I know I am not a good traveler and I know I am getting worse as I age. I once derived great pleasure from visits to new places, encounters with new people, and plates of exotic new foods. But these days travel isn’t even mildly tempting. When I weigh the realities of transporting myself and luggage across unknown terrain against the familiar comforts of domestic bliss, bliss wins hands down. And that’s before even considering the indignities of airport security!
Not that any of that matters. My wife was going to New York City on a Monday to meet a business colleague. She suggested we both take the train up the Friday before and have a weekend getaway and, by the way, visit our daughter. The first time she suggested it, I resisted. She sweetened the deal by pointing out exhibitions on display at two museums. I couldn’t deny that one of those exhibits interested me quite a bit, but still I resisted. Eventually, however, bowing to the inevitable—and having no credible rationale for begging off—I finally caved.
Emerging from the Cave
I also suspected, deep down, that it might be good for me to emerge from my cave once in a while. I’ve read enough to know that leaving one’s comfort zone and taking on new challenges is good for mind, body, and likely, lifespan. Easy to say, hard to do.
We set out by train. Just to make it more interesting, we picked a weekend that coincided with a major snowstorm. Based on the predictions, we thought we could arrive and settle in before the blizzard struck. We were right.
By all outward measures, the trip was a great success. Our daughter, who has lived in New York for 10 years now, is a bona fide subway sherpa. Through the twisting underground caverns beneath Manhattan and Queens, she guided us skillfully to the museums, a movie theater, and two ethnic restaurants. Our accommodations, courtesy of a longtime friend, were convenient and comfortable.
On the inside, however, I was a wreck. Every moment brought another reminder that I was cut off from my familiar routines. Every moment was a direct confrontation with the unexpected and the strange.
Breakfast? We brought a substitute for my regular cereal, but not almonds to top it. I can have chai latte if I insist, but to get it I’ll have to trudge through snow-glazed sidewalks for three blocks to find it. Email? Yes, I can read it on my laptop, which I rarely use because it requires struggling with a funky, yet oversensitive, touchpad in place of a sturdy mouse.
We ventured out in sub-freezing temperatures. In our heavy boots we sloshed down semi-cleared sidewalks and stepped over low mounds of melting snow mush at each street corner. Always on the cautious side, we wore our masks outdoors. With slow, careful steps we descended icy stairs to subway stations. Once inside, we confronted multiple choice quizzes demanding immediate answers. Uptown Bronx or Downtown Brooklyn? How much is on my fare card? In fact, where is my fare card? Between gloves, cold, and rummaging through coat pockets with steamed eyewear, I managed to lose two fare cards in three days.
The constant barrage of sights, sounds, and decisions takes its toll. Half of my brain shuts down. I lose all sense of where I am and what I’m doing. I am tempest-tossed. I have to be led around by my companions like a horse wearing blinders. Luckily for me, my daughter knows the way, and my wife’s brain is of hardier stuff.
But of course I survive, nerves fried to a crisp but otherwise more or less unbroken. The other half of my brain is back in service, and I am safely ensconced in the coziness of my familiar cave.
Given the mental anguish of travel, it is far easier for me to hibernate in comfortable surroundings where I can perform all my OCD routines in their time and place. I also know that there lies early death. It is a trap. If I am to age well, I must have the courage to leave the cave sometimes, to connect with other people in real time. I know it is important to my mental acuity to be curious, to explore, to want to venture out, to refuse to be satisfied with the familiar and the proven. Yet that is exactly that which I crave—at least, at this moment. I want to sit still until the world stops spinning, until every moment stops posing a fresh challenge of the unknown. I need time to restore equilibrium.
Then once I feel solidly on terra firma again, perhaps I will be ready to venture out. But not another major travel excursion right away. We could begin small, with a trip to the grocery, a visit to an old friend, a walk in the park. Like Thoreau, who was well traveled in Concord, I can find a multitude of curiosities close to home.
My spiritual adviser has suggested a breathing technique to ease the overwhelming feelings when I feel overstimulated. I will practice it to use when I can summon the courage to travel again.
In fact, I need to summon it by April, when my wife has booked us on another trip.
Don Akchin’s third act career is publishing The EndGame, (https://theendgame.substack.com/), a newsletter and podcast about positive aging with joy and purpose. His previous careers included newspaper reporter, magazine editor, marketing communications writer, marketing executive, and communications consultant for nonprofits. He resides in Baltimore, Maryland.