was falling in love with remote central Mexico when the pandemic started, and I had to reluctantly strap myself into the last available seat on a plane flying back to the U.S. It was like travel coitus interruptus, after which I spent a month lying in bed, looking at the vein-like cracks in the ceiling, wondering if I would ever travel again.
“This isn’t how I want to spend my life,” I groaned to my husband.
“Me neither,” he replied while watching his 500th rerun of Jeopardy.
We walked into our home office and peered outside the window. One tree looked robust and proud of its early spring foliage. An apricot tree was shuddering from a gust of wind, and a third tree was evergreen, the same as it always is. If trees could survive anything, so could we.
At that moment, we decided we would figure out how we could travel safely. We found the solution and have had adventures two to three times a week ever since. When people ask me, “Aren’t you dying to travel again?” I smile and reply, “I have never stopped.”
The protocol is actually quite simple. And it can be used during happy times, for birthday and anniversary celebrations, or when we’re faced with crazy weather, pandemics, financial reverses, personal problems, and when the ground beneath our feet somehow seems to be less solid than it was before.
First, look at a regional map. Place your finger, randomly, on any place you have never visited, haven’t visited in a long time, or where you think there is nothing of interest. Maybe it has a reputation for inducing narcolepsy. Ideally, it will be an hour away or less. But it’s also okay if it’s two hours away, as long as it is a leisurely, one-day trip.
Second, do absolutely no research–and no cheating here. No guidebooks, Trip Advisor, or social media. Nothing.
Pack up a great picnic lunch that you have prepared alone, with your significant other, roomies, people in your pod, or family. Ideally, you can pack everything into glass containers (a full set of different sizes costs around $25) that are reusable and dishwasher safe. Put the food in a cooler with ice cubes or ice packs (like the one you bought when you sprained an obscure tendon in your leg and have not used since). Take along plastic silverware that you can wash and recycle and some napkins. If you are sensitive about the fragile state of our environment, you can buy bamboo, cardboard, or even sugar cane plates that are recyclable.
If picnic prep doesn’t make your imagination gears spin, then get take-out food from a local restaurant. They will appreciate the business and you won’t run the risk of spoiled food (because someone forgot the icepacks) or snipped fingers in the kitchen.
Forget the old, mayo-soaked, mindless picnic standbys. Why not take Salad Nicoise, cold Chinese noodles, kabocha squash, steamed carrots, Moroccan tajine, Beyond Beef meatballs and zucchini spaghetti, cinnamon-sprinkled sweet potatoes, jicama or celery root slaw, New York cheesecake, or the fillings for a big, fat sandwich on a croissant, baguette, or sliced sourdough bread?
There’s one optional add-on: a collapsible, roll-up, lightweight (usually about four pounds) picnic table. It costs under $50, and you can keep it permanently, along with folding chairs and picnic paraphernalia, in the trunk of your car. It turns anywhere, any place, any time, into a picnic. You don’t have to search for bespattered picnic tables or sit on a blanket with your legs extended out towards the horizon, a plate on your lap, and obligatory ab crunches every time you want to put a morsel in your mouth.
Include a lot of water so you don’t pass out from dehydration, appropriate outdoor gear for heat, cold, or whatever else the weather gods dish out, and hit the road. And remember that crummy weather is no obstacle to your outing. If it’s cold, blowing, or snowing, you turn the dashboard of your car into a buffet. Pull up at a scenic spot, spread out your food above the odometer and glove compartment, and you have created your own ambulatory eatery with heat or A/C just the way you like it.
Now fully prepared, drive toward your destination. It is absolutely fine, by the way, if you never make it there. You may find something else of equal or greater interest along the way. We’ve spontaneously watched a group of bagpipers, a turtle race, visited a folk-art shrine to a murder victim, seen park rangers stocking a lake with trout, observed pilgrims and penitents climb a hill on Good Friday, photographed rock climbers, and marveled at goats who had replaced lawn mowers in someone’s front yard.
If you make it to your destination (remember, there is always the next outing in case you get waylaid), be on the lookout for nature, beauty, history, or even an ideal place for a walk.
Let’s start with nature. As a kid in a New York City suburb, nature was, to me, praying mantises, and poor, dead birds that tumbled from the roof of our house onto the cement pavement. Now, as a big person who lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, I have discovered the outdoors during the pandemic. So many of the things we all relied on for work, pleasure, meaning, and diversion suddenly vanished into the realm of the inaccessible, and my husband and I had to create different ways to stay balanced, joyous, and porous to new experiences. What we have found is that always, always, there is the solace of nature.
No matter where you live and how much concrete surrounds you, nature is reachable. It has, perhaps, languished without your attention, so you can bring it some love. I can guarantee that you will breathe more easily and forget your everyday cares. Nature has an invisible gravitational power that will pull you in.
Once you have found a beautiful spot, it’s picnic time, and nature is sure to enhance your appetite. Maybe you are near flowing water or under a chestnut tree. Perhaps you are in a state park, and chipmunks watch your curious banquet as you dine at your private picnic table. I can recall many times when people passed by us and called out from a distance, “You have it figured out!” or “I have to try that.”
After the last crumbs have been eaten and digested, it’s time for your walk. We live in a country that is crisscrossed with trails of every length, difficulty, and description imaginable. You’ll see signs for trailheads along the road, in nature preserves, in deserts, forests, and at foothills that are foreplay for mountains. You can walk in parks in nearby towns or even find open green spaces and make your own path. This one bit of on-the-ground research is permitted if necessary: go to AllTrails and see what’s near you and easily accessible.
Maybe you haven’t noticed it in the past, but the U.S. is addicted to signology. In your town or city, you’ve probably passed by and perhaps ignored many historic markers. Now is the time to start reading them. You will expand your knowledge, relish details, and spark your imagination to recreate the past. We recently ended up at a historic fort where a few trench-like ditches remained, but other than that, the land was pretty barren. Signologists, however, recreated exactly what was where and put the now-empty fort in the context of a complex history of westward expansion, derring-do, bravery, hard work, oppression, isolation, and the never-ending quest for soldiers and cowboys to let loose in saloons, at card tables, in dance halls, and wherever sex workers plied their trade. I wish my teenage history classes had been one-tenth that interesting and informative.
After your outing—whether several hours, a half, or full day–head to the most comfortable hotel in the world: your own home. You have eaten, gotten exercise, learned, explored, and found out that there is no uninteresting place. Every corner of the globe deserves to have its moment in the spotlight, and you are the discoverer who will find it.
In a short amount of time, as you continue your day-tripping, you will realize that you don’t have to hop on a plane or ship to travel. Wherever you are, it’s a trip. And I should know: I wrote the book LIFE IS A TRIP: The Transformative Magic of Travel. Your hike, picnic, immersion in nature, beauty, and history, can and will transform your world. The only danger is that–and I can bear witness to this–it’s addictive. We keep finding new places and going back to spots we discovered to experience them at different seasons.
Maybe I’ll soon be packing suitcases and boarding planes, but if not, and in between future travels, I’m planning on exploring a whole new way to travel and invite you to try it.