When home is Oregon, you learn to blissfully ignore rainclouds — the "old gray aunt" that author Ken Kesey once described as our winter companion.
Yet we need respite. Virtually every spring break, my family seeks the sun's unfamiliar embrace, usually someplace with a beach. Last week we were intent on escaping to Coronado Island, a slice of paradise adjoining San Diego.
Except that in the age of covid-19 none of us is going anywhere soon. In rapid succession, we canceled four trips planned over a two-month span; what seemed an inconvenience has rapidly escalated into a lifestyle change.
Something compels me to travel. I yearn for the sound of a ship's embarkation horn, the smell of carnitas simmering, a patch of warm sand caressing my toes.
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And so, with cabin fever setting in, I set my recent sights on a virtual journey to another kind of cloud — one that holds a dozen years of family travels within its mass. Over two weekends I sifted through more than 20,000 images on my laptop computer, saving the best in a massive, 100-page photo album.
It's an expensive ($115) book without words, due on our doorstep next week, and one whose more personal contents I would never inflict on a general audience. But it also provides a clear sense of place: purple lupine among stands of wildflowers near Palm Springs, vineyard rows awaiting harvest in Oregon wine country, a sea turtle hatchling approaching its first wave near Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
Such a photo album project had moldered on my to-do list for years. Why? The sheer weight of dealing with those tens of billions of pixels crushed my good intentions.
I'm not alone here. Photography has been around less than 200 years. I'm old enough to remember dabbling with the fixer in a darkroom. ... Try explaining that to your children sometime.
The wonder of my parents' first "instant" camera remains vivid, and I had to smile the first time I heard OutKast singing to "shake it like a Polaroid picture!"
Around the world, about 10 billion photos were taken annually in the 1970s, when photography required film. But the advent of digital imagery, and packing that power into our phones, has left us awash in images: about 1.4 trillion a year, and growing.
I've constructed a career on words, but my photo skills remain a work in progress. Luckily, I've met some phenomenal photographers over the years. I called one last week looking for perspective. A different lens.
Or maybe, in these strange and disjointed times, I was just seeking a reconnection with another travel junkie.
A forced retrospective
Last September, while backpacking in a southwest Washington national forest with two friends, Erik Gauger of Portland stepped through a patch of sand and into mud. His mangled foot required that an emergency team conduct a rescue.
I know this from reading his post at Notes from the Road, the travelogue that Gauger has maintained since 1999. There's a temptation to skim the writing amid his detailed hand drawings and sumptuous photographic images; it's no accident that Terra Incognita named Gauger the 2020 Travel Blogger of the Year.
With multiple broken bones, Gauger found himself couch-bound, digging through photos for months on end, exploring different ways of cropping and blending exposures. Finally, last week he went for his first hike since the accident, only to find too many stir-crazy people on the trail.
"I'm more hungry to travel now than I have ever been in my life," he said.
He cautioned me against deleting too many old photos (note: I trashed 37% as repetitive, boring or just plain awful), saying that with time and a different crop they might become interesting or of historical value. His images tend toward the melancholy, a reflection of our reckless consumption, taking the world's beauty for granted.
If, as Gauger contends, travel is about "exploring our own themes in our own lives," then I can conclude a few things as I revisit my family's travel experiences since 2008, when our digital library was founded:
We want to learn to cook paella from chef José Andrés, to sip tequila in Mexico with guide Clayton Szczech, to understand how a grape becomes pinot noir from winemaker Anna Matzinger.
We're willing to allay our fears to swim with whale sharks in Mexico, ski down the slopes at Whistler and skydive over Las Vegas.
We love sipping tropical drinks from a pineapple and (OK, this is about my youngest daughter, Sophia) hugging Disney princesses. We will rise before dawn to see a resplendent quetzal nesting in Costa Rica, and we will stay up late to read messages from a bottle over a Mexican campfire.
We remember brief meetings, haunted eyes and the kindness of strangers: a Paris taxi driver; a mother and her children in Chihuahua; two funny guys, Stefan and Eric, in an Antwerp bar.
Even the landscape and wildlife photos can evoke in me something deep and personal. My wife and I walked hand in hand through these desert flowers; we sampled this Oregon wine; my oldest daughter, Michelle, stood behind this tiny turtle, lent it a name (Rocky), and coached it, Burgess Meredith-like, to brave the fight.
A sobering distance
My wife and I went for a walk last Sunday. Since our forced isolation, we've been walking a lot, past basketball hoops tied off by garbage bags, past lonely playgrounds.
We nod and smile, but obediently grant other walkers and joggers their space. Six feet — always a sobering distance.
We watched a bald eagle circling slowly above the Willamette River, the waterway that bisects Portland and its suburbs. Two kids — a brother and sister, I judged, based on the heady air of competition — skipped stones into the water, whipping their elbows at crazy angles.
Vast swaths of trillium rose from the green forest floor, poking up heads of bright white and light purple. Trilliums belong to the lily family, and I acquaint their annual appearance with renewal, even hope.
Our path carried us under an arched bridge, where a stream clambered over stones and into the river. Overhead, the occasional rumble of a passing car testified that, indeed, people are still going places.
Graffiti writers have imparted their wisdom on the bridge's concrete base. I admit to some skepticism about passing the microphone to those who wield markers and paint to claim their territory, but in these lonely days perhaps it's worth hearkening to the voices of those who write in secret.
"Time is a gift and a burden," opined one in bold black marker. The rejoinder, in a delicate white script: "What will you do with what you have been given?"
We stopped to read, then continued walking.
After pulling out our phones to capture the moment in photos.
They're up in the cloud now, waiting for the right moment to come raining down.