It is with some regret that I choose to fly for this year’s western hiking venture instead of taking to the western roads yet again. Rereading the account of my brooding deep-pandemic self in 2020 or my more mundane appreciation of such roads during my 2021 jaunt has me yearning for some of those cliches about western travel that are true because they are real. A recent Ross Douthat column whose sentiment I support seemed to scold my decision-making: “If you do not drive your country’s highways and byways, what path do you have to a nonvirtual experience of the America beyond your class and tribe and bubble? If you have strong answers to both questions, good. But lacking them, you should give the open road another look.”
A Saturday spent shuttling my dad from one end of northern Minnesota’s Kekekabic Trail to the other only renews this hunger for ribbons of asphalt and gravel. It is a nine-hour dive into the wilds of Minnesota’s north, and I bob and weave along two-lane highways through small towns, some humming with midsummer tourists and others fading back into the woods. Isabella has become a ghost town, while the cluster of bustle on the central Gunflint Trail could use a name on a map, and Ely straddles two worlds. Car travel frees me to eye the wreckage of the Greenwood Fire and drink in the cool lake air of Grand Marais, and to swing off to Sugarloaf Cove, where I can meander down the beach and flip open a notebook to record a few stray ideas. We writers are suited to modes of motion with spontaneous spurts and chances to suck up little details; it is only from these mined nuggets that we can later create grand arcs and sweeps.
While much of America has retreated from air travel, I have spent more time on planes over the past year and a half than at any point in my life. A healthy chunk of that was work-related puddle-jumping to Milwaukee, but I’ve found my way to destinations across the country, too. For the seasoned veteran, air travel is both simpler and more refined, inspiring in its God’s eye view but sapped of the details that allow for immersion and meditation. By plane I give no mind to the fortunes and failings of the towns along the highway, to the Native American reservations I skirt, to the stray roadside attraction that may worm its way into my mind. I bliss out, catch up on some reading, and flip the mental switch to begin living in the world where I’ve landed. It is a simpler, more self-absorbed way to travel, any interactions bounded by the metal tube we share and devoid of any relationship to the landscape around us.
Nor have I ever known air travel as a venture of true leisure and opulence. I have only dim memories of flights before 9/11 and its subsequent security cattle pens, most of which involve my nine-year-old self vomiting into a bag on a bumpy flight from Duluth to Chicago. I’ve had only brief brushes with business or first class, and while a free drink or two is nice, it is hardly a signifier of great luxury. For most of my plane trips, I join the unwashed masses in crunching my knees into ever-shrinking spaces and hoard my bag of nuts and cup of juice. Air travel is also prone to occasional great indignities when the plans go awry, whereas the driver will simply audible and find a detour or sub out a cranky rental car.
I romanticize the road trip, of course. This year’s hike is in Colorado, and somehow the tamed fields of Iowa and Nebraska do not inspire the same sense of frontier freedom as the Dakotas or Montana; time, scarcer and more precious amid a series of new pushes in life, has me settling for the two-hour hop to Denver. I will not miss the zombified state brought on by the eastern Great Plains, nor jockeying for space with long-distance truckers, nor the increasingly antsy push toward home of a final day on the road. These ventures have resulted in two busted windshields in the past three years, and at times I am left with a choice between splurging on an uninspiring roadside hotel or setting up a tent in a campground where I will be serenaded all night by the dulcet droning of RVs. But this decision is more profound than any convenience-seeking or aesthetic impulse: on my last solitary venture I decided that it would be my last one of that nature for a spell, and that is that.
Taking to the air seems a fitting way to head for some of the highest peaks in the lower 48 states. This year’s hike, on the Colorado Trail west of Leadville, will take place entirely above 10,000 feet in elevation, in the shadows of Mount Massive and Mount Elbert, Colorado’s two highest points. It will be a test of the lungs, and if we do indeed try to summit both peaks, a test of the legs as well. I will achieve a new cruising altitude and see just how hungry I am to reach new heights. Off I go, a new adventure beckoning.
Travel is useful; it exercises the imagination. All the rest is disappointment and fatigue. Our journey is entirely imaginary. That is its strength.
– Céline, Journey to the End of the Night (lifted from the credits of La Grande Bellezza)
I began 2021 with the particular belief of a convert to a new faith. It was hard not to, since I started it by diving into a pool at a mountaintop estate on a Caribbean island, my crash into its depths a burst through the din of jungle fauna and steel drum bands echoing in the distance. A couple months later, I received my second stab of Moderna and penned what I hoped would be a victory essay over the virus that had disrupted the previous year of life. I had grand travel plans, I would see family again, work would move away from the misery of Zoom, and I would find undying love.
I wasn’t so naïve as to think it would be that easy, which is good, because it wasn’t. New variants surged, a dream of optimism curdled into an air of mystery, the general malaise lingered, and while I generally went about my life, the world did not. I certainly have no judgment for those who continued to take strong precautions for various reasons and would always work to reach their levels if need be. But to sacrifice any more of my rapidly dwindling youth to a climate of fear that was unlikely to afflict me in any serious way seemed a high price to pay, and trying to negotiate a world in which everyone was on a different page on this issue added another layer of complexity. To be a conscientious friend in 2021 was to live in a state of hyper-aware caution, and the escape of obstinacy grew ever more attractive.
I proceed with family and friends more or less as I did before the pandemic, but my social circles have not grown much, and arranging anything with anyone feels like a considerably larger chore than it used to, the serendipity of stray days together now a rare occurrence. My friend group is a busy one, and a lot of them have been pairing off and reproducing while I have not, a divergence that both keeps them occupied and is wont to drive me to brood. I field questions about my house as if contemplating the excitement of a new garage door is a comparable life step to having a child. For that matter, I have been traveling too much and too caught up in my day job when I am home to get around to acquiring the garage door.
The year took its tolls. I lost a grandmother, an aunt, and a cousin, and endured a funerary marathon for all three of them over one week in July. Somehow, this was not the most draining stretch of family time in 2021; that dubious accolade instead goes to a visit, two weeks later, to the other side of my family, on which I will not elaborate much out of respect for my relatives except to say that no human should ever be allowed to own more than three cats. The less weighty but still disruptive milestones mounted: in the hockey world, a man who was an ordering principle for my drive in life lost his job, a complex but significant era drawn to a close; at work, my colleagues and I were too good at our jobs, in short order overwhelmed by requests for help and pushed to the brink by a taxing schedule, a herd of Sisyphean retrievers forever chasing the ball. It took me until some time after that to see that I was slipping into those same dragging tendencies that had annoyed me about the rest of the world, and another period of time after that to correct course.
I sought my freedom from days of exhaustion and low-grade dread through bursts out into different worlds. It started in the Virgin Islands, made its way to some wilderness retreats in my own backyard, wound its way through another grand western road trip, and popped off to New York and St. Louis and Tucson for punchy weekends. I kept the pace going right up until the end: a week of professional development in Minneapolis featured not only full days of classes, but a different form of scheduled programming each evening as I caught up with family and friends, then topped the whole thing off with a 48-hour jaunt to Chicago for the Christmas party that, every year, manages to put every other party I attend to shame.
All this travel is dangerous. At times it makes me ponder other realities, roads not taken and potentialities looming within a kid who is still capable of quite a bit when he puts his mind to it. I come home from these trips a jumbled mess, always in need of recovery, at once enlivened and invigorated and yet sapped by long hours on the road and disappointed by the return to routine and possessed of a poorly directed energy. The magic does not necessarily last. But how I lived on these trips: sweating up slopes and treading blissful waters, fine dining and good drinks, revelry till the end of the night in the presence of delightful people who, consciously or unconsciously, understand what I mean when I quote Joan Didion and say I want not a window on the world but the world itself.
