As the COVID-19 pandemic progresses, Our Land will be publishing a series of diary-style updates to capture this unique moment in world history. This is part three.
And now, as we as a nation work through another month of social isolation, the itch to be somewhere, or anywhere, else seems to be ramping up in intensity. Americans were a restless bunch to begin with, but that’s become doubly true during these uncertain and restrictive times. Even as some states begin to re-open, diametrically opposing forces continue to rage within us: the need to do the socially responsible thing (ie. staying home) and the desire to do the socially irresponsible thing (ie. venturing out) are turning our psyches into invisible tugs-of-war.
The wife and I were prepared to take a trip to Virginia to visit family and friends that we haven’t seen in months. My wife was particularly excited about this journey — she’s a social person who thrives in the company people she cares about — but at the last moment we decided to cancel, because it felt like the wrong thing to do. Both of our sets of parents are getting up in years — mine are in their 50s, hers are in their 60s — and thus part of the high-risk age group. How could we live with ourselves if we inadvertently passed the virus to them, and then the worst happened?
The short answer is we wouldn’t be able to. And on another note, what if everybody in the country decided that it was OK to start traveling again, and all of a sudden there were masses of people journeying, willy-nilly, over state lines? Would that be prudent? Not at all. My wife and I — like so many Americans — need movement to remain mentally and spiritually vibrant. Travel is a basic human joy that COVID-19 has abruptly removed from the lives of so many. That’s just the unfortunate truth of the matter.
And so, in the spirit of adventures that none of us should be taking at the moment, I’m going to look back some of the places I’ve been, with the hopes of taking a sort of mental vacation. Consider this an indulgent exercise in escapism that (hopefully) everyone can enjoy.
Florida’s Emerald Coast
Florida’s “Forgotten Coast,” as it’s often called, also happens to be one of the most beautiful places in the Sunshine State — if not the country. The Gulf of Mexico, in some stretches, is as clear as the Caribbean, and the sand is white as snow.
We took a vacation to the Emerald Coast — specifically Okaloosa Island, but we also visited Destin, Seaside, Pensacola and several other locales — during the summer of 2019, right before I was set to make a huge career change from journalist to firefighter. Because of that added significance, the eight days we spent there will forever be layered with extraneous meaning. But one doesn’t need to be in the midst of a major life shift to appreciate the inherent magic in this part of the world: the dreamy perfection of Seaside, the miles of undeveloped beach on Okaloosa Island, the lively excitement of the Destin Boardwalk. It’s a locale worth returning to again and again — and perhaps even buying a beach house at, if I’m ever economically prosperous enough to do such a thing.
I lived in Austin for a couple years during my mid-20s, and even now — just a few years removed my days in the Lonestar State — that time in my life feels like a dream.
I worked at a couple coffee shops, like a true hipster, and covered Texas high school football for the Austin American-Statesman, scraping together enough income to live in one of the most expensive cities in Texas. My last six months there were spent mostly alone, after my wife left to attend graduate school in Malta. I wasted so many days during that half-a-year taking pictures around the city or working on a strange and rambling novel — a term I use loosely — that may never see the light of day.
It was, perhaps, the unhappiest and most idealized period of my life so far. I was mostly lonely and confused, and I attempted to channel this waywardness into art — whether it be mediocre poetry, or the aforementioned novel and photography. Though I’m not eager to go back to Austin any time soon, I’d love to make a return trip some day — to see how it’s changed, and to discover what kind of latent feelings the city stirs up in my soul.
The West Coast, in general
The wife and I had the pleasure of taking a cross-country road trip at the end of summer 2017, and while we experienced many memorable places — White Sands in New Mexico and Yellowstone — the majority of our time was spent on the West Coast. The perfect little beach towns of Oregon’s coastline, the towering presence of General Sherman at Sequoia National Park, the vibrantly-colored AirBnB we stayed at in Playas de Tijuana, Mexico: these were the highlights of an expedition we’ll remember forever.
