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Trips That Didn’t Happen

The trail goes into the clouds past Badrinath and Mana, closer to Tibet, closer to Kailash.

GUATEMALA CITY—I wanted to call this essay, “Trips that Never Come to Pass,” or “Trips that Never Happened,” but that would presume to know the unknown. “Trips that were Postponed,” assumes they actually will happen and, “Trips that Were Postponed but Might or Might Not Happen, Who Knows Anything Anyway?” is just awkward.  My life is full of journeys I have planned and journeys I have dreamed about, those I have taken, some I no longer want to go on, and many I hope to make.

Since I was a boy I have read the accounts of explorers and travelers.  When I was about 10, I requested Henry Morton Stanley’s, “In Darkest Africa,” through inter-library loan.  The two-volume tome of 19th century writing, mixing ugly colonial attitudes, breath taking adventure, and sharply-drawn details came all the way from the New Mexico Military Institute.  I had a few weeks to push through 1,087 pages and I read every word waiting for Stanley to burst into a clearing and utter the immortal words, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.”  Which I never read as that adventure was chronicled in, “How I Found Livingstone,” which seems obvious, but these were the days before Internet and finding the details of long out-of-print books were adventures into unknown (literary) jungles).

One thing I loved about that book and other traveler’s accounts, were the pages detailing the expedition’s outfitting, the funding, the logistics of shipping specially acquired gear, the challenges acquiring provisions in local markets, hiring guides and porters, and the solutions (and frequent failures) encountered keeping those supplies moving and in working order.  Inevitably, as the expeditions progressed, supplies were lost to spoilage, fell into rivers and off cliffs, were stolen, smashed, and consumed faster than expected.  As well, the trails and rivers, heat and cold, proved so arduous that inevitably the travelers were forced to leave things behind, admit certain gadgets were unnecessary or unmanageable, and choose between lightening their loads or failing altogether.

Of course I spent my entire youth in Scouts and later served as a Scout leader.  I attended a military college in the Deep South, in part because that’s one of the things you did to prepare for a life exploring the wilds of South America, or the Congo, or the Empty Quarter of Arabia, never quite realizing the gap between the 1880s and the 1980s.  I learned French because in those books it was the lingua franca, a common language spoken in Africa and Europe, by diplomats of all countries, and by any educated gentleman or lady regardless of nationality.  As it turns out, I have never been to Africa, the second language of the world is now (arguably anyway) my own native tongue, and most of my exploring has been in Spanish speaking countries.  We live and learn.  As a side note, my wife and I did use our (fading) French to speak with a Carmelite nun from Burkino Faso working at a French restaurant in Lima, Peru and she cried at hearing her own language spoken for the first time in years.

My friend Beth, author of The Reluctant Girl Scout, told me once that one should always have a trip on the horizon, something to look forward to, and I think her words are more true than ever during these difficult times.  It is too easy to slip into despair and lassitude as the pandemic and lockdowns drag on.  Even as cases drop, for the moment anyway, in the United States, Covid is tearing through India and elsewhere at terrifying rates.  Travel is still fraught with dangers and difficulties (though this is always true no matter how safe and normal it seems) and all in all it might be best to spend more time planning an expedition right now than going on one.


The Baba of the Cave bestows a blessing on a traveler and pilgrim in Mana, the last village in India.


And it is this that brings me to my thesis: trips that never happen still change your life.  We get so wrapped up mourning what didn’t happen that we don’t see what we gained.  I am not really talking about a casual trip over a long weekend that was  Covid-cancelled.  Almost everyone I know, myself included, had trips like this and we think of them and have the sadness and wish this all was over so we can go back to the beach or the bar and have a little fun and finally stop thinking again.  It is very, very sad.  Recess was cancelled.  But maybe this gives us a chance to think of things in a different way.  An essential part of any good journey is the research, the planning, the right gear.  Indeed, I would argue that a well-planned, well-researched trip to Ohio that never happens can teach us far more than a journey to Tibet about which we never read a book or looked at a map, never learned about the politics, history, language, and religions.

Travel has fallen prey to the same dumbing down as everything else in our social media smartphone driven society.  Now we go somewhere and we spend a few minutes checking reviews on various platforms and arrive in a strange and wonderful new place with everything already settled, booked, reserved,” special, dear, curated experiences masquerading as authentic that leave no room for accident or improvisation, being fed the same unique experience as everyone else including precise GPS locations for your Instagram photos.  This is not the same as research unless your goal is to learn nothing.

But think about that trip to Tibet or Kenya or Yucatan or Cleveland (or wherever it is for you).  What if you read all the books you could find about those places, really went down the rabbit hole reading blogs and news articles, acquired a more-than-passing familiarity with what is happening politically?  How then might that affect your trip when you arrived, your ability to communicate with the locals on more than a surface level, your deeper understanding of what you see and hear?  How might that change your life?

And if the trip never comes to pass is all that research wasted?  I would hope not.  A greater understanding of another place and people, other thought and faith systems, another piece of the world’s history and politics is something that will change you for the better, no travel required.  In the process of learning about something we are taken in other directions.  I hope someday to travel to Mount Kailash on the Tibetan plateau, to circumambulate the holy mountain among pilgrims of other religions, but it was my research into the Ganges river and its histories and myths and sacred geographies that led me to know about that far away Tibetan peak.  When we were first assigned to India I knew I wanted to go to the Ganges.  I knew about the city of Varanasi and a few other places but knowing one thing led to something else and Varanasi led me to Haridwar and Rishikesh and farther and farther into the mountains to Gangotri and Badrinath and Mana and within 40 kilometers of the Tibetan frontier.  The things I read and the maps I studied led me directly to the physical and the very far away.  I would not have found them on Yelp.  All of these things led to changes in other parts of my life as well, changes too numerous and at times personal to write about here.

The saying is that learning is its own reward but that is a little simplistic, a bit reductive.  Learning may be its own reward but it also rewards the student in other distinct and tangible ways.  In preparing to go to Kailash, I learned esoteric facts about Tibetan Buddhism but I also spent the time and money to upgrade my trekking gear.  That gear will serve me quite well here in Guatemala and, hopefully, the experience using it will better prepare me should the time be right for Tibet or a return to India and Nepal.  I was also preparing for a documentary project in Kenya at the same time we were starting the long process of leaving Mexico, shortly before the pandemic.  I thought long and hard about what camera and sound equipment I would need for Kenya while simultaneously looking to streamline everything we owned.  I was able to let enough old cameras and lenses go to very nearly pay for the new ones which work just as well in Central America as I suspect they will in Africa.

It might seem depressing to learn all these things, to spend all that time and money on a trip that might never happen but I would argue the opposite.  Here, more than a year into the pandemic with life and travel still limited, those things I learned give my mind new space to roam free.  I know about mountains and lakes and people and temples I never knew about before.  I can imagine the sounds of pilgrims chanting mantras for strength as they struggle towards the Drolma La Pass at over 19,000 feet.  I imagine the wind and the glare of the sun on snow, the reflections of mountains on the surface of Lake Mansarovar, the taste of salted butter tea and dried yak meat, smells I have never smelled, languages I have never heard spoken, and I am glad I am not sitting in this house without those things to think about.  And I think about my pack hanging on the wall upstairs and the new poles strapped to its side and the boots already broken in and the anorak waiting to be pulled on and I know I am ready to go.


The mountains past the last village

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