Didion has been my muse for pandemic era reckoning, and 2021 delivered one final blow when it stole her away this past week. Her death saddened me as much as that of any person I never met in the flesh. No contemporary writer had a greater influence on how I think about the art of prose, or gave me a better sense of how to frame my view of the world. Didion learned to write by copying down Hemingway sentences, and I have learned to write by copying down Didion sentences. An essayist adoring Didion is about as original as a classical music buff lauding Beethoven or a hockey person saying there’s something worth emulating in that Gretzky dude, but sometimes greatness is so plainly obvious, so transcendent of subjective standards, that it can stand up even amid the rush of cliches that inevitably pursue it like fame-hungry paparazzi.
It was amid the rush of Didion homages, all consumed breathlessly this past week, that I realized that what sustained me through 2021 was not the travel itself but the opportunities the travel gave me to write. “Her work was her own answer to the question of what writing and living is for. It ought to be ours, too,” wrote Nathan Heller in a New Yorker obituary. There is no personal crisis I cannot resolve, no looming burden I cannot overcome, by taking a moment to jot it into one of several notebooks or clattering away at a keyboard. The act itself, whether it resolves into a single flowing tale or disjointed marginalia, is enough. Through it, I am made whole at the end of every day, and increasingly in the middle of days when I need reminders to escape the tunnel of the mundane.
From a mesmerized gaze at waves on a beach to the solemn donning of a funeral suit, from the hubbub of a brewing party to curling up with some essays as a wintry wind howls outside, here is to the power of the written word. Here is to their power not to exact immediate results but to create the pieces by which, over time, a new idea can assemble itself, word by word and line by agonized line of authorial reflection and search for just the right turn of phrase. The words may or may not capture my reality in full, but that was never the goal. The goal was to change it.
I started 2021 with a midnight splash into a pool, a dive both literal and metaphorical: after the caged life of 2020, 2021 would be a year where I jumped in. I am not ready to pass final judgment on that goal, as certain limitations have not exactly disappeared, but in one way this year has matched the hype. I traveled more than I ever have, a steady stream of escapes from daily toil, and this past weekend, a final excursion outside of holiday family time took me to Tucson, Arizona, a new place with a lot of very familiar people.
I liked Tucson. I found it somewhat less sprawl-happy than its larger northern neighbor, Phoenix. The Presidio neighborhood, where I made my home for two days, had a dash of Spanish colonial charm, its homes quaint and bright and the landscapes one with the desert around it. I visited the weekend of the University of Arizona homecoming, which brings its large campus to life. Tucson’s food scene is good enough to earn a UNESCO designation, and the intensity of the Mexican influence gives it a genuine sense of a borderland, a mash-up that brings together the poverty and migration and logistical challenges with the immigrant grit and rich cultural creation and re-creation that takes place when two worlds collide.
My summons to Tucson came for my college friend Mike’s wedding with Lizette, a union of Irish- and Mexican-Americans that underscored this syncretism at every step. Mariachis in the cathedral, Irish dancers at the reception, and a couple of Georgetown Jesuits to tie the ribbon; a bagpiper to herd us to dinner and a Mexican ballad crooner at the post-boda party the following day. Now that I have seen his city I sense that I know Mike a bit better, and know why he helped found Georgetown’s Kino Border Initiative alternative spring break program that continues to run today. No matter how far he ventures he is a child of his hometown, a sentiment I know all too well.
I will here embarrass Mike by calling him one of the most impressive humans I know. I dole out such praise not only for his considerable worldly achievements from his presidency of the Georgetown student association to his Cambridge fellowship to his burgeoning education career, but also for his capacity for introspection and his ability to change his life for the better. We have both come a long way since we were two eager kids stumbling around Mexico City together for a semester, each restlessly seeking out callings that reflect who we have become every step of the way. For him, this weekend was a moment of triumph, a rush that ties those disparate threads of life into one, and while my own such moment remains somewhere further out beyond those cactus-studded hills, seeing another achieve it only fuels me.
Recently I’ve been reflecting on my objects of love, most notably the city that my time at Georgetown led me to conclude was the place I should be. After Duluth, however, comes that institution. An inordinate number of my formative moments came between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two. Georgetown was the apotheosis of my childhood striving, though its central role has never been an unambiguously positive one. Not long out of undergrad I penned a somewhat cynical account of my time there, and I when I read critical takes here and there on institutions like Georgetown, I find my share of truth. I have struggled, sometimes mightily, to weigh my place amid and against everything that Georgetown represents.
But anytime I am back on its campus or among its people, it is an object of ever-growing love. This Tucson weekend, spent primarily among friends I liked in college but have not kept up with religiously since graduation, was a liberation of sorts. In short order any anxieties over class or money or my strange post-graduation path melted into nothing. My story remains a curiosity to this audience, but it earns respect, and as we roll into our thirties, we are collectively easing into our own skin and into healthier relationships with the meritocratic pressure-cooker we have all inhabited to greater or lesser degrees. We all still share a hunger for knowledge and a thirst for rich lives, this belief that we really can have it all. It was also refreshing to be back in circles where not every 31-year-old is married, perhaps with a kid or two, that status a source of growing annoyance but not unnatural. These are in so many ways my people, and as I kill time in the plaza of the Tucson Presidio the morning after the wedding, I appreciate once again that I am who am, formed by my own peculiar jumble of circumstances just as Mike has been formed by Tucson, a new pride stirring within me.
Each morning since my return, I’ve begun my days with a brief reading from Plato’s Symposium, a search inspired by a speech from a member of Lizette’s bridal party. Perhaps Socrates and friends can be guides to my own loves; perhaps Tucson is only another meander on this strange path I tread. But with each dive I grow a bit more comfortable in the water, a bit more content to ride the waves, whether they come in a Caribbean pool or a November gale on the greatest of lakes. And between each one, may I continue to have symposia with Hoyas, my fellow travelers for life.
New York was no mere city. It was instead an infinitely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power, the shining and perishable dream itself.
–Joan Didion, Goodbye to All That
It started with a baseball team, but it came to mean much more than that. New York has always held a special allure for me, a certainty that the universe revolved loosely around a constellation of stars somewhere between the World Trade Center and Times Square and Central Park and a ballpark at 161st Street in the Bronx. For my entire adult life, I have read a New York newspaper daily and a New York magazine weekly; the tales of some of the figures most dear to me, from Gatsby all the way down to my own scribbled notes, try to find their way through it. New York is a cultural touchstone with an infinite ability to attract the best and bring out the fullest, often flawed but always possessed of an undying allure.
Labor Day weekend of 2021 is a curious time to visit New York. I arrive amid an ongoing pandemic that has ravaged this city harder than most. As I take the train in from the Newark airport, floodwaters from the freak remains of Hurricane Ida loiter on New Jersey roads, the planes and trains that fuel the beast cut off until the day before my arrival. A somber mood lingers at the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Twin Towers, and in the immediate aftermath of the end(?) of the 9/11 Era’s misbegotten wars. When I pop out of Penn Station, the streets seem almost sedate. Where’s that frenetic, addicting pace I remember from the past?
And yet this is the perfect time to head to the center of the American imperium. I’ve kept up an aggressive travel pace over this past year and a half, but these journeys have been solitary, or at least involved trips with other people into natural solitude. I am hungry for a trip in and among people, raring to once again sample the full range of humanity, to stride down famed streets and pay homage at some of its shrines. My host and I will fill every moment of my 70 hours in New York, put on double-digit miles in less-than-ideal shoes, drink it all in as I know we can.
That host is Andrew, my Georgetown friend and Minneapolis roommate currently wrapping up a one-year stint as a New Yorker. He has temporary lodging in Carroll Gardens, which sits a few neighborhoods south of the Brooklyn Bridge. This is my first time exploring Brooklyn, an urbanist’s feverish fantasy made real. It is a step below Manhattan overload, with dense, historic homes, many carved up into smaller units that nonetheless still feel like familiar neighborhoods. Shops and restaurants sprout up on corners, all within walking distance, and narrow streets dotted with new outdoor seating and bike lanes calm the traffic and make it easy to cycle or scoot around the borough. Here are some Caribbean neighborhoods, there historically black Bedford-Stuyvesant, Russians down on the south end, the liberal elite doing their things in Park Slope, Italians living out that New York stereotype from a different area; no matter the business, Latin music is probably pumping out of it, because the Hispanics are everywhere too. Free-range children make the streets their own, and give it an urban life that one cannot find in adult playground cities like San Francisco. After time in New York, several friends observe, the streets anywhere else feel dead.
