My first real trip (unless you count Dad and a friend taking me to Yankee Stadium from our home in Carbondale, Pennsylvania) was traveling with my grandparents to Arizona when I was 11 years old. This trip with Bumpy and Nanny (Joe and Doris Blaum, my mother’s parents) came about in a strange way.
I suffered from childhood asthma and in the few years before this trip had experienced major “asthma attacks.” More than once I felt debilitated by the disease, and at least once believed that I wasn’t far from death. In that day it was a common understanding that living in a hot, dry climate could prevent the onset of asthma and provide some healing. So Nanny and Bumpy proposed taking me with them to Phoenix, Arizona, where they were to winter along with many other snowbirds. This would be a test of whether the climate would help me. Little did I know that this would be the precursor to my whole family moving to Arizona. I was delighted that this meant I would be away from school for many months. My parents agreed that I would do independent studies, but we had nothing like home schooling in those days.
Traveling to such a far away and strange location seemed romantic to me, and though I don’t remember being extremely close to my grandparents, I also don’t remember being sad about being away from my Mom, Dad, and my brothers (sorry, Joe). I wondered if we would see snakes and scorpions, cowboys and Indians, cactus and desert sand. I was drawn by the mystery and felt safe with Nanny and Bumpy.
The traveling itself was fascinating. We drove across the heart of the United States in a day where I knew few people who travelled outside our little corner of Pennsylvania. I loved the hotels! We stayed at lots of Howard Johnsons, got to see a lot of swimming pools, and ate in restaurants way more than I ever remember doing in my life.
One of my favorite things to do on that trip was to collect maps. In those days gas stations gave away large foldable maps of the state or city one was traveling through. I made it my goal to collect maps of all 50 states. In the end, my hope was to assemble a giant map of the whole United States of America and spread it out in our backyard. Little did I know that all the maps were drawn to different scales. When I discovered that a map of New Jersey was the same size as a map of Texas – I soon learned there would be a problem. (I collected match books as well – but they weren’t nearly as fun.)
The whole back seat of Bumpy and Nanny’s car was mine for the duration of our travels to Phoenix. I spent endless hours looking out through the window—watching the scenery slide by, studying billboards to get a sense of the culture of the area, and wondering what the next big city would be like. I cannot remember the route today, but I am sure that our travels gave me my first taste of cities like St. Louis, Oklahoma City, and Albuquerque.
To this day, though I have a little bit of fear, my outlook on traveling is mostly joyful anticipation. I am endlessly curious about the people, the geography, the architecture, and the history of places I go. (Sadly, my memory doesn’t keep up with my curiosity.) I like the escape from the mundane that travel provides. I like how it helps me see the world though different lenses. I feel as safe traveling as I do in my home. I do not know why I feel this way, but I am sure it has something to do with this first big trip. I was with people who loved me. I was well cared for during those travels. I was encouraged to ask questions and discover. There was a purpose in our travel. That trip was the beginning of the joy I know in travel.
Spiritual Practice: Map Reading
I should really have Lena, my wife, write this section. For though I was the map collector, she is the map reader. These days map reading is a dying art. GPS apps on our cell phones and in our cars have replaced folded paper and books. A few years ago, driving in France, we insisted on one of the small paper maps provided by the car rental agency, but they had nothing to provide us. The first thing we did was purchase a map of France and the region in which we were driving.
Why do it? Why buy and read maps? Aren’t they outmoded? What do maps really do for us? And what does map reading have to do with the life of the spirit? How is map reading a spiritual practice?
I like how writer Anne Lamott puts it, “Maps can change a life, a person, returning us to our dreams. to our childhood, to the poetic, to what is real. They can move us forward to what we didn’t even know we were looking for.” (Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy, p. 67.)
Maps, of course, help us find our way. The help us get our bearings. They give us the lay of the land. But, interestingly, unlike a GPS set with our destination, they don’t tell us where to go. A map shows us the terrain and the roads, but leaves the decision of where to travel up to us. It gives a a partial view of our surroundings, but trusts us to find our own way. What a great model for the life of the spirit. So often I want to be told where to go and what to do, but that’s not really what I need. I just need a bit more information so that I can make my decision about my next steps. Do I want to climb a mountain? Enter a busy city? Visit a site rich with history? Escape to the wilderness? A map helps me do this. It is about discovery, not instruction. It is about opening up possibilities, not shutting off options. It is about encountering the world, not escaping from all of it’s troubles.
So I invite you to get a map. Sit with it. Study it. See what is there. And wonder about where you are invited to travel next.