Thanks, Dad, for Nurturing My Travel Habit

A portion of my love for travel is innate. But it wouldn’t have been fully realized without my father. Why? Because he insisted on taking annual family vacations.

If there’s one part of my childhood that I won’t ever complain about, that is it. Today, it’s common for many families to take at least one extended trip, if not more, each year, but that was not the case in the 1960s and 70s.

Not quite 2, and already on my first vacation, to the Deer Forest petting zoo in Coloma, Michigan.

Around 1 year old, and already on my first vacation, to the Deer Forest petting zoo in Coloma, Michigan.

We didn’t have a lot of money, and we didn’t fly to exotic overseas locales, or head to the beaches of Florida, or even own a cabin on a remote lake in a border state we could call home for a few weeks each summer. But my dad made sure that no matter what it cost, we would get away from our rural northern-Illinois abode for a week, sometimes two, and go explore … someplace else.

Always ahead of his time, he believed it was important for our mental health to get away from the churn of the day-to-day routine and local environment, relax and see something new. He was a mechanic and would put it into terms he could relate to—vacations were to recharge the batteries, he would say, so we could get more living out of life.

Trying not to be afraid of the water; feeding a goat; outside Paul Bunyan's in the Wisconsin Dells.

Trying not to be afraid of the water; feeding a goat; outside Paul Bunyan’s in the Wisconsin Dells.

I cherished those road trips.

I’d retrieve the luggage from our attic, dust it off and carefully pack my little multi-colored flower-covered suitcase with whatever I felt would be necessary for our upcoming journey: Aside from clothes and the all-important swim suit, there had to be books, puzzles, plenty of pens and pencils, a transistor radio and the addresses of everyone to whom I wanted to send post cards.

My mother’s circa 1950s slate-blue, hard-cased boxy suitcase, complete with an interior mirror, held all the necessary items for time at the beach: sunscreen, scarves, terry-cloth wraps and towels, inflatable beach balls and a raft.

Wooden Picnic Basket

Our old picnic basket is where I keep photos from our family vacations.

I’d help make PB&J and cold-cut sandwiches the night before departure and cover the big backseat of our Buick, which would be my “room” for several hours that we’d be on the road the next day, with a sheet, blanket, pillow and my favorite stuffed animal. I’d then eagerly jump out of bed at 4 a.m.—something my mother would use against me the rest of the year when she’d sometimes have to throw cold water on me to get me to move in the mornings—to help my dad make coffee to fill his tartan-patterned Thermos, lemonade to fill the big avocado-colored jug for all of us, and to pack the cooler and wooden picnic basket so we could be on the road by 5 a.m. “in order to beat the traffic.”

The minute we pulled into our driveway at the end of one vacation, I’d immediately begin to lobby for where we should go the next summer. And why. There always had to be a why, and it had to be educational.

Travel With a Purpose

That was the catch, you see. My dad was never content to just sit by a pool or beach for a week, read and relax, eat and drink, and do nothing else. Oh no. (The exception might be if we had gone to a golf destination where he could spend every minute of every day on the greens, but my mother, who hated the game, made sure that never happened.)

Lincoln Tomb and War Memorial in Springfield, Illinois.

You had to learn something while away, and most of the time that meant a history lesson. Presidential homes and libraries, state courthouses, historic museums (never art ones, unfortunately), significant architectural or engineering structures—all qualified. Since we lived on a stretch of the original Route 66, just getting in the car and driving to any of the small farm towns to the south could begin to fulfill that requirement. Also, being from Illinois, the Land of Lincoln as our license plate proud proclaimed, we naturally made our way to Springfield one year to learn about Abe.

Historic home visited during a Midwest road trip.

That vacation was one of our longer ones, two weeks, with our real destination being Mansfield, Missouri, so I could visit the Laura Ingalls Wilder Home and Museum, where Wilder wrote the Little House on the Prairie series of books. (What can I say? I was 10 or 11 years old at the time, and the TV series was well under way). Also on the itinerary: a stop at the Harry S Truman home in Independence, Missouri, along with a visit to Grant’s Farm (for Ulysses S. Grant) and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, and the Ozarks.

A taste of the Netherlands in Holland, Michigan.

A taste of the Netherlands in Holland, Michigan.

Another great vacation was to circumnavigate Lake Michigan, which meant we could cross into Canada. My first “international” trip! Along the way, my dad explained how windmills worked during our stop in Holland, Michigan, where we also learned about tulips and he bought me the pair of wooden clogs I begged for and then wore just once. I asked why we couldn’t visit the real thing in the Netherlands, to which my mother promptly responded that I should be grateful to see the next-best-thing since most other kids didn’t even get that.

Maritime learning at the Soo Looks in Sault Ste. Marie.

Maritime learning at the Soo Locks in Sault Ste. Marie.