Andrew and I take on New York in full: bagels for breakfast and pizza for one dinner, staying out later than our 30-year-old bodies would normally allow. The first night takes us to a Michelin-starred Mexican restaurant, where the molé and the accompanying mezcal flight brings about a bliss powerful enough to overcome the stench of the Gowanus Canal. On the second, after the pizza, we head out on the town in Williamsburg: a lucky seat at the Four Horsemen and a sample from its famed for its natural wine list, and a nightcap at a German beer hall. We are old by Billyburg standards, but we can still make our way among the cool kids. On our final night we traverse the borough by foot, from Carroll Gardens straight over to our final stops in Bed-Stuy, with Park Slope and Prospect Park to distract us on the way. This is the only way to travel, no moment wasted, no chance to observe left unused.
As my credit card bill from the weekend can attest, New York is a city of extremes, and nowhere in America is insane wealth more ubiquitous. On a first day stroll up to the Brooklyn Heights Promenade and into Dumbo, I ask about the helicopters shooting up and down the East River. Upon learning that they are mostly rich people shuttling back and forth between the city and their places in the Hamptons, I suddenly understand why people here vote for Bernie Sanders. Prior to the Yankee game, we take a Labor Day walk up a quiet Wall Street. Twenty years after terrorists targeted it, downtown Manhattan remains the financial capital of the world. The only real damage to American supremacy has been self-inflicted.
This School of Foreign Service graduate has stopped and started three blog posts on the American withdrawal from Afghanistan and the twenty years of war that have now come to an ignominious close. Everything about it strikes me as a tale of hubris and decline, and the 2000s now look like a disastrous diversion that may shift the center of the world away from this great city and toward some rather less friendly place. But yet here is New York, still marching along, its power for good or ill only consolidated since terrorists tried to stab at its heart in 2001. The same can be said for its pandemic resilience: yes, there have been losses, some of them great, but the data already belie any tale of collapse. I also find New York’s Covid era policies, with regular vaccine card requirements for entry but mask mandates only in crowded indoor spaces, the best-adjusted to reality of any I’ve encountered in my travels. New Yorkers are in the game to crush the virus and get back to living as they prefer, not to lurch along in fear or accommodation of it.
For those of us for whom private helicopters are not an option, a series of ferries offer one of the more fun ways to drink in that New York life. They cruise up and down the East and Hudson Rivers at a surprising speed, with added routes around to the south side of Brooklyn and one even striking out boldly toward the promised land of Staten Island. Ferry passengers get new perspectives up at iconic bridges and across at skylines, an ongoing immersion that is hard to find when reliant on the subway. When my dad and I visited here on a college tour, he likened that experience to that of a gopher popping in and out of holes. A few rickety rides between these old tiled platforms quickly form strong opinions: the F is painfully slow, the 6 regularly ghosts, and the 4 is speedy but an eternal mystery over where it will actually stop. New York both exacerbates the wealth gap and then flattens it, subjects all but a select few to the same crowded platforms and scheduled maintenance delays.
The pandemic and the floods shed new light on a city fraying some at the edges, duct taped together in an effort to keep century-old infrastructure running, threatening to lurch toward a new status quo where nothing is fixable or ever on time. Except on rare occasions, the difference between third- and first-world cities is not so much in any immediately visible levels of chaos, but instead in the belief in the systems behind it all. If resignation reigns, if people expect that everything will run poorly and nothing will get better, well, they are probably right. New York teeters on the edge at times, but most people still nurse higher expectations against all odds. Things may yet get better, the eternal promise of the liberal, progress-oriented mind. And when they do go awry, New Yorkers have a talent for handling these situations in a way that we Minnesotans will not: just yell loudly.
This attitude is on display at Yankee Stadium on Labor Day. The Bronx Bombers, fighting to maintain a playoff spot, blunder their way through an anemic and error-filled performance, while the pitching serves up four home runs in an 8-0 loss to Toronto. Even in a game with nothing to cheer, spontaneous chants erupt all around our section at least once an inning. This is no Target Field picnic in Minneapolis: everyone is engaged, knows the players and their flaws. They offer up goofy random remarks and the continued graphic serenades of Houston Astro José Altúve that have been a staple of every game since his one and only visit this season back in May, that scumbag cheater. (Forgive me if my biases are showing.) After a scrub pitcher gives up a grand slam in the ninth and makes the game a laugher, the crowd fully turns, the boobirds out in full force. Ah well; at least it was a beautiful day for a ballgame.
The Yankees may look moribund, but they will be back thanks to New York’s saving grace: an eternal hope for reinvention. I find one such sign in Moynihan Train Hall, a sparkling new Beaux-Arts facility that combines a grand new atrium with an old post office to hearken back to the late, great original Penn Station, an inspiring reminder that iconic public infrastructure really is still possible. A second comes on Little Island, New York’s newest burst of civic fascination, an art installation as a public park that invites senseless serendipitous wandering, both casual and immersive, depending on one’s mood. Its nearby forerunner is the High Line, a repurposed promenade along an elevated train line that is now thick with plant life growing up out of the concrete. These living parks blend New York’s brutal monumentality with a resurgence of nature, a sense of what a rebirth from ruin can be. Progress, however, comes in fits and starts: at the end of the High Line is Hudson Yards, a new, gleaming, soulless and inconvenient behemoth for rich corporations and luxury shopping. I would call it a billionaires’ playground, but if this is how billionaires have fun, the status may not be worth the hype.
I recover from any lingering annoyance at ugly developments with a stroll up Central Park East to the Met. The art museum first captured my imagination as a kid when I read The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, but this is the first time I’ve set foot in America’s largest art museum. Alas, I fear hiding away in the Met is now much harder than it was when the book was published in the 60s, which is a shame, because I would gladly do so and spend a few nights here. Two and a half hours with no agenda lead me to wander from Greek and Roman art to Middle Eastern carpets, from French impressionists to halls of sculptures, through European period rooms past arms and armor to the Temple of Dendur (closed for construction) and some of the Egyptian rooms. I’ve only scratched the surface of this collection, that New York centralizing force at its absolute finest.
New York’s greatest works of art, however, may come in its human tapestry, and I am here to wrap myself in that urban fabric I have missed so dearly. Dozens of Instagrammers on the same street in Dumbo, rows of families grilling along the Brooklyn Heights waterfront, an urban motorcycle gang by Prospect Park, and the J’Ouvert festival of Caribbean pride livening up the streets of Crown Heights. A reality show casting event in Hudson Yards (a fitting locale); old Upper East Side dames with their marvelous accents and gaudy glasses and batty clothes. Kids attack the streets narrow of Brooklyn on bikes and skateboards with more confidence than I could muster on an empty six-lane highway. An earnestly cool young couple buried in some newspaper tarred in leftist slogans, a man straight out of hipster central casting reading a DIY book, the guy at the next table at the wine bar rattling on about his tasting journeys. A lone young artist on a bench in the Met, the outside world tuned out, deep in a sketch of a Roman statue. A towering Black man in drag getting handsy with his travel companion, a rowdy extended family of grumbling Yankee fans, the lady behind the bar whose small talk gives a single boy a little flutter. “She’s holding an ice cream cone!” a four-year-old proclaims upon his first viewing of the Statue of Liberty from the airplane window. Here, perhaps, is a true symbol of freedom.
After a rush of New York experiences on the first two nights, my final one is all about people: college-era friends who have settled into very different lives in the American capital to drink it up. First, Andrew and I do a vegan dinner with Eileen in Crown Heights, and later we get drinks with my old roommate Phil in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where he and Jess, another fellow Hoya, have just bought a brownstone and begun to nest. We catch up and get takes on pandemic life in New York, on Brooklyn neighborhoods, on how to get around the city, on the life stages we’ve entered now that we’re nearly ten years out of college. All the pieces are back in place, and maybe nothing has changed since we went out in Georgetown and wandered the cobblestones and stumbled back to the house on R Street, fully in the thralls of our fortunate lives.
