Travel Nirvana

Last night I was trying to explain a concept to Paul that he ended up deeming Travel Nirvana – even though he didn’t completely understand it.

Travel Nirvana is about expectations. But it’s also about a personal connection with a place. Because a personal connection sometimes has nothing to do with your expectations. It’s about feeling there. It’s about getting a place – understanding and knowing it on a personal level.

After we were married we spent two weeks traveling through Colorado and southern Utah. I already knew that I loved the area from childhood trips. Since then I had been introduced to and fallen in love with the writings of Edward Abbey, especially Desert Solitaire. Edward Abbey was one of the first park rangers in Arches National Park, back when it was a primitive park in the middle of the Utah desert. Arches today is nothing like the Arches of Edward Abbey’s tenure. Having been there as a kid, I didn’t expect as an adult to see anything on the level of what Abbey had experienced during his solitary term. And I didn’t – even outside the normal season the place was overrun with tourists in rented campers, not daring to venture out of sight of the parking lot. We dutifully saw the postcard sights and felt a bit bored.

Then we took a hike in the Fiery Furnace. Amazingly, they let you loose in this wild and rugged area, without trails and without guides (OK, you can get a guide, but don’t do it. It won’t be the same). Sure it’s a limited area, we had to register with the visitor’s center, and a tag on our car would alert rangers in the event we didn’t make it back and were lost. But we were free – irresistibly free – to go wherever we wanted. Scrambling up rock fins, between rock fins, choosing paths that take you to the brink of a cliff or through a tiny crack to an open amphitheater of red rock…in short, exploring. Sure, being limited, it’s a bit paternal – but man, does it open up your desire to explore, to find more, to push farther next time.

It’s impossible to plan a trip without being influenced by pop cultural representations of a place. Our recent trip to Paris is a great example. Paris is one of the top travel destinations in the world. EVERYONE has an expectation of what Paris is. It is surrounded by an aura polluted by just about every TV show, book, and magazine article you’ve ever read. I was one of the many women who mooned over Carrie’s reunion with Big in Paris in the Sex and the City finale. That was the Paris I wanted to feel.

That Paris is a fiction. I liked the Paris I saw, quite a bit, but I never got that magical Travel Nirvana feeling about Paris. I never felt I was anywhere other than a large, interesting city with great food and history (shouldn’t that be enough?). It’s embarrassing for me to admit it, but I didn’t get Paris.

I did, however, get Epernay, France. After spending a week in Paris, we traveled to the Champagne region and the headquarters of Champagne, Epernay, and arrived just in time for the beginning of the harvest. Flying down a steep hill on my rented bike, slipping on loose gravel, being taunted by the children of migrant grape pickers, touching the chalky soil, stealing and eating a single grape from the Bollinger vines, I got it. Interacting with people who didn’t speak English but eventually understood that we just wanted food, whatever it was, I got it. Dodging tractors hauling grapes to the press, getting speckled with flying gravel, seeing migrant camps and road kill grapes, getting rained on by that old harvest-threatening storm, I got it. Later we ditched the bikes and just walked back up into the vineyards. The only people around were those involved with the harvest. We were the oddity, the explorers.

So what makes Travel Nirvana? It’s a personal thing – both of my clearest experiences have been when I was relatively alone, away from the masses. Both experiences involve pushing my limits, both physical and mental. I’m going to work on this concept as we move from place to place.  I feel like I’ve got the theory on the tip of my mind, just one trip away…