If you’re obsessively researching your next vacation, tracking down restaurants in Taiwan, chatting up your tour guide in Belgium or checking out your choice of pillows at the Hilton in Detroit, listen up.
In 1954, after driving for eight hours, my parents, my sister, Grandma Annie and I pulled up to Stony Brook Cottages in New Hampshire. We looked around, and Mom and Dad burst out crying. I thought they’d lost their minds.
Imagine it. We had driven all day. I was 7, and had been looking forward to this trip since I was 5 and my parents began dreaming of Stony Brook Cottages. This was a special gift for Granny Annie.
Stony Brook Cottages were in an unkempt field, seemingly visited by lots of cows, in the very armpit of New Hampshire. The “units” looked like rows of chicken coops. The scent of cow flop was in the air. It was a dump, and the truly frightening thing was that meals were included.
Dad put away his wet hankie, got a grip and floored it. And thus began two of the best weeks of my childhood. We went on a driving tour of New Hampshire and northern New York state, rambling along at our own pace, stopping at Ausable Chasm; Frontier Town, where Indians chased Grandma Annie’s stage coach; and the stunning White Mountains.
The high point of the trip was when we stopped by the road to dig up (that is, steal) a small pine tree for our front lawn at home. Then, two miles farther, oh no, red lights and a police roadblock. Ah, the guilt of Jews on the road in New England in 1954. My dad told Grandma Annie to stick the pine tree under her dress, and she did. Somehow — a miracle — it turned out the police weren’t searching for Grandma after all. Today that stolen tree stands tall and proud on the front lawn of our old house in Queens.
I remember many glorious moments on vacations through the years, but the moments that are etched most deeply are the surprises and near-tragedies, the serendipitous sidetracks that we never planned. We were chased by Komodo dragons in Indonesia and nearly fell into a steaming caldron at the crumbling edge of a lava field on Mt. Etna in Italy. You can dine out on such stories for a lifetime.
But not for much longer. In recent years, we travelers have virtually eliminated the joy of the unexpected by researching our trips to death. It makes traveling less fun. Technology pre-empts the possibility of discovery and adventure. Do I really need to see the room I’ll be staying in from multiple angles, with sample room service menus and photos of the staff? Our most memorable hotel experiences have been finds we made on our own — a former synagogue on Judenstrasse in Salzburg, and a refurbished convent in Sicily.
There was a child with a python draped around her neck in a Cambodian village, and an unforgettable elephant orphanage in Sri Lanka. We got really lost walking through the hutongs in Beijing. None of it was on our itinerary.
On our devices we can plan every single hour of a journey, from the best spots for breakfast to the must-see museums to the only place to buy beignets. It just sucks the initiative out of us. Why bother exploring the shady lane with the fig trees and pastel cottages when the guidebook says we must go to the craft festival on Day 3 in Madrid?
It isn’t just the sights and events that make the trip. It’s the people you run into along the way, if you make time to talk to them.
I know it’s safer to have a phone in hand when exploring some foreign cities. And it feels comfortable to have a detailed, chronological plan for the day. But oh, the places you won’t go.
There was a real cobra in a basket in Madras, and an icy lake in a high valley near Bozeman where we found shimmery, gold-flecked rocks so beautiful we carried some home. There was a guitarist in a café in Lyon who led us to a vegetarian restaurant where you could get more than three string beans and a carrot.
When we travel these days, I use the internet to book some hotels, but not all stops along the way. And I leave food to decisions made in the moment. Who knows if we’ll feel like dumplings in Shanghai in six months?
The best and worst things in life usually blind-side us. Planning every detail of a vacation won’t allow time for the unexpected best, and can’t prevent the worst.
Copyright 2018 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.