before I fly, I’m lucky to get five hours asleep. By halfway through the night, I’m awake and almost twitching with excitement. Usually, I get up earlier than I planned, and reach the airport sooner than I intended, too. Whether I’m leaving home or returning, my anticipation is the same.

By the time the plan starts bumping along the runway, my excitement is at a pitch. I love the way that the plane accelerates, then seems all at once to leap forward into the air. At the exact moment of takeoff, the plan seems to quiver with its own excitement, and its ascent seems act of will rather than physics.

Whenever possible, I book a window seat. If the windows opened, I would undoubtedly hang out one like a dog – never mind that I’m at 39,000 feet. Something about seeing the earth spread out beneath me like a diorama is endlessly fascinating to me, no matter how often I fly. Perhaps the slight feeling of giddiness that accompanies the sight adds to the excitement, the feeling that I could step from cloud to cloud to get a better view.

The view from a plane always reminds me of the Challenger map of British Columbia that could be viewed from several different levels at the annual PNE fair. However, the view from the plaen is even better. I remember the trips I used to take from Vancouver to Berkeley, and watching the gradual shift of the vegetation from rain forest greens to semi-desert browns.

On other trips across the continent, I remember the American mid-west as an endless stretch of quarter section farms that varied only in where the home section was on the farm. Every now and then, I’d pass over towns, every one of which seemed to have an oversized cement football stadium. On those same trips, I caught my first glimpse of the Mississippi. And, on one memorable occasional flying to Phoenix, the pilot diverted the flight to give us a view of the Grand Canyon in the early morning light.

Last week, I flew to Calgary just at sunset. At first, most of what I could see out the plane window was blue-purple mountains and forests surrounded by fading patches of snow, and surprisingly few lights. Then, as the dark settled down, the pattern on the ground below became more abstract, the division between the landscape and the snow blurring. Eventually, it settled into a pointillism of snow on a dark background. Gradually, lights appeared as we approached Calgary, springing up in greater and greater numbers until all I could see was a chaotic array of lights. I had a book open, but I spent so much time lost in what I saw below me that the flight attendants had to call me twice to ask if I wanted a snack and a drink.

Descents are a gradual, reluctant return to reality from the mesmerism produced by the view out the window. If I am outward bound, my thoughts leap forward to what I expect from the trip; if I am returning home, I start anticipating breathing air that has the proper amount of moisture in it.

The actual moment that the wheels touch the runway seem another act of will, an act of controlled violence, even with the most skilled of pilots. As the plane slows, it seems to fall asleep. By the time it reaches the gate, I am ready to burst out of its corpse and back into mundane reality.

I keep telling myself that such reactions are out of place in someone who can no longer pretend to be young. Enough travel, and I’ll grow out of them. However, I haven’t fallen into sedateness yet. Each time I fly, I am excited as the first time, and I don’t doubt that I’ll be just as excited the next time I fly.

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“A dusty road that smells so sweet
Paved with gold beneath my feet
And I’ll be dancing down the street
When I get to the border.”
– Richard Thompson

Hugh MacLennan once said that Canada had the same relationship to the United States that Scotland did to England: we’re to the north, we like to think of ourselves as morally superior, and we go south to be successful. I’m not so sure about the last part, but I do know that the American border looms large in the minds of many Canadians. Most of us live within a hundred miles of it, and it is far more of a psychological barrier than a physical one. Although the people and the streets look much the same, they’re brasher south of the border, and more conservative. Because of such differences, for many Canadians, to cross the border is a major step, no matter how often we do it, and many of us have stories of our misadventures when crossing.

I remember that, as a child, I took many holidays south in a trailer. Whenever we crossed back in Canada, I would always feel a relief. Now, I would tell myself, if anything happens, we are not so far from home. Or, if we were, breaking down would seem less of a disaster, simply because we were in Canada.

When I was a young adult and newly married, we had a succession of rust bucket cars. It was exactly the sort of car that raised suspicion in the eyes of American border guards, who are often ex-Service types. Never mind that drug mules were most likely driving late model cars to divert suspicion; we were always grilled closely about our reasons for polluting America with our junkmobile. Often, we would have our trunk open, and, although we never had the car ripped apart, we were often given to understand that could easily happen.

The only time we were spared such ordeals was when we were on our way to visit a friend in the veteran’s home in Bremerton, Washington. As soon as we said where we were going, the border guard stopped glaring at us with suspicion, and waved us through. He didn’t give us a salute, but I thought he was considering doing so.

Another time, we were heading south for a Society for Creative Anachronism event in a car driven by a young, not very bright hothead. After pulling up to the American customs both, our driver seemed inclined to argue with the customs guard. Mindful of all the swords and other medieval weaponry in the back, the rest of us in the car cringed and silently prayed we wouldn’t have to explain what we were doing with all the metalwork crammed into our packs.

But the worst crossing we had was on our way back into Canada. I was in the front passenger seat, and, just before we pulled up to the customs booth, the driver stuffed a brown bag under my seat.

As we were pulling away from the booth, I asked the driver what was in the bag.

“My stash,” he said.

We felt strangely silent until we were dropped off. Afterwards, we stopped hanging out with the driver, and to this day, I doubt he knows why. Very few of my generation worry much about marijuana, even if we don’t use it, but, had the car been searched, the customs agent would probably have assumed that the bag beneath my seat was mine – and, given that I had to be bonded for the work I was doing then, I could have ended up unemployable.

Right about then, we stopped taking rides with people we didn’t know very well.

Strangely, all these episodes took place before the September 11th attacks, when Americans wanted tighter controls at the border (that is, measures whose main result was to make the lineups longer and those waiting unhappier). In fact, the last time we crossed in the United States, when we realized we had forgot our birth certificates, the American guard let us by. No doubt he thought that anyone so hapless couldn’t possibly be a danger to his country.

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