Time, however, does not let us stay in these nostalgia trips, and in all of us I detect a new level of self-assurance, a deeper knowledge of who we are. My friends all live out some version of that New York pursuit. Eileen navigates life changes with an aplomb I could not muster, while Phil and Jess start to put down roots; Andrew, for his part, is very ready to say Goodbye to All That. I am sympathetic to his exhaustion with the uglier side of New York, and eager to visit him as he moves back to our old haunts in DC. There are a thousand eminently rational reasons for why New York is not my path, and I do not regret that life has not led me to pursue a Manhattan apartment or a Brooklyn brownstone or weekend choices between Nantucket or the Hamptons.
And yet the pull is just as strong as it was since I came here as a 16-year-old, just as fresh and intoxicating as it looked to teenage eyes, spared Joan Didion’s cynical and discerning eye because that distant ideal is probably all it will ever be. It is still the imperial capital, the height of the civilization I live in, and emblematic of all its glories and its horrors, humanity’s promise and belief in new beginnings tied up in its troubles and threats and the unavoidable insularity that comes when like-minded people cluster together in one place. I do not live in it, but I need it to set the standard I use to measure everything else. Ever upward.
It’s a Fourth of July with no crowds, no grills, and no fireworks, save the ones from the lightning up in the sky. My dad and I, having gone too long between wilderness retreats, strap his canoe to the roof of his car and head for the Boundary Waters, that great escape in the wilds of northern Minnesota. It is time to get lost in the woods, paddle in deep away from the crowds, and forget the worries of the world for a spell.
Our entry point on Kawishiwi Lake is near the headwaters of a river of the same name that works its way north and west across the Boundary Waters and worms its way through some of its better-known lakes. I have not canoed since our last venture four years ago, but I have become a much more accomplished outdoor adventurer in the intervening four years. I am willing to develop a few arm bruises to go in further and faster than many of the other adventurers on a busy holiday weekend.
Our trip north is a well-traveled one, and all nine permits on our entry day are taken. From Kawishiwi Lake the water trail approximates the course of the river, thought it often meanders off or is lost in rapids or beaver dams, forcing a series of portages. The journey goes north through Square and Kawashong Lakes before arriving at Lake Polly, a common destination for paddlers on this route. We stop here for lunch, and my dad, after some brief reconnoitering to see how things have changed, confirms that this was indeed the site where he and a friend stayed on his first ever Boundary Waters venture nearly 40 years ago. The two of them hitched their way up to Lake Polly in flip-flops with an aluminum canoe, only to have a bear eat all of their food other than the bullion cubes.
Despite this inauspicious introduction, my dad has been back to this chain of lakes several times since. The destination lake on most of those trips has been Malberg Lake, which is two beyond Polly, and it is the same for us. We check out some of its inviting campsites—the open yet shaded site at the mouth of the Louse River, the clifftop site above the narrow channel into the lake’s western arm, a sandy site tucked behind that point—and eventually settle for a different sandy beach in the lake’s far northwest corner. Such dreamy landings and inviting swimming holes are a rarity in the rock-strewn Boundary Waters. Its kitchen area could be a bit more open, but the tent pads are shaded and the waterfront real estate is some of the best I’ve seen, and it will do for our midsummer retreat.
We spend all three of our nights out at that site on Malberg, but we undertake a long day trip on our second day. The portage out of Malberg into a wider meander of the Kawishiwi poses an immediate challenge: beaver action has created a large water hazard in its middle, effectively making it not one but two portages. Low water levels further along complicate the passage up a tributary toward Beaver Lake, but Beaver rewards us with a beautiful campsite at the confluence of its arms and some impressive cliffs. My dad ranks the overgrown boulder field of a portage into Smite Lake one of the worst he’s ever done; the portage smites us, though we are also smitten by the large rock outcroppings along the lake. This is deep wilderness, and we meet just two other people on the entire day, at the mouth of the portage from Smite to Adams Lake, where they have paused for a rest.
We chat with the couple for a while. The man is an ornithologist at a branch of the University of Wisconsin, and Adams Lake is his personal retreat. He comes here several times a year, and knows it well enough to paddle in at night by headlamp. As we paddle around Adams, we understand he has become its resident naturalist: it is serene, varied in its landscape, and buried in deep. Even the portage from Adams back into Beaver to close our loop is lovely, with a stone staircase and a cool rock wall, a welcome respite after a long day of travel. Back at our site late that afternoon, we swim off our beach and I float about, looking to recover that same bliss I found in a bay off St. John in January. It proves elusive, but I do not linger on its absence.
On our third day in the Boundary Waters, we do nothing. I cannot remember the last time I did nothing in a day, and I would not want to make a habit of it, but after some initial fitfulness likely spurred on by biting flies, I settle in. It is a brutally hot weekend in the North. The temperature clears 90, a rarity in these parts, and the day is mostly spent following the shade. In the morning, that means parking in a canoe chair along the beach, while by afternoon, shade has come for the hammocks, and while the breeze is a warm one, at least it is there to stir things up. We read, take our meals, and have our nightcap at a point far down the beach.
The paddle back out to civilization goes smoothly enough. The heat, combined with the effects of some distant wildfire, creates such a haze that we can barely see across some of the smaller lakes. The area between Polly and Square Lakes, cleared out by a forest fire some years back, looks almost desert-like when viewed from beneath a portaging canoe. The day starts stock-still, humid and oppressive, the hoped-for cold front never appearing; later, a strong breeze whips up to add an element of adventure to the final few lake crossings. Even back by Lake Superior, usually a reliable air conditioner, the temperature stays above 90. For a few days, northern Minnesota has become a languid, torpor-suffused sweatbox, but we have gone out for a burst of activity in spite of it.
Canoeing, like many of my recent wilderness adventures, satisfies because it simplifies needs to the most immediate, pressing questions. The only things that matter are the basic tasks of completing one’s itinerary and meeting straightforward human needs. It allows both urgency and activity to live in harmony with bliss, while those sometimes-competing claims can struggle to find resolution in the civilized world, where hunger for activity and achievement and desire to live as if on borrowed time all collide with an inherent patience, caution, and preference for temperature-lowering over outright conflict. A not insignificant part of me enjoys that challenge, but a step out of the trenches is necessary to see it for what it is. After a year and a half of frequent travel in very small groups or in solitude, that is all about to change, and I am ready for that shift. But escapes like this one will always have a special allure.
Early in the pandemic, I resolved not to let 2020 be a lost year. I mostly succeeded. I bought a house, managed a great summer trip, strengthened some local ties, filled my newfound downtime with some productive and athletic pursuits, and tacked on this spontaneous Caribbean adventure at the end. It was a trying year at times, certainly; never have world events felt so immediate, in spite of my isolation, and the pandemic put my most pressing search into a deeply unsatisfying pause. But I came through it all the same, and the Virgin Islands provide some catharsis ahead of a quest for more satisfying releases in 2021.
When I went on this summer’s road trip, I went with pretensions of grand discovery. I got a sense of it, perhaps, but little more. Before I left for this one, though, I looked back on how I started 2020 and realized I already wrote the only beach story I needed to write for the foreseeable future. I am not on a plaintive search for anything besides the obvious sun, surf, and rum. I can zone out as I gaze into the waves, write down little nothings, let this account come naturally over time, let it stand as a testament to two weeks of freeing, clarifying escape in a strange era.
Traveling alone is nothing new for me, but that travel usually comes in a tent, not in a L’Esperance. Seeing the view, a friend calls me Citizen Kane, though I’ve arrived at this Xanadu merely through good fortune and general competence. I also undertake this journey amid an ongoing pandemic, which comes with obvious limitations. Many Virgin Islands activities, given the weather and buildings designed to beckon in the breeze, can go on with only minor changes; a beach is still a beach, and there’s plenty of space on the ones here. But with a few exceptions, there are fewer opportunities for a long afternoon of casual banter at the bar, or a night out on the town: except one somewhat later ferry ride back from St. John, I’m back at my hilltop perch for the sunset each night. With a view like this, why not?
