BY: JAMES F. O’NEIL
“. . . I’ve been to the mountaintop.” “I saw beautiful spacious skies, amber waves of grain, and purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain!”
July is nearly over. Some summer vacations have finished, some already begun; all the same, some are still being planned. “Beginning in October 2018, there will be direct flights from TPA/TIA [Tampa] to Gatwick [London].” “I cannot wait! I’d go in a heartbeat.” “But there is so much to see and do yet in the United States, why travel overseas?” “There is also direct flight service by Icelandic Air to Reykjavik.” Someday, maybe. “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine,” says Rick Blaine in Casablanca. Something like that, I say, “of all the Oh!-The-Places-You’ll-Go places I have been, including Hurley, Wisconsin (pop. 1540); Fargo; Raymond, Mississippi (pop. 1933); Bethesda, Ohio (pop. 1256, more with fracking crews); Las Vegas; Yeehaw Junction, Florida (pop. 240), I’ve been to more than others have; others, for certain, out-place me. However, I’m not in any way in contention for a carbon-platinum Frequent Flyer Rewards Card in my wallet.
Getting from one place to another, nevertheless, has always distressed me, sometimes when I was younger, to the point of actually fainting before a trip, in anticipation. (I do recall a near-meltdown not too many years ago while frustrating with packing a very large suitcase that would not hold everything, including my large bicycle seat.) I hate packing, hate to pack. I’d like to go, to arrive with my toothbrush and shaving kit–and with my medications, of course. No luggage. No carry on. Maybe a book (paperback Proust, probably–or congested Kindle). Then check in, relax, afterwards to see whatever I came to see.
What have I seen, from the top (35,000 feet: clouds and oceans, lakes and mountains) to the under (Eurostar–London to Paris–under the English Channel; the Metro; the “L” under the Chicago River)? I have fashioned a memory-filled checklist, culled from journals, from Day-Minders and ticket stubs, in no particular order, priority, or chronology. I am sure that as I write this (and later edit and revise) I’ll remember something, like “I forgot Prabhupada’s Palace of Gold, in West Virginia, the center of the Hare Krishna movement,” or “Remember that really great Cajun restaurant where we ate crayfish down by the bayou in Savannah?” “Yeah! That’s when they were filming Forrest Gump outside our hotel.”
“How old was I when . . . ?” “Were the kids with us when we drove to . . . ?” Our first trip (in 1977) to Florida, to Disney World, to Cape Kennedy, our first “grits.” “What are they?” [NOT, “Girls Raised In The South.”] “Oh, that’s Cream of Wheat. Butter, please, and maple syrup, too. Thanks.” So, “Once upon a time,” [read aloud]: “I have, we did, we have . . . traveled to, stayed at, climbed, flown to, rode, ate at, moved to, drove, watched, swam in, driven along, peeked over, touched, walked the, accelerated in, viewed, sped upon, stopped, adored in, looked upon, rode in, stood beneath, rushed, stepped over, rested, visited, stood before, paused, leaned over, slept in, toured, crossed, ran alongside, wandered, cruised, stalled, transfixed . . . . [Pick a verb. Find a place, setting, activity (surely your mind’s eye already sees, the heart already races, the memory is activated). Locate a picture or photo to accompany a special memoryofatime. Open up a box of Nostalgias to munch on. Have fond, sweet (though maybe icy, rainy, cold, slippery?) memories.]
For one, Stonehenge: BIG ROCKS, and Salisbury Plain, and the Romans in Bath. On Chesil Beach (with Ian McEwan, no doubt, having walked upon the same stones), putting a few in my pocket for my travel collection. And stony Hastings Shore, the English Channel lapping upon the feet of the bathers in the cold water, my thinking about Detective Chief Inspector Christopher Foyle and World War II. One warm July Sunday, while on a noontime walk, seeing Stephen Hawking on a Cambridge street. Three summers in Cambridge: university library, along the Cam River, bicycle riding to Grantchester, studying and tutoring, Selwyn College, trains to London for excursions, Globe Theater, writing, awe-ing, and . . . .
I have also looked out upon the Pisgah National Forest, from the parapets of one of America’s finest castles, the Biltmore House. The view was holy, overwhelming, awe-some in the glory of the Creator.
However, most breath taking for me in life was standing alone before my trek up the dunes in the Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado.
GREAT SAND DUNES PHOTO by JEFF COTNER
There I stood, amazed, a people-ant to those looking down upon me; yet from my perspective, those specs beyond, above, showed how insignificant I was, am, in relation to the forces and effects of time and Nature. So I climbed and climbed. No steps, like at Ephesus. Steps. To the Parthenon. Huffing and puffing, like climbing those steps inside the Washington Monument many (younger) years before, or those leading to Monks Mound, “at one hundred feet, it is the largest prehistoric earthen mound in North America”: Cahokia, near St. Louis.
