Only when I’m traveling do I feel that I can take time for pointless wandering. Hiking doesn’t always have to have a destination, right? In a similar vein, I love watching the horses in their paddocks, drifting from place to place, raising their heads occasionally to see what’s going on over the next hill. I think they live in that traveling-spot of expectation and wonder.
Kim harrasses London horse guard. I SEE A SOFT NOSE PLEASE LET ME TOUCH IT.
Maybe it’s because I’m an only child, but my most vivid memories of travel come from times where I simply took a walk by myself. Which is weird, because I don’t like to travel by myself. There was that time I booked a last minute flight to Lisbon, but the plan was to meet someone over there and I attached myself like a tick to the first priest I found in baggage claim who looked like he might be making his way to Fatima. Good thing too because it took his six fluent languages (none of them Portuguese) to help us find a bus.
I grew up traveling all the time with my grandparents. Early-onset Alzheimer’s made new environments difficult for my grandmother, so I kept her from getting lost in hotel halls while my grandfather played poker with his buddies. I was happy to be the nursemaid. Wherever we were, we’d dress for dinner and my grandfather would urge me to try something I’d never tasted before: caviar, an unfamiliar olive, a tiny sip of his martini. Now that it’s some years since his passing, I see how very much I’m like him – simultaneously independent and co-dependent. Just the way I travel.
I’d wander off in the afternoons on these childhood trips – twice when I really shouldn’t have, like that cab I hopped into to visit a distant village near Cancun. Luckily I had enough change to get back to the ship. And somewhere in Pakistan there is a photo of me posing with a group of guys who pestered me on the Canadian side of Niagra Falls until I agreed to stand with each of them in my approximation of late-80’s skater gear. “You look like you’re from New York,” they said. Yeah, right.
I was in college when I made my first trip to Europe, once again with my grandfather. After a couple hours in Helsinki, we landed in Russia and I was a little too much out of my element to go exploring very far by myself in St. Petersburg and Moscow. In a relatively closed environment, I did go for a late night walk on the train between the two cities. Speeding past a lake that glowed silver in the light of a full moon, the bark on the birch trees mirrored the water surface – everything phosphorescent and surreal. I was mesmerized by the scene, and knew there was no way I could ever describe the unreal beauty of it to my traveling companions when we woke. I also had no idea that all the sleeper cars were being robbed until I opened my eyes the next morning to the shouts of my grandfather’s poker buddy who was out $2,000 US.
A few months later I traveled on the infamous Wofford College Interim to Ireland. A touch braver in an English speaking country I set off by myself to explore the first week when we were in London. The cemetery where Mary Shelley’s mother is buried was/is in a desolate, industrial district and I almost stepped on Johann Christian Bach’s headstone in my rush to catch the first taxi I’d noticed in three hours.
When we touched down in Ireland, I felt like I’d come home. Equal parts British and Irish, I’m at odds with myself. Slipping away from the group, I explored the streets of Dublin until I’d purchased more books than I could safely carry back to my hotel, or stash in my suitcase without extra airline fees. Following the foot traffic on Grafton Street, fire trucks, with their distinctive European wail, rushed past me and I felt, for a moment, that I was simultaneously the singular subject and audience of a movie streaming only in my head. Maybe that’s why I write, with the ghost of Joyce and Yeats always stashed in my carry on.
I thought myself well-traveled by the time I reached Portugal the following year. The priest that I wouldn’t let out of my sight on the way to Fatima would say otherwise. We crossed Lisbon on foot, me pulling far too much luggage behind while he traveled light. I’d never been so grateful to reach the Dominican boarding house my friend was staying (and the priest was very happy to be rid of me). Unfortunately, the friend became quite ill and I passed the time watching car racing, playing poker or walking around the small village anchored by a massive basilica in the center of the square. I’d gone out for shrimp subs one night and my path took me past the basilica. The doors were open and a choir practiced inside; the acoustics carried the sound until it seemed as if the voices were beside me, otherworldly and perfect. I leaned against the church in the cool shade of its white walls and I closed my eyes to listen.
Turkey’s still a pain in my side as I sort my memories of the city from what I experienced in my marriage to Istanbul – the place I visited on my own. I blamed Istanbul in a lot of ways, but others have better claim on her – say, the Greeks or the Crusaders. Their cause was far loftier than mine, but as I’m given the luxury of time to file away my past I, once again, remember solitary walks: a violin echoing through the subway, the blue-light of sunset reaching out from the Bosporus and filling the streets. Mostly I remember staying up by myself, all night writing, as the sea gulls screamed like human babies from the rooftops of nearby apartments and the suspended street lights swayed, eerily, in the ocean breezes.
Why do we wait for travel to simply set out and see what we’ll find? By necessity, travel places us in the moment, but it’s hard to recreate that mode of simply doing and seeing and being in our regular lives. All those perfectly encapsulated moments that I stumbled upon while traveling could just as easily be happening all around me on a daily basis, I just fail to see them because I’m so stuck on what has be completed next – one more tick off my mental check list.
With the kids all back in school and quiet descending across the barn in the early hours of the day, I miss the rush of activity but I’m cherishing this time of reflection. Looking back through my photos for an old travel shot that highlights one of the moments I listed below, I realized I was so in the moment there wasn’t time to take a photograph. I can recall the scent of the night breeze or the coolness of a stone wall because I wasn’t distracted with other things. My rusty senses had time to work.
It’s the same when we ride horses. Our thoughts are often so busy with other things that we have no time to hear the horse. I love every quote from Rumi, but this one truly captures the indefinable quality of those moments of just being:
This is love: to fly toward a secret sky, to cause a hundred veils to fall each moment. First to let go of life. Finally, to take a step without feet.
Let your horse be your feet for a moment. Or simply allow your feet to carry you.