Even in paradise, life settles into the same rhythms of the past nine months, albeit with better Zoom backgrounds and more novel diversions. I start my mornings in the exercise room; when the internet goes down briefly one day, I hop in the pool until it reboots. I rotate my work stations between the great room couch and the pool house and the kitchen counter, while evening reading or writing happens on other stray patios or seating areas. On nighttime Zoom calls, the fauna are so loud that one friend thinks an alarm is beeping in the background; dog barks and rooster crows give the night some life. For a few days during the first week, a vicious wind rips across Flag Hill. Said flag whips in the wind outside my window, and I settle into a rhythm of trade wind management, bartering between cool air flow and keeping my work papers from flying off to Venezuela. I spend inordinate amounts of time locating kitchen implements and figuring out which light switch is where.
My job proves entirely doable from thousands of miles away. I miss my second screen and feel an odd limbo in being two hours ahead of my work calendar on central time, but any annoyances are fleeting. At one point, my distance even proves beneficial, as most of the internet goes down in Duluth while I can jump in and manage a focus group with my pretentious background. (I got in a debate with the woman I meet at the St. John brewery: do we rub our tropical lives in, or try to hide it with blank wall backgrounds?) On the flip side, malfunctioning data tools are just as anger-inducing whether one has snowbanks or palm trees in one’s backyard. Work ends, happy hour begins, and I rinse and repeat the cycle the next day.
I mostly cook for myself in the villa, forking over the price for food commanded by an island that must import practically everything. I do chance a few meals out, most memorably at Duffy’s Love Shack, an open air tiki bar and a Red Hook institution that proved educational for nine-year-old Karl when his adult companions got “lei’d” here for ordering exotic drinks. Sadly, this time around, its confines feature just five tables and my lonely stool at a bar; the fun drink glasses have been replaced by plastic cups for the duration of the pandemic, and the mechanical shark gazes down on the proceedings in forlorn silence. I settle for enjoying the ever-colorful view of the parking lot around Duffy’s. Just in front of me, a college-age girl vomits in a bush (this is four in the afternoon); across the street, a security guard and a few good Samaritans chase down and corner a shoplifter. “Dinner and a show,” muses the woman at the next table.
My solitude continues on New Year’s Eve, a strange night to be alone. After wrapping up a Zoom around 11:00 local time, I launch a cathartic solo dance party to a college-era playlist, then head down to the pool deck and dive in at midnight. The pandemic has killed the usual festivities at the cable car platform just around the hill, but stray fireworks erupt here and there across Charlotte Amalie, while a villa below me supplies a soundtrack and another launches a few lanterns into the sky. Car horns honk, and somewhere, a lonely flute player pumps out Auld Lang Syne. Later, a drum circle erupts down the hill, and I stand out in the prow of the balcony and revel in my perch above it all.
I get plenty of reading done, from Zadie Smith short stories to some grazing off my aunt and uncle’s shelves: a book on St. John, an autobiography of the paleoanthropologist Meave Leakey, a brief delighted dive into some convenient Wallace Stegner. On the weightier side, I give myself equal doses Jerusalem and Athens: first, through Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, the blur of divine ecstasy under the moonlight, and later, as I move toward a return to my earthlier concerns, yet another return to Hannah Arendt and The Human Condition. At the end of the dream is action, and a time to begin.
It is an incongruous time to enjoy two weeks in paradise. The pandemic rages on, and several close friends or their spouses contract the coronavirus while I am on St. Thomas. Others in my life are consumed by work, lockdowns, or other various annoyances. Early in my stay, my 94-year-old grandmother’s intestinal woes lead to a touch-and-go emergency surgery; with characteristic steadiness, she plows through it and is on the road to recovery. To sit and talk to a hospital-bound woman who can count the number of times she has left Wisconsin in her life on one hand is a jarring contrast for her grandson who alights to villas atop Caribbean islands on a whim. Toward the end of my stay, I find myself watching a news feed of rioters storming the U.S. Capitol while helping facilitate a tribal entrepreneurial focus group taking place in Minnesota while gazing out on the sun-splashed harbor of Charlotte Amalie. How’s that for cognitive dissonance?
A less self-assured soul might feel some guilt over the good fortune that allows me to enjoy these two weeks in paradise. But throughout this trip, as I knew it would be, my composure is basically a constant state, even with chaos elsewhere. I’d like to think this is some new equanimity, but history suggests there will still be lurches, and a little well-timed anxiety can be a healthy corrective at times. But if that ferocious ambivalence is the threshold of freedom, I took another step toward the door on this trip.
At times, this adventure just feeds my wanderlust. The sailors I meet on the Ram’s Head on St. John bring to mind C.P. Cavafy’s Ithaca, a poem anyone returning home from a great journey should revisit: that freedom to put into “harbors new to your eyes” isn’t limited to the ancients, is something I too could do in a sailboat down the Antilles to keep this dream alive. There’s so much of the world I have yet to see. Someday, perhaps. But fixating on that as the end goal would miss the point. “It’s been one my best escapes ever, but escaping alone ain’t life,” I text my Duluth brain trust on my final night.
The fisherman I talk with on the Hull Bay beach tells me of his lifelong escape: endless surfing and fishing, traveling up and down the island chain, a home on the hill peeking out over the bay. “Living the dream,” I tell him; “I never need to act for anyone,” he assures me. It’s a dream, yes, but not my dream. I am here to play that game, to accept different roles on different stages, to know that my life contains multitudes, not some essential trait that I can find if I boil everything else away under the Caribbean sun. But there are moments when it all coheres, when all the different threads twist together, and whether they come on a picturesque ruin on St. John or on a moonlit ski trail in Lester Park, they show how to fend off any lurking demons and open up the complete range of possibility. And so, refreshed and tanned and one step further along a twisting, potholed island road, I begin anew.
The pandemic may drain people away from the crowded shopping streets of Caribbean islands, but life prostrate on a towel has the same allure it always does. Here we are free to get sand all over ourselves and glug mouthfuls of saltwater, to sweat unnecessarily and court the inevitable sunburn. This is, of course, the point. During my two weeks on St. Thomas, I sample beaches both old and new to me in my ventures outward, plus add two days of hiking on neighboring St. John. Each venture ends with a seat in the sand or a swim in the sea, a beached state of bliss that kills worries nearly as well as the rum.
On one of my first free days on the island I head to the far west end of St. Thomas. Here, the arching island tumbles down to a gated community kind enough to allow the unwashed masses to sign in at the guard hut. From there, it’s a little over a mile by foot down the road past some obscenely large houses to the westernmost point on the island. Its name is the Mermaid’s Chair, and while I never quite figure out if I should be looking for seated mermaids on the spit of land that gets covered at high tide or beneath the lone palm tree on the little isle connected by the spit or on the rocks where waves crash beyond it, the place provides a serene respite. The sunset here is sublime, and the waves crash harder than anywhere else on St. Thomas. It’s not really a beach in the traditional sense, but I find some shade behind a rock and wade into a small inlet and along through the surf, alone here at the seeming end of the earth.
My second St. Thomas beach may not be a pristine beauty, but it has the best vibe of the ones I’ve sampled. Hull Bay on the island’s north shore sits somewhere between the solitude of a St. John beach and the built-up resort offerings. If the beachside bar hadn’t been sadly shut down, it would have taken me back to Puerto Escondido. When I arrive late morning, the only occupants seem to be locals. I chat with a commercial fisherman who is measuring out his kite and learn the basics of fishing these waters. Two men with metal detectors make their way up and down the beach, while a child associated with them digs a hole to Tibet in the sand. I join two middle-aged surf bums in incredulous gawking as a pristine-looking yacht tender plows straight into the beach so it can disgorge a few picnickers. Nonplussed, its pilot and an assistant work their way off the sand with some haphazard pushing and rocking, and in time head out on their merry way. “The year is only ten hours old and we have a contender for dumbass of the year,” says one of the surf bums.