MONK’S MOUND from WIKIPEDIA
Reaching the “top” of the Dunes, I became engaged with a sense of cosmic realism. I was a part of it all. I looked out upon . . . the waters surrounding Mont Saint-Michel in France; or came upon the Pacific Ocean for my first glimpse at Seaside, Oregon, with its Lewis and Clark Expedition history. On Goat Island, visiting a few times the crashing and splashing and misting and forcings of the Niagara River at Niagara Falls.
SUE AND JIM (YOUNGER THAN NOW)
Was I able to “slip the surly bonds of earth . . . And while, with silent lifting mind I’ve trod // The high untrespassed sanctity of space, / Put out my hand, and touch[ed] the face of God. . . ?”
With God-places, I’ve stood within and beneath the great domed Hagia Sophia in Istanbul-Constantinople, have been shoeless in the Blue Mosque; prayed in Chartres Cathedral; knelt in Ely Cathedral, Westminster Abby, Notre Dame in Paris; walked the aisles of St Louis (Missouri) Cathedral and the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City.
I have wandered in wonderment, showered so often with kaleidoscopic colors of light from the stained glass magnificently built by crafters in so many “houses” of worship, like Saint-Severin in Paris.
Outside, I looked UP: “Up we go!” “Into the next car, please.”: The London Eye. “Look up!”: The Eiffel Tower: “No, I cannot go. You ride up if you want. But I will walk with you on top of the Arc de triomphe.” “Sorry. The Arch is closed today. High winds and a storm coming” the St. Louis trip frustrating, though we saw enough of the Ole Man [Mississippi] River. In 1966, I looked up upon the Empire State Building. That was An Affair to Remember, my first visit to New York City. (I didn’t ride up.) But I was never Sleepless in Seattle, looking up at Mount Rainier, a glacier, and viewing Mount St Helens (not a far trip away).
So I’ve come to the end of the “Rick Steves Road Trip for Jimmy O’Neil”: vacations, trips, travels, excursions, journeys, stays, visitations, visits, pilgrimages–all part of a lifetime of activity, though a small part. But when I consider how much time is spent in planning and preparing, from initial thought or utterance–“Where should we go this winter?” “Where do you want to go for our anniversary?” “Should we go to . . . again?” “How much time do we have to . . . ?”–to the final credit card payment for the last meal of the trip or something bought in the duty-free shop, a vacation takes a long time in a person’s life. No wonder we are so worn out after we return home, to rest.
Sometimes, though, the vacation place is “restful” itself, the reason for the trip itself: no touring, no running around, no shopping, just being there. A beach. A mountain cabin. A quiet Walden Pond. A cave. A cave? A cave on Paros Island, in the Cyclades Islands. In May 2005, five of us adults took a memorable trip to our Greek cave.
A non-stop overnight flight from New York to Athens. (I hate packing.) A long bus ride from the airport (schlepping luggage) to the Port of Piraeus in Athens. Then a ferry boat ride–BIG ferry boat, with people, trucks, cars–in the late afternoon with a dark night arrival (nearly missing our stop), finding a rental car (four sardines, holding luggage, speeding along curves and hills on dark roads, black-black outside), arriving at a car park in an asleep town, almost midnight. “We have to do what? Carry our suitcases up and around the hill to get to our place?” Cursing all the way, punctuated with laughter about how we found this place. Dogs barking at us, disturbing them, cats hissing as we snaked around homes, through alleyways, on walkways, tripping occasionally on a front stoop in the dimly lit “neighborhood.” Huffed and puffed (of course) to the top, at the end-stop of the street.
VACATION CAVE-HOME, PAROS ISLAND, GREECE in the HEART of the AEGEAN SEA
“What is this, a real cave?” as we entered through the front doors. A cave-home, a home carved out from the promontory overlooking the town (LEFKES/LEFKOS). Modernized: plumbing, furniture, fireplaces, electronics, electricity, rooms. “AWESOME!” I said, as I put my suitcase . . . no closets. Platform queen-sized bed with solar tube skylight through the mountain above us, allowing light in, allowing us to view stars all night. Two baths and showers. Lemon trees outside, with a spectacular view of the entire town, whitewashed-in-Greek. A 20-minute walk up or down to the chemist or bakery with chocolate croissants daily, or fresh baguettes. Or the market. Or to the rental car. (We did not remain cave dwellers for the week: we explored the island, did visit another island and old Portuguese fort, sat on a beach, ate in different restaurants, visited a famous Roman quarry, among other activities–and even made fresh lemonade daily.)
What a unique opportunity that I will never forget, what an experience like no other in my entire vacation-ing life. “Where ya’ been?” “I have been to the mountain.” I have. At the very top, UP, far beyond our cave, topped with giant (dormant) wind turbines. I have been to the top of the mountain. And it was good.
LEFKES on PAROS ISLAND, GREECE, 2005
The Summer of 2018 will be memorable for no vacation. Foot surgery instead forced an in-bed holiday. Four to six weeks of no weight bearing, occasional icing, and some few hydrocodone tablets kept down travel costs considerably. However, the electric bill may have spiked due to an overuse of audio and video, like Spotify, Pandora, Netflix, and Amazon Prime.
© JAMES F. O’NEIL 2018