I kept a travel journal — which I turned into a self-published book of questionable appeal — and some of my favorite passages came from our time in California, including the following excerpt which was written at the end of the journey, in Oakland, as I meditated on everything we’d seen:
What does it mean? What was the point? I cannot make sense of it all right now. The true impact of this travel binge likely won’t dawn on me until months or years down the road, when its full influence has molded me into someone different, someone more real – if I’m lucky. Time is long, but our personal times are short, so I had to get on with it – stretch my legs before they turned to dust. I am not part of the Greatest Generation, like my grandfather, nor did I nearly witness Armageddon, like he did. Millenials are entitled brats, or so we’re told, but I defend my tribe: the best are seeking true fulfillment, not the capitalist definition of the American Dream. In 60 years, I hope to be sitting on a porch somewhere, maybe drinking sangria, reflecting on the movements of the deer population through the brush. I can think of no more serene way to go. And what of the moment I “go?” When I leave this deep and shallow realm, will General Sherman still be standing at attention? Will those crosses in La Conchita still be upright in remembrance of those tragic and senseless deaths, so many California moons ago? Will the sea lions still sunbathe and bison still graze? Yes, yes, and yes, most likely on all fronts. The spinning and vibrating of the Earth and all its parts will not cease at my departure. I am but a speck of dust on the machine. Nothing here will be even remotely different when “I” dissolve, when my body and mind turn to ash and float away on some summer breeze. It will all continue as planned, or at the very least time will continue to unfold linearly, as it always has, and we can assume it always will, until the Big Crush occurs, presumably billions of years in the future, when all matter folds inward and leaves nothing but a hyperdense point of everything and nothing, a point many times smaller than an atom, a point that will contain all the matter that once existed in this hopeful and tragic FUNLAND once known as the Universe. What will I take with me – or whatever of me is left – when I experience my personal Big Crush, when I step over into...what? The other side? Another life? Heaven? Hell? The abyss? Where do memories go when the rememberer no longer exists? Are they recycled, somehow, into another human being entering this wonderful and woeful world? Are they stored inside some unfathomably grand universal consciousness? Do I retain them in the afterlife? Or do they, just like all living entities, utterly retire? I don’t claim to know how to even begin to answer these seismic questions. But I do remember a moment earlier today, in San Francisco. It was an ordinary moment, a glowing moment. I was sitting on a hill in beautiful Dolores Park in the Mission District as the sun was setting. A couple of obvious hippies sat in front of me, passing a joint back and forth, strumming a pair of guitars. Three cops stood behind me, chatting, laughing, not caring. To my right, two girls were throwing a tennis ball for an Australian Shepherd. I watched him as he sprinted down the hill, nabbed the ball, and returned it, wagging his tail like mad. A fog was rolling in from the waterfront. High school kids were posing for iPhone pictures under a palm tree. One of the blondes softly hit her boyfriend on the arm, and he grabbed her by the waist and hoisted her, smiling, into the air. To my chagrin, darkness was descending through the haze. I took one last look at that Australian Shepherd, chasing the ball and returning it, chasing the ball and returning it, chasing the ball and returning it, and decided it was time to get back on the road, yet again, before it was too late.
I don’t when, if ever, we’ll have an opportunity to take extended trip like that again. But perhaps we’ll find a way to make it happen. I really hope we do, because there’s something extremely liberating about being on the open road, with nothing to worry about except where you’re going next.
The sweltering deserts, the endless stretches of flat road, the gripping sense of isolation that comes from being several hours from a major city: West Texas isn’t for everybody, but for those who value quietness and room to roam, the wide open landscape south of El Paso and west of Austin is pure heaven. Marfa — that weird little artsy town in the middle of nowhere — is perhaps the most famous locale in this famously hardened part of the country, but there’s also Big Bend National Park, which features the mighty Rio Grande and a panoramic view out over Mexico (if you’re willing to hike to it, that is).
And the stars — Lord, the stars! The night prior to venturing into Big Bend, we slept in a shack just outside of Terlingua (a ghostly village in its own right) and witnessed the brightest, most glorious night sky I’ve ever seen. I keep trying to convince the wife to let me buy a small ranch in the middle of nowhere Texas — after all, real estate isn’t that expensive — but so far I’ve been unsuccessful. She is, however, on board with purchasing that beach house on the Emerald Coast.
It might not be the first place one would think to visit, but Richmond — my hometown — has more to offer than the average Joe may think: a thriving culinary scene (before the pandemic, that is), a rich history and a lot of outdoor opportunities, to name three. There’s also a laid-back, Southern charm to the place that stays with after you leave.
Gone are the days of Richmond being known as a hotbed for murders and general violence. Now it’s a hip — albeit more expensive — place to live. There are many neighborhoods to explore, each with their own personality: the old-style grace of Church Hill, the grittiness of Shockoe Bottom, the hipster-positive scene of Carytown. I spent the majority of my early 20’s in Carytown, meandering around and writing bad poetry. This was, after all, my regrettable Bukowski period. And truth be told, if one can weather the dreadfully humid summers, there are few places in the south better suited for this brand of early 20-something “artistic” whimsical desperation: like Austin, it’s full of young, free-spirited people, but without the insufferable traffic.
I’m not one to believe in vague portents, but after living through a year as awful as 2020, I’m not really sure what to believe anymore.
On the opposite end, there are the forgotten. The lottery nobody wants to win, but must be won by some. The unluckily lucky ones, the one-in-a-million that nobody wishes to be.
Jo never thought of himself as a river guy, per se, yet one morning he awoke in a canoe, floating down a body of water that clearly was a river.