At the northern end, Mackinac Island fascinated me with its horse-drawn carriages thanks to a ban on cars, and homemade fudge and salt-water taffy shops lining its old-timey streets. Our Canadian adventure consisted of time in Sault Sainte Marie to learn how the Soo Locks worked. My mother was bored to tears, I was still curious about everything, and my father was in engineering heaven.

Picnic w Blue Suitcase

A picnic break somewhere in Wisconsin.

That didn’t mean we forewent traditional trips filled with water sports. There were plenty of vacations to lakeside beaches in Minnesota and Wisconsin, where we’d rent a motel cabin and dad would teach me about flora and fauna during hikes in the woods and how to fish and manage canoes and boats.

And we certainly didn’t miss out on that Midwest mecca, the Wisconsin Dells, where I was in awe of the huge pancake stack you could get at Paul Bunyan’s and the graceful water skiers at Tommy Bartlett—even if it annoyed my dad when teen staffers would slap each car in the parking lot with bumper stickers advertising the show.

Babushkas at the Beach

Matching head protection for me and mom.

Lessons learned on those trips revolved around the Native American tribes from the region, mainly the Ho-Chunks. And let’s not forget the beautiful rock formations and cliffs seen cruising down the Wisconsin River while on a Duck—those land-to-water vehicles from World War II that first became a part of Americana tourism at the Dells.

In fact, it was thanks to WWII that my father first felt the itch to travel.

The Windows of War

Dad in Haidhausen, Germany.

Dad in Haidhausen, Germany.

My dad never went on any family vacations while growing up. His parents emigrated from Italy just before he was born, then the Great Recession hit and he had to drop out of high school to help support the family. The most he had traveled before signing up for the Army in 1942 was to and from Chicago, about 40 miles away.

He never talked about the battles he was in or any of the negative aspects of his experiences, even after I became an adult. He’d simply say, “We did what we had to do, and that was that.”

But a smile would always cross his lips as he talked about the places he visited while in Europe for those four years. It wasn’t until shortly before he died when he shared that the best times of his life where—ironic as this may sound—when he was in the war and he and his Army buddies would get to travel during their leaves.

His favorites were the English countryside, followed by the French countryside. (My dad was never a big fan of big cities.)

The Seine in Paris; the Queen Mary docked in New York City, 1945; Dad's battalion in front of the Arc de Triomphe. He's eighth from the left, looking down.

The Seine in Paris (top left); the Queen Mary docked in New York City, 1945 (top right); Dad’s battalion in front of the Arc de Triomphe. He’s eighth from the left, looking down (bottom).

He also took photographs of several of the places his battalion stayed, bought postcards when they were available, and collected currencies from most of the countries he passed through—France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg. Curiously, none from England though. When young I loved to go through his photo album and play with the paper currencies and coins, pretending what it would be like to visit each place. I loved all the different sizes, shapes, weights and colors. I’ve saved them all in the same box in which he kept them.

European coins and paper money collected by my dad in WWII.

European coins and paper money collected in WWII.

He hated travel by submarine (who wouldn’t?), but he loved to fly. While in his late teens, he worked as a caddy and bartender at the local country club, and one of the members who liked him gave him flying lessons so he could earn his pilot’s license, a desire my dad had expressed. When he joined the Army, he was supposed to be a pilot with the Army Air Force, but there was some issue with missing paperwork, and he ended up in communications instead. He said he regretted not going back to flying.

At least that’s how I remember him telling the story, probably because when I was young I thought it was incredibly cool that my dad knew how to fly a plane! Actually, I still do.

I was 8 when we took our first flight as a family. It wasn’t for a vacation though. It was nearly Christmas, my mother had to have surgery at Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, and we weren’t about to drive north on those icy roads in winter. Though just a short hop from O’Hare to Rochester, the flight was thrilling. My mother didn’t think so. She was terrified of crashing and said the rosary while trembling the entire way. But my dad and I were in heaven, floating among the clouds. He explained to me about how the engines worked and how safe we were, but he needn’t have worried—I was hooked.

Nurturing the Travel Bug

My dad continued to encourage travel throughout my life. In high school, my parents allowed me go to New York at age 14 with our choir and theater group. I fell in love the minute my foot hit the pavement. We saw four Broadway shows in three days, visited the Empire State Building, roller-skated through Central Park, and I knew that someday I would call the city home.

For my high school graduation gift, they paid for a 10-day trip to Europe with my German Club. After graduating college, they sent me to visit a childhood friend living in McAllen, Texas, in the southern tip of the state along the Mexican border. She was Mexican and the only friend I ever lived next door to, even if it was only until we were 7 and for just a few months each year when her parents worked the farmland for our neighbor.

