I flew across the country alone for the first time when I was 16. I was visiting my father, who I had not seen since he and my mother divorced 14 years before. In fact, we had only spoken to one another a few times in that decade-and-a-half…and all of those conversations had occurred via long distance telephone calls in the last few weeks.
The first telephone call had pulled me out of the shower, my legs still bleeding from a particularly reckless shaving session. The strange voice on the other end of the phone sobbed as it declared, “I am your father.” I shivered. There was more. This person was sorry. This person wanted to know me. This person wanted to see me.
“I’m sorry,” I choked, “but I’m going to have to talk to my mom right now. Please call back later.”
I dialed my mom’s office in virtual hysterics. “Someone called me and he says he’s my dad and he wants to see me and how could that be and I’m cold because I just got out of the shower.” Scalding tears of confusion rolled down my cheeks. She urged me to get dressed. And then she was home within minutes.
Somehow a visit was arranged. A plane ticket was purchased. I was going west for a few weeks.
My head was reeling with a mixture of fear and excitement as my mom dropped me off at the airport. I was about to fly an unimaginable distance to essentially meet an entire family of strangers. That was beyond scary. On the other hand, I was traveling somewhere new. The wild west! Where mountains were covered with snow! Evergreen trees and inactive volcanoes! Earlier that week, I had read the entire “Oregon” article in our aged set of encyclopedias, purchased when I was eight on some sort of installment plan.
My mom’s attempts at calmness were futile. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she handed my suitcase to me. She was afraid that I would never come back. Somehow my father and his new family would offer me everything that she had never been able to give me. I wouldn’t understand this until many years later, when I found myself worrying every single day if I was giving Dylan enough…the “right” kind of life she could have had if only she lived in a middle class, two-parent home.
Her concerns were unfounded. I returned from the west coast feeling like an alien finally catching the mothership back to my home planet. Even though I was the black sheep of my own misfit family back in Pennsylvania, at least all of that was simple. The west offered only a testament to my strangeness. In my adolescent mind, I was virtually unlovable. At least my mom had to love me and keep me around, if only because she had done it for so long already. My father and his family were great…so nice and seemingly normal. The opposite of my day-to-day life. And yet, the foreignness of these kind individuals scared the hell out of me. I couldn’t stop imagining what I could have been, what I could have had, and where I could have gone, if only I had grown up in their cozy family. But it was too late for that. My childhood had been a blurry melange of powdered milk, stepfathers, and my mom’s craziness. And that had shaped me into the ME that made me uncomfortable in most happy situations.
Of course, what actually happened when I landed in Oregon is a complicated and somewhat painful story for another time.
So how does this little piece of drama relate to my trip to Argentina?
Because that’s when I caught it…the wanderlust! Sure, I had flown a few times before, always to Boston with my grandma and mom, to visit my cancer doctor for a barrage of tests and cafeteria food. But eating dixie cups of ice cream and holding my breath for x-rays do not count as “travel.” And of course, I had taken seemingly endless road trips with my grandma to various beach towns on the east coast. But taking the ferry across the bay had lost its exotic appeal around the time I turned eight.
This was my first taste of real travel: hurtling through the sky to a new place, eating little bags of peanuts, and hearing the constant hiss of flight attendants opening soda cans. Overhead compartments and flight safety cards. Third rate movies and idle conversation with strangers. I was in love.
On the flight from Chicago to Portland, I sat next to a really cool middle-aged man. He seemed familiar to me, but I couldn’t place his face. He complimented my style in a non-creepy manner. And soon we were working on the New York Times crossword puzzle together (he was impressed by my skills). But my favorite part of the interaction were his stories of traveling all over the world. Flying low above Laos in a rickety plane with holes in the floor. A female companion trading a suitcase full of heeled sandals for a single pair of sneakers in India, because her feet hurt so bad. The Great Wall of China. Tibetan monks. Bicycle rides through the German countryside. Dirty Paris streets.
And then he asked me something. “What do you want to do with you life?” I had been hearing this question a lot lately, and I generally hated it. But he was so unlike a guidance counselor, I felt as if I should offer some kind of answer.
I hesitated. “Well, it’s a long list.”
“And…” He waved his hand in encouragement.
“I’m going to college in New York next year. I want to write lots of books and travel the world and kiss hundreds of people. I guess, really, I just want to see and do everything I’ve only read about in books and seen on television.” That seemed to encapsulate it all.
“You know, I think you are going to do all of that. Especially the traveling. I can see that in you. Really, I think that you can do anything that you want to do. You’ve already proved it with the crossword puzzle.”
I blushed. It might have been the nicest thing anyone ever said to me. We spent the rest of the flight discussing books and old movies and Buddhism. But in the back of my head, I thought to myself, “I AM going to see everything. And I’m going to do everything, even the things that scare me.”
So yeah, I’ve managed to do a lot of “things,” both good and bad. Healthy and ruinous. Exciting and painfully dull. But the traveling…it’s been hard. I’ve taken some trips here and there. I’ve acquired new friends along the way. Real, actual “see the world” travel has been a lot more difficult. First it was lack of money. And then it was poor prioritization. Clingy, consuming boyfriends. Single parenthood (which, of course, created even more financial shortcomings).
I promised myself that I would take a big trip this year. “Get the ball rolling,” I shouted at my reflection. “Stop making excuses!”
And so I went to Argentina. I flew on American Airlines. I’ve always had a soft spot for this airline, because it was the carrier for that first big trip to (re-)meet my father. My sentimental, superstitious heart knew that this was the best way to start my globetrotter game plan.
Tomorrow…I arrive in Argentina after consuming the following on the flight between Dallas and Buenos Aires: three little bottles of wine (a gift from one of the flight attendants), a valerian tonic, countless homeopathic jet lag tablets, two Benadryl, and a gluten-free meal (minus the blackened chicken).
And P.S. That awesome guy on the plane? Spalding Gray! I’m not kidding…I had just read Impossible Vacation three times in a row earlier that year, so I was particularly starstruck! Many years later, I cried when I read about his suicide. I’ve always felt that my chance encounter with him on a cross-country flight changed me forever, giving me the confidence to try anything once.