Travel, Sadness, and Keeping Memories

There’s a particular coffee shop in La Paz that I go to every time I’m there. It’s in the middle of town, and has a bench in the window where you can sit and watch people and drink and talk easily and feel the morning sun. They serve pastries you can pull apart. Take small bites. Stay for a while. There’s no reason to hurry in Baja.

Drive north from that coffee shop, about 200 miles. The road takes you inland through the mountains, then back to the coast. There's a pool in the rocks that reveals itself when the tide goes out. Fish get trapped twice a day. It’s big and was cut into the sandstone over an amount of time that makes us feel unimportant. Deep enough to jump in, and about a bus in length. You can swim with the jailed fish as the sun dips below the mountains behind. You can feel the water hold its warmth while the air turns cool.

In the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, there’s a flat spot just off the road. It sits at the apex of two ridgelines, and you can park and stare at the treetops below and wonder how they can grow on such steep inclines. You won’t consider it for too long though, because the breeze and the smell of pines and a thousand other little distractions will keep you from thinking about anything while you think about everything. I’ve never been to this place before, but something tells me it exists, and it wouldn’t be too hard to find if we just had a look around. 

  • “You have to do it, because you can’t stand not to. That’s the best reason to do anything.” - Linda Ronstadt

I never tell people about the first two places - lucky you for reading this. And they aren’t “hidden gems” or well-guarded secrets. They are right there on the map. I made up the third one - at least until we go there. After that, it won’t be made up anymore, but then I’ll never talk about it again, because it will be our place, and no one else’s.

I don’t know why I’m like this. Why, when I travel, I make sure to hold back certain places, experiences, sights, sounds. Shared events I will only ever talk about with who was there. You could make an argument that it’s out of selfishness, and maybe it is, but I think there is something about keeping it close that helps me remember it better. Love it more. Keep it pure and accessible in my mind. It’s why the 2nd cup of coffee in the morning isn’t as good as the first sip.

Like a child that found a treasure, hiding it away in a box inside a box inside another box, getting it out to look at it and then hiding it away again every night before bed. It’s his and his alone. Don’t fucking touch it, mom.

Fast-forward to when that child grew up and learned about money and sex and keeping plants alive and countless other adult things. Mom passed away without learning of the treasure her son kept. He looks at it again for the first time in two decades, and sees the treasure is a small and astonishingly unremarkable rock. There are probably trillions of rocks out there. But of all those rocks, none of them are this one. None of those other rocks remind him of a time where his imagination treated this rock as a treasure to be guarded. But we all know, the treasure wasn’t the rock, it was and still is, the memory of the time when that rock was priceless.

I was probably around 12 or 13 when I read Catcher in the Rye. I remember reading that last page, where Holden Caulfield says “Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.”

I knew the moment I read it, that I didn’t understand it. That I would someday, and it would probably have meaning. I bet I’ve thought about that sentence once a week for the last 30 years of my life. At 43, I already miss so many people and places in my past. I don’t want to make my sad longing of those times worse, but I’m not going to stop searching for sad longings, either.

This is what travel brings to my life. Travel to me is not about the place, it’s about the feeling. Not the feeling of the beach under bare feet, the forest air in my lungs, or the sun on my skin. It’s the feeling of the feeling of sun on my skin or the damp juniper smell of the air. It’s the replica of it in my mind that I bring back at a later time when I need a temporary escape. Most of us aren’t fortunate enough to live in endless travel, so we have to rely on that mental copy of it we take home. 

  • “I’ve got a feeling. It’s something that I can’t explain. It’s like dancing naked in that high Hill Country rain.” - Jerry Jeff Walker

I read a thing about memory, that says that every time you remember something, you are remembering the last time you remembered it. Like an endless game of mental telephone, where a tiny bit gets lost or changed or distorted. I guess that means that the best way to remember something in its purest form, would be to never think about it. But that’s what aging gives us in volumes; the opportunity to remember things how we want to remember them. To interpret these trips we take around the world or the neighborhood or the sun each time a year passes. To mold them in a way that gives us peace or quiet or closure or whatever it is we are searching for, even if it’s sadness.

I force myself to embrace this when I travel. To sit quietly and absorb those feelings, wrap myself in them, focus on each sense for a time so they are sharp and clear. Take deeper breaths. Allow myself to exist and feel peace and gratitude for the future memories of those past moments. The ones I’m going to hide away. The ones that will make me sad later.

It’s easier to do when I travel away from home. Typically I only know the person I’m traveling with, or I’m alone, so there’s little chance of bumping into anyone who might have the misfortune of knowing me. The field mice and rabbits - we’ve never met. A deer, idly munching on clover, is completely indifferent to my financial failures. My lost loves. My broken promises. She will probably never think of me again, but I’m going to steal her image of twitching ears and long neck and the sound of her cloven hooves on dry twigs for later. I might even write about her, or maybe one day she will read this. Anything can happen.

I will most likely never tell anyone about that moment with the deer though. It’s one I want to keep for me. Avoid diluting it. Keep the contrast sharp between the white on her nose and the gray/brown of the rest of her. I’ll file it away in the gray folds of my brain, and link it to that feeling of actual peace and actual quiet that is dusk in the forest. And I’m going to miss her. Rather, I’m going to miss the feeling of being there and silently watching her. And I’m going to continue to find more places and people and things to see and experience and miss and not talk about. There’s a good chance I will take a future trip with someone or to some place that will break my heart. Places can do that too, when you know you will never see them again. And I’ll keep those memories in a box inside a box inside another box because they are to be guarded, treasured, and although completely unremarkable in the context of the history of humans, and the infinite number of memories that have existed, those are uniquely mine - don’t fucking touch them, go find your own.

Maybe travel really is about selfishness, after all. There’s really no way to know for sure. 

  • “When I was younger, I could remember anything, whether it had happened or not; but my faculties are decaying now and soon I shall be so I cannot remember any but the things that never happened.” - Mark Twain

1 comment

  • Melissa

    This one got me right in the feels. I’ll probably save it for later and read it again just to feel the sweet heartache for all the closed chapters I’ll never read again and all the places and people that have broken my heart. Thank you.

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