My parents didn’t go so far as to fund my travels during college or to help me spend a semester abroad, which I desperately wanted to do—they wouldn’t even pay for college tuition, believing that once you turned 18, you were an adult and on your own—but my dad would secretly give me spending money anytime I could afford to buy plane tickets for the first few years after graduation, when I started to explore Europe.

After I left for college and he retired shortly thereafter, he continued to take vacations, more than once a year, but not always with my mother. He’d go fishing with his buddies for long weekends, on hunting trips or to Las Vegas with our neighbor. After my mother died, my dad would visit me every couple years in New York, and he ended up loving the city.

The first 10 years after graduation, I struggled with various business jobs and careers that frustrated and bored me. On many occasions, my dad encouraged me to become a travel writer. His reasoning? “You love to travel, and you’re a good writer.” That was my dad, Mr. Practicality. But I had degrees in economics and marketing and wanted to make money, and I didn’t think it was possible to succeed financially as a travel writer.

In 1999, while in my mid-30s, life turned upside down in a matter of six weeks. After having been successfully treated for lung cancer a few years prior, my father was now diagnosed with throat cancer; my boyfriend of five years walked out on me while I was visiting my dad after his tracheotomy; and the company I worked for sold off its divisions and let go of the entire holding-company staff. I was unemployed, alone and depressed.

Thank god for a good severance and a year’s worth of medical insurance—paid for by my former employer. I had about two years worth of salary saved, so I decided to take a year off and move to Southeast Asia. I needed a serious change in my life, and I wanted to get deeper into my yoga and meditation practices, and finally get to a region of the world I long wanted to explore.

Had my mother still been alive, she would have tried to kill me. She didn’t speak to me for 10 months after I quit a good job in Chicago and moved to New York (she hated the place), even though it was for graduate school, and she couldn’t have imagined a decision to not work for an entire year.

My father’s initial concern was that I was going to blow through all my savings. When I explained the cost of living, especially as a backpacker, and shared my plans of trekking the Himalayas in Nepal, living in a Buddhist temple for free while studying meditation, and chilling at cheap beach bungalows on remote islands in the Andaman Sea, he was excited and couldn’t wait for me to go.

I gave him his first computer, set him up on email, and we checked in with each other every few days, depending on my Internet access. He was on the upswing again, health-wise, and we made an agreement before I left that if he worsened, I would return home.

Father Knows Best

It was during that trip that I finally heeded his advice and decided to give travel writing a try. Journalism, actually. Writing about travel was my first desire, but I really just wanted to find any job that paid me to write. I started by penning essays and compiling slide shows while on the road and sending them to a growing email list. (This was in the days before ready-made blogs and websites.) He read everything I wrote, and when I returned, carefully went through each of the 2,000-plus photos I had shot (all on film; digital cameras were too expensive in 1999) and wanted to know about every place I had visited.

I signed up for journalism and creative writing classes at New York University and The New School. I started to freelance. I was happy. My dad was happy.

His health had been holding up, and we were planning a fall road trip to New England, a region of the country he had always wanted to visit but never had. But then his cancer returned to his lungs. The good news was that I had an essay about my first visit to New York accepted in late August for the city section of The New York Times. We both were ecstatic!

And then September 11 happened. The essay was cut. Contract work dried up. Instead of exploring colonial America and fall foliage in New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts with my dad, I moved back home for a while to help take care of him during his final months.

Before he died, he told me he envied my life and that it was more what he would have wanted for himself: “Keep doing what you’re doing. Travel the world, go out to eat every night, have fun with your friends. Never get married and never have children. I love you, but without kids, you’re less trapped.”

It was then that I understood why those summer vacations were so important to him and that the idea of not going away somewhere was non-negotiable. They were his only chances for escape from work and his life with my mother and me. Mentally anyway. My dad was an introvert and loved to be alone, especially if he could be in nature. Travel was his therapy, as it has become mine. Whenever I’m unhappy or stuck in a rut, the only thing to pull me out is the idea of getting on a plane to go somewhere else. To clear my head. To focus on a new possibility. To move forward.

Of course, that could also be construed as running away. And sometimes it is. But when you run from something, it can often lead to finding something else that you didn’t know you needed or wanted, which then can set you on the right path. At least for a while.

I landed my first staff editorial job on a trade publication covering a segment of the travel industry two weeks after I returned home in January 2002. He was thrilled. He died four weeks later. At least he left knowing that I was finally happy, because I finally listened to him. I made a promise to continue to do so.

I had a great run with jobs the first several years, but the past few have been challenging as it’s become significantly more difficult to find a good full-time editorial gig, and I don’t particular enjoy freelancing. I also have my own medical issues that will likely keep me grounded for at least a year. But whenever I find myself down, it’s my father’s words that keep coming back to me: “Do what makes you happy. Keep traveling. Recharge your batteries, so you can get more living out of life.”

I’m trying.

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