Hull Bay has a reputation as a surfing beach, though only two people venture out while I’m there. The first is a teenage boy who looks every bit the surf star with a shock of sun-bleached curls, but after a few tentative steps into the breakers he settles for swimming out into the calmest part of the bay and riding his board back in on his chest before calling it quits. The second is a greying stand-up paddleboarder who stays out on the larger swells for at least two hours, bobbing away on the horizon. Score one for those of us advancing in age. The fisherman says I look like a surfer; in a different life, perhaps, I muse.
There isn’t much in the way of surfing on Magens Bay, the giant bite out of the north side of St. Thomas and its most famous beach. It’s a busy one, but large enough that people can strew themselves out along its length and splash around in the gentle turquoise waters. I traipse from one end to the other and admire the bodies on display, skimpy bikinis and pretty boy swag, plus some things that people would be better off putting away. It’s been too long since I last sampled humanity in this way. That night in bed, I feel the rocking sensation of the bay’s waves carrying me off to sleep.
Secret Harbor, which protects its secrets with about 40 speed bumps and a parking lot unnecessarily atop a hill nowhere near the beach, is an intimate stretch of sand, the sort that would be great with a group but leaves me feeling exposed when there alone. Snorkelers work their way out to its convenient reef, and the blasé servers at the seaside restaurant eventually get around to feeding me. I vaguely regret heading here on my final full day instead of ponying up for the ferry to neighboring St. John for a third time, but a little unfulfilled desire can’t hurt. I’ll be back for Maho Bay some other day.
A second stop that day, Smith Bay, restores me to my beach equilibrium. Sure, my newly developed beach snobbery leads me to conclude it’s nothing special. But there is plenty of shade, and both local and tourist families splash about in its waters and snorkel out to its buoys. Sailboats work their way back and forth into the bay, and I wrap up a book in peace and solitude. It’s a fitting final destination, though not this trip’s apex. On the drive back, I cast one last look of longing toward the island where dreams and reality blurred on this trip.
That place would be St. John, a sparsely populated isle half an hour to the east of St. Thomas by ferry. The city of Cruz Bay, its main gateway for ferry traffic from St. Thomas, is a couple of clusters of shops near the docks, and then a series of villas clinging to the hills up above it. Beyond that, the majority of the land is devoted to the Virgin Islands National Park, and after I escape the ferry traffic, I head straight for the hills.
St. John’s roads are even more painfully tortured than those of St. Thomas; I’m not sure whether to admire the engineers for their accomplishments or recommend them to the asylum. Being a driver on St. John deprives one of some marvelous scenery, since one’s eyes are always fixed on the next hairpin turn and leerily checking that tailgating garbage truck in the rear view mirror. Additional obstacles include a leisurely herd of goats, a monstrous feral pig, and some burros who look miffed when a car traveling the opposite direction gets too close. The pace of life on St. John is a world apart.
The Reef Bay Trail is one of the island’s best-known hikes, and it plunges some 900 feet from Centerline Road along the spine of the island to its namesake bay on the south shore. Ruins line the route: pull back the jungle on St. John and you find a less serene part of the Virgin Islands’ history than its pastel buildings and its cobblestone streets. Like most of the Caribbean, they were once a hub of the slave trade, and the ruins of its sprawling estates litter the landscape: a crumbling wall here, an old storehouse there, a cluster of old homes back in the thicket. Right before the Reef Bay beach is an old sugar factory, whose owners kept it going on steam power after abolition. And for truly deep roots, a side trail leads to a trickling waterfall and a pair of pools beneath some petroglyphs from the pre-Columbian Taino, who drew themselves a cartoon squid his crustacean friends. On the way back up I see how fast I can move in tropical heat, my sweatiness unnerving some not-particularly-fit hikers I meet near the top of the ridge.
On the far southeast end of St. John, a crowded trailhead leads down to the Salt Pond Beach, an idyllic, calm cove that hosts a small armada of snorkelers. I join a family who has sailed here from Georgia for a few false starts further down the beach as we seek out the Ram’s Head Trail, which climbs over to a rocky beach before ascending a bluff that juts out into the sea and gives 360-degree views. There’s little shade, and when I get back to Salt Pond Beach, I am content to lounge in the shade away from the water’s edge, a second sweaty journey of the day complete. Yes, I think, St. John is worth the hype.
St. John’s greatest gems may be on its north shore, the white sand beaches of Hawksnest, Caneel Bay, Trunk Bay, Cinnamon Bay, and Maho Bay. The road here is stupidly pretty; the second-best North Shore on earth, I crack to friends back on another one now covered in snow. My birthday destination, however, is the end of the road at Annaberg, where the ruins of St. John’s largest plantation sit in repose over Leinster Bay. I follow a trail along the beach for a bit over a mile and briefly thrash around the ruins at the base of the hill where the trail turns away from the famed snorkeling spot of Waterlemon Bay. I first found this trail when volunteering with the Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park, on an outing for which we chopped out some of the brush along the trail and the ruins here; now, the jungle is encroaching again. Sufficiently scratched up by the undergrowth, I switch up to the ruined foundations of the Windy Hill House, the estate that once lorded over this whole expanse.
From there, I set out on a loop that takes me over the ridge from the north shore to the large southeastern bite out of St. John named Coral Bay. I follow the Brown Bay Trail further along the shore to another small beach a bit over a mile beyond. I have this one to myself, and tuck in beneath its encroaching undergrowth for a few minutes of shade. I only see one person on this entire trail, a relentless trail runner with whom I share a sweaty grin as we crest the hill with views both north and south. A few more ruins lie off the side near the end of the trail, which dumps me out on a road that runs along the East End peninsula. From there, it’s another mile along pavement through the hamlet of Zootenvaal, the easternmost reach of the United States.
I come to crossroads of Coral Bay, a collection of houses up on the hill and rundown shacks along the road, placid in the midday heat. I’d hoped to stop for a snack and to down some water next to its historic Moravian church, but the burros have occupied the spot beneath the one shady tree. Resigned, I turn and march 500 feet directly up a relentless grade; this is allegedly a road, but I’m not sure any vehicle could survive this thing. Naturally, the sun comes back out for its most intense burst of heat of the day while I’m slogging up. I crest the hill and saunter down the Johnny Horn Trail, which carries me back to the Windy Hill Great House.
I stop for lunch on a shaded set of steps on the ruins of the estate. The old house’s perch may be unbeatable: Leinster Bay and its sailboats to the left, Tortola of the British Virgin Islands across the Sir Francis Drake Passage to the right, shapely Great Thatch and quaint Little Thatch in front, and beyond it, Jost Van Dyke. The ruins are shrouded in pink flowers (which are, alas, an invasive Mexican creeper), its past lives as an overlord of slaves and a boarding house and a reform school now taken back by the wilds of St. John. A light rain pushes through, and I welcome the cleansing shower. I snack away, sip at a flask of rum, jot down a few notes, and attain something resembling nirvana.
At the bottom of the hill, I strip off my sweat-caked shirt and wade into the bay. I edge out gingerly, leery of urchins, and then strike out to a depth where I can float and tread water in peace. A few fish flit past my ankles, and I peer into the depths in this snorkeling haven as well as I can without goggles. A few motorboats come and go. The sun drifts in and out from behind the clouds. Hikers process up and down the beach in no real rush. I wonder just how long I can tread water, even though I know I must move on.
When a large family occupies the beach directly next to my bag, I decide it’s time to leave Leinster Bay behind. I do so with great reluctance. I stick with flip-flops for the beachfront stroll back to the car, where I change out of my sweaty hiking gear and take a brief spin through the Annaberg plantation. On a previous visit, it was packed, with docents and a little booth where a woman served juice from the plantation’s old kitchen; today, it is just me and a picnicking couple. Last time, I remember standing here, transfixed by a vista through the branches of a tree toward the sea; today, I find that spot again and internalize it as deeply as I can.
