I’m often asked, “What’s your scariest travel experience?” The list is surprisingly long, considering I have a whopping two trips abroad – to England, not exactly No. 1 on anyone’s list of locations for the remake of The Year of Living Dangerously.
I grew up in Alaska, and our family drove the Alaska Highway about 14 times before we moved to the Lower 48. If the power-steering fluid in the station wagon wasn’t congealing in the -50 cold on the hairpin-turn descent into Whitehorse, the wheel bearing on the trailer was burning out in the heart of grizzly-bear country.
I shudder when I think of the times I had to strap a camcorder (one of the old, heavy ones) and an SLR to my back and climb a rickety ranger-station ladder to the top of a windswept tower so I could shoot panoramics of the world’s largest car show, or the times I would dangle half of my body out of a Piper Cub to shoot panoramic aerials of the Midwest countryside, or the time I climbed up to the top of Mount Rushmore and leaned out over Washington’s forehead to shoot more – you guessed it – panoramics. Whenever my kids ask why I’m scared of heights, I tell them I earned it.
(The other takeaway: In my next travel-writing life, I’m hiring a photographer.)
Having earned my fear of heights, and born with a hatred of rollercoasters, when I did a story on Montreal for Better Homes and Gardens I naturally wound up riding the world’s largest wooden rollercoaster at La Ronde, Montreal’s gorgeous island amusement park. I took my backpack on the coaster – you know, the backpack with all my money and tickets and itinerary and passport and of course, my camera. (So I could shoot panoramics.) After climbing aboard the coaster and being ratcheted up to clearly unsafe heights, I was catapulted waterfall-style over the precipice on wiggly, clattering tracks that could only have passed their last safety exam if the inspector was Gallic, blind, and exceedingly fatalistic, and then sent screaming around a 270-degree turn that obviously violated all laws of gravity and was certain to cause my gruesome death. After this sequence was repeated a number of times – it felt like 27 but was closer to three or four – I wobbled out of the car, leaving my backpack behind. It was many heart-in-my-throat minutes before my backpack and I were reunited, but it was only a matter of seconds after that before La Ronde and I were splitsville, never to reunite.
Actually, though, the most harrowing trip for me is all of them. I am a forgetful person, and that’s not a good quality for a traveler. In addition to the backpack in the rollercoaster I have left my wallet in a Philadelphia cab, the suit coat from my wedding in an overhead bin, gloves and hats all over North America, and real nice sunglasses in hotel rooms from here to Honolulu.
Because I know I’m forgetful, I spend much of my travel time worrying about what I’ve forgotten. I’m the guy who spends half of his flight zipping and unzipping pockets on his backpack quintuple-checking to make sure his ticket and wallet haven’t moved since the last time he checked – because, you know, these things move. At least they move for me.
This is the part of the piece where I’m supposed to say, “And based on my experiences, here are my top five tips for forgetful travelers,” but I don’t have five tips for forgetful travelers that will remove the fear of forgetting from the equation. All I have for you are some coping mechanisms – personal workarounds and not tips, and definitely not guaranteed to work for anyone else but me.
First, I eschew lists. If I make a list I invariably lose it, and then I’m in double dutch. I’ve known people who have had luck putting packing and to-do lists on their cellphones, but do you really want to hear my history with cellphones?
Next, I travel extremely light. The less I pack, the less I can lose or forget. Also, the fewer pockets the better. I have a photographer’s vest with a million pockets. When I wear it when traveling – and I often do – it takes five years off my life, because I know I stuck my ticket in my pocket, but which pocket? I’m way better off just having someone sew my ticket into my underwear.
In preparing for a trip I work ahead as much as possible, and I pack things when I remember them. When I went to the California coast in March, I started packing in January. My forgetfulness is inversely proportional to the amount of time I have before a trip, so if I start packing now my chances of forgetting something major are smaller. Besides, travel is about unexpected delights, and that includes finding that harmonica I packed five months earlier on the off chance that there might be a bonfire and someone with a guitar.
Once I’m actually traveling, I don’t bother telling myself not to worry; I go right ahead and worry. Worrying about forgetting things (as opposed to spending an entire trip scuffling in my backpack) actually encourages that heightened sense of awareness that’s so valuable when you travel. By not having the luxury of being a la-de-da, tune-out traveler I see more, I comprehend more, and I rarely get lost.
Finally, and most importantly, I married someone who is not a forgetful person. We don’t always travel together, but when we do she keeps the lists, she writes down the directions, and she doesn’t lose anything. That doesn’t make me feel better; not really. I worry about forgetting things as much as ever. The only difference is that when I forget things they’re not really forgotten.
I don’t think fear will ever not be a part of the equation when I travel. I continue to approach every trip like it’s going to be my most harrowing ever. (And I’m definitely buying AirCare.) I’m okay with that; I’ve come to equate fear with value and worthiness. Just don’t make me ride any more rollercoasters.