I make my way back into Cruz Bay. After a parking odyssey, I find the St. John Brewing Company’s tap room, which is tucked away on an upper level of the labyrinthine Mongoose Junction shopping area. The beer does the job, and I befriend Jim and Kate from Connecticut at the next table, the three of us reveling at the joys of dining in a restaurant and working remotely. How we’ve all missed this spontaneity, this liberation afforded by the most pristine of Virgins.
I take the ferry back at sunset. I’m at once hungry for more and fully satisfied: I could spend weeks on St. John, most likely, but I drank enough from its well on this trip to keep me going for years. How can I miss a place that provides a window unto eternity?
I am restless, cooped up by a grey Duluth winter and a pandemic that has stolen away my primary winter diversion. My days are inane circuits between my bedroom and my home office and my kitchen. I idly search for direct flights from Minneapolis, lusting for some affordable escape. To my surprise, Delta has just launched a new service to St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Here, I think, is a real option, and in a year that has snuffed out spontaneity, I decide to end with a burst of it. A few emails and a negative Covid test later, I make my way to the Virgin Islands for two weeks of sun and remote work.
The Virgin Islands are at the fulcrum of the Caribbean, the point where the Greater Antilles come to an end and swing southward to become the Lesser Antilles, the island chain that dangles down to South America. The British control the eastern islands, while the Danes sold the western collection to the United States in 1917. St. Thomas is the principal island of the bunch, home to the airport and the capital of Charlotte Amalie, which wraps around a large harbor that beckons in visitors in search of a tropical retreat.
The realm has its share of history, from ancient pictographs to exploration age outposts, from slave-filled plantations to a strategic sale to the U.S. during World War I. Charlotte Amalie bears the name of an old Danish queen, its strades and gades still evidence of that nation’s forgotten colonial phase. Blackbeard and Bluebeard had castles—or, at the very least, some stumpy turrets—here, and the city hosts a collection of pretty historic houses of worship. Now, however, most of that history is dead and buried, and this place exists as a great escape where Americans can enjoy the virtues of the Caribbean without sacrificing too many comforts of home. (Until one gets herded into the airport’s cattle pens on one’s departure, at least.) In normal times, as many as five cruise ships drop anchor in Charlotte Amalie, seemingly hundreds of jewelry and trinket shops lined up to greet them. These jagged islands have little flat ground, and not far from the top of the cable car up from the Havensight dock on Flag Hill sits L’Esperance, the villa that hosts me for my stay.
L’Esperance has a commanding perch from which to survey this realm. Its great room and patios provide sweeping views of the harbor to the west, where Charlotte Amalie rises from the waterfront like a red and white-spackled backsplash that fades into green as it works its way up the hill. The main floor bedrooms peek down the east side, giving the property views of the sea in three directions. I open the hurricane shutters and sliding doors to beckon in the sweet trade winds, which ease their way between balconies on either side of the villa through the glassed-in arcade: no conditioned air here. Every evening, the sun plunges to the horizon in the west, lighting up the whole harbor below me; on a rainy morning, rainbows erupt here and there. I could stare at this view for eternity.
My experience of St. Thomas is, of course, exceptional. The island is in a state of development limbo, a paradise found and hardly virginal anymore. The Virgin Islands are the last eastward outpost of the American empire, a colonial leftover that welcomes in thousands of Americans for vacations or second (or third or fifth) homes. Charlotte Amalie may be the only city in the traditional sense, but there are urban clusters around the east end ferry docks at Red Hook and in the built-up inland portions where one finds box stores and more basic necessities than those on offer at the duty-free shops along the wharves. Pothole-riddled roads strewn about the hills like haphazard silly string connect these clusters of homes. Resorts sprawl along the beachfront, while villas cling to the hills in varying levels of precarity, with only the steepest slopes remaining untouched.
Between the waterfront beaches and the hillside villas, a majority-Black, high poverty population clusters in cement apartment blocks or trailer-size homes along highways or tucked in the nooks of the hills. On my first full day, I go out for a spin to get used to left side driving and get momentarily lost in the back alleys of Charlotte Amalie. I bump around a maze through crumbling concrete homes, their paint chipped away, men shuffling around and sitting on stoops. Circling the islands’ roads makes me wonder if there are more broken vehicles than functional ones in the territory. Beauty and sorrow move in tandem.
The Virgin Islands are propped up by tourism, which, as is its wont, creates plenty of seasonal sales jobs but far fewer career paths or high incomes. Hurricanes Maria and Irma, which decimated Puerto Rico, also punished the islands and left part of L’Esperance’s great room temporarily roofless. The islands have weathered the pandemic well enough from a health perspective, but the economic toll took out the tail end of last year’s tourist season and has drastically altered the start of this one. No cruise ships ply the harbor this winter, and many of the tourist traps in Charlotte Amalie are shuttered. But life goes on; the usual regatta of sailboats and yachts dots the sea below me, and the rental car guy tells me their business has not suffered at all. Grocery stores conduct temperature checks, beaches close at four on weekends, and I retreat to the social distance of the villa.
Despite these travails, St. Thomas makes its way back to the dreamy lull of paradise. I’m told a hotel or two are still rebuilding, but I see no real evidence of the hurricane at haunts for tourists. Some of the locals’ homes are still looking pockmarked or covered in tarps, but the damage is quickly being paved over or fading away. The vegetation has come back with a vengeance. The lush tropics swallow everything back up, always growing but never really changing. Even the spurts of activity like the intense pandemic watchfulness come from an instinct to keep things as they are, not to change. The ecosystem reverts to stasis.
This is my sixth time in the Virgin Islands, a repeat destination made possible by the generosity of an aunt and uncle who own L’Esperance. The first visit came as a nine-year-old, back when they were still a little ways down the hill in a villa named Overlook, my first trip away from the U.S. mainland. I came again in high school and twice in college, and, most recently prior to this trip, as a first-year graduate student over New Year’s 2014-2015. This time I come alone.
The islands haven’t changed drastically over those twenty-two years. A few more villas and bigger cruise ships and a couple of new breweries, perhaps, but many places look as they did in my mind’s eye from the past. The temperature still oscillates in the same range of highs in the low 80s and lows in the mid-70s, days after day. The occasional unpredictable rainstorm erupts so as to reward us with some rainbows. Beaches remain beaches. The sea and cliffs still collide all around the islands, setting up those stunning views back from every angle. Scores of Americans arrive each year in search of the same things.
I, meanwhile, have changed. As a nine-year-old haunted by recent loss, I was content to ogle the views and the beaches and use this first trip into the unknown as a foundation for my fictional world-building. Later, on a return trip immediately after a semester in Mexico City, I felt like I’d gone right back: the people were Black and not brown and spoke English instead of Spanish, but the colorful, narrow streets and the gated outposts and the urban slums were just what I’d come to know south of the border. Now, as a working adult, I blur my worlds: remote worker, wilderness seeker, lover of a spontaneous party, amateur sociologist, history buff, single boy on a beach. My return to St. Thomas is a return to bliss, an escape I’ve had the great fortune to enjoy at times when life called for renewal or reflection and just a simple dose of fun. At the start of 2021, I come again for all those reasons, certain I’ll find it all because I know it’s all right here.
Roger Berkowitz of the Hannah Arendt Center uncovers a 1975 letter by a young senator from Delaware, one Joseph R. Biden, Jr., who wrote to Arendt asking that she send him a paper she delivered as a lecture at Faneuil Hall in Boston that year. Aside from being a fascinating look back at a world before recorded lectures and new perspective of just how long the Democratic nominee for the presidency has been in politics, it is a reminder of how little things can change. We don’t know if they ever had a full correspondence (Arendt died abruptly shortly thereafter), but if Biden ever did get his hands on “Home to Roost,” he would do well to reread this all-too-familiar-sounding diagnosis of Nixon era America.
In the interest of stirring the pot a bit, here is reliable provocateur Matt Taibbi tearing apart White Fragility, which has reached bestseller status in the wake of the George Floyd protests. It’s over the top and I have my beefs, but it made me think, so it can join the party here.
In the New York Times, Andrew Keh tells the tale of three high school graduates who are crossing the country by bicycle. Fresh off my own (far more modest) coronavirus era trip across the country, the emotions here resonated, though my experience was far less raw than that of these kids to date.
The New Yorker makes two contributions to this week’s edition, both on themes from the other pieces linked to here. The first, from Dan Kaufman on the election theme, travels to an area I know well: the Driftless Region of Wisconsin, long a rural blue holdout that swung Trumpward in 2016, and may be one of the keys to the 2020 race.
The second is a personal history by Jon Lee Anderson, a longtime New Yorker correspondent best known for his chronicles of famed Latin Americans. I’d always been vaguely intrigued to know how he came to cozy up with controversial figures so easily, and in reading this piece learned he’d give The Most Interesting Man in the World a run for his money. One we get past his casual account of his childhood spent wandering off in Africa for a few months on his own, he tells the tale of a journey to an island off Alaska in his early 20s, in which he pursued guided only by the allure of wealth from musk ox wool and a New Yorker article by Peter Matthiessen. You never know what reading an alluring piece of journalism will lead you to do. For Anderson, it meant a radical pursuit in an inhospitable wilderness…and provided a launching point into a lifelong mastery of prose.
Liking travel is among the most generic interests possible. Say you like to “travel” in your dating profile and I will find you basic, only a half-step higher than those who say they value “faith, family, and friends.” Of course you like to travel, but travel is a vehicle for other activities, and if your idea of fun travel means standing in a line at Disney World, it means something very different from clambering up peaks in the Sierras or blissing out at a Mexican beach resort or following an Egyptologist around the ruins of Luxor or sitting at a blackjack table in Vegas or—you get the idea. Travel can take many forms: fast or slow, repeated trips to the same destination or somewhere new every time, or themed trips like quests to knock out all of the national parks or ballparks or theme parks. The mere act tells me nothing about you.
When you say you like to travel, you are really trying to say something else: something about what you value, that you are not closed-minded or narrow person, potentially possessed of certain adventurousness or language skills or general competence in life. It’s also an easy conversation-starter, a likely source of an interesting story that may or may not reveal something interesting about the teller. We travel to say we’ve seen things that other people in our circles have seen (or, even better, have not seen) and make ourselves sound interesting at cocktail parties.
For the most cliched of reasons, we travel to expand our horizons. We go to gawk at beauty: the Grand Canyon, the California coast, the rawness of the Badlands, Lake Superior shores. We go to eat things and meet people, and sometimes we take instrumental travel, like extending a business trip by a day to drink in some local culture. Travel can test us, tell us new things about ourselves, whether we want it to or not. A friend of mine likes to draw a distinction between first-order fun, which is fun that is enjoyable in the moment, and second-order fun, which is not fun in the moment but does appear fun in retrospect. Because travel has a habit of committing itself to one’s memory, it comes to include not only frequent experience in the first category but also plenty in the second. If one is apt to spend one’s time thinking, it may give us some idea of who we are and where we come from, and distance from our mundane day-to-day reality may lead us to see things in new lights, ponder new courses, seek out other new destinations.
Sure, one can also achieve enlightenment in one’s own living room, as is necessary more often than not these days, but newness and difference and sensory overload are far more apt to inspire original thought than the same old drudgery over and over again. I have forgotten the happenings of probably about 350 days of 2018, but the remaining 15 all probably involve sports, travel, or both. Angel’s Landing has a way of lingering in one’s memory. If we’re the sort to record our daily thoughts in some form or another, it is these days that we’ll revisit most often, because the odds of it seeming interesting in retrospect are several orders higher than that of the random Tuesday in April when we went to the gym after work, went home, cooked some dinner, and binged a bit of TV before crashing.
Why this reflection now? Well, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. Aside from one drive up to Silver Bay and back, I haven’t gone more than twenty miles since one last work trip up to Aurora two months ago. Even on that venture, we knew it was all going awry: “Everything is going to shit!” one of the younger employees of The Hive, Aurora’s superb coffee shop, declared as she reported for work. One elaborate planned vacation went down the tubes, while I nervously check the latest on my scheduled July destinations for updates on openings and campground regulations. Postponed vacations are among the least sad consequences of the coronavirus, but their loss still diminishes the glow of life.
I am fortunate to live in a picturesque city equipped with enough green space that only in certain locations does it feel uncomfortable to recreate outside, even in the midst of a pandemic. Plenty of other scenic attractions are just a short drive away, and I have no worries of exhausting the list of good hiking destinations for each weekend. Travel, paradoxically, can make one more observant of one’s home: more apt to notice how something compares, how there are interesting details in every little neighborhood or jog of coastline. Those skills come in handy during a pandemic.
Even when not traveling, vicarious travel can help fill the void, if imperfectly. I buy the theory that planning a trip can be as much fun as taking one, especially with the resources now at the disposal of us hyper-planners who take care to nail down our locations in each campground or our cultural destinations in each city we visit and take a twisted pleasure in filling every second of every day with something. The key, then, is making sure we can adapt when expectations and reality do not align. A novice traveler plans everything and expects it all to happen that way; a real traveler sets plans knowing it will all go wrong but still loves it anyway.
Travel can also be metaphorical. Anyone who has been somewhere I’ve called home knows that, once I run out of other decorations, I just paper walls with maps. Maps are symbols, fictional representations of a complex reality, an attempt to capture a few useful aspects for useful human consumption. I like maps because they are attempts to understand a slice of the world, to transport and inspire some imagination without any of the cost or hassles of actual travel, and at their best are a form of art as well. But they also put up some guardrails. They tell us what is important and what is not. Some have edges and blank spaces that invite us to see what they hold, and even if we can now go into street view to see what things look like there, the sensory experience is still far short of reality. A good map invites more questions than it provides answers.
Digital versions of maps both expand and constrict our understanding of what they capture. We can zoom in and out endlessly, toggle on and off features that interest us much more easily than on the analog kind. But digital maps are also a crutch, a replacement for situational awareness if one chooses to rely on them for directions, and I am not infrequently stunned by the complete inability of people in my generation to know where anything is without first looking it up. Even for a rigid planner, travel is at its best when it allows for sensory awareness, the ability to drink in the entirety of our surroundings and react to them, to become one with them instead of flailing one’s way through them. Virtual reality can’t come close to that.
Travel for leisure is, effectively, a modern invention. Sure, Herodotus and Marco Polo went on epic journeys, but most of their ilk had ulterior motives, not discovery for its own sake. The very notion that there were new lands out there to discover was somewhat foreign for the medieval mind. Yuval Noah Harari calls Amerigo Vespucci, the man who got a few continents named after him, “the first modern man,” as he was the first explorer who had the courage to say he didn’t know where he was. He wasn’t in the East Indies; he’d found something entirely new, and the maps that followed his travels contained blank spaces for the first time. That willingness to admit uncertainty and go out and try to figure it out, so natural to us moderns, was a radical notion that emerged from the Renaissance, and while it is certainly tied up in all of the imperial and colonial adventures that followed, it is hard not to see it as a stunning human achievement.
For us late moderns, it’s become fashionable to doubt the idea of travel and discovery as something transformative: between technology and the relative ease with which one can (in normal times) penetrate every corner of the globe, it’s easy to presume we have no great discoveries left. We’ve reached the logical extent in the frontier theory of American history, and are now consigned to decadence and ennui. Travel has become a source of Instagram photos, a form of conspicuous consumption and privilege, subtle and not so subtle. Why deal with all the hassle?
Roger Cohen thinks we can still find that edge in our travels, though, and I tend to agree, and hope this virus will remind a few more people of the power of getting lost. Some of us are just plagued by wanderlust, hungry for new answers even though we know the new ones will probably just invite yet more questions and set us off down a spiral of discovery that Vespucci and his contemporaries kicked off over 500 years ago. This is a feature, not a bug: the quest is endless, and that hunger for discovery can continue to be a fountain of the creative thought we need to avoid tautological lives. May we soon be free to travel again, even if it means fewer crowded stadiums or bazaars and more idle strolls down cobblestone streets or nights in lonely tents. There is still more to see.