Now that I’m old and responsible, I realize I’ve gotten out of the habit of travelling.
Even before this new-found, so-called maturity, keeping me from the road were battles with various insecurities (housing, employment, steady income).
But prior to all this, in a glorious age of innocence and ignorance, I was pretty good at connecting dots, maximizing experiences and transforming strangers into lifelong friends. I was a traveller, a pilgrim, who could not help but journey into the unknown, finding in the foreigner a neighbor, and in the exotic, an abiding comfort.
So when my parents invited me to spend the holiday with them in Florida, I saw an opportunity to reclaim adventure. Previous insecurities had been shored up to such an extent that I had resources abundant enough to buy myself some freedom: a week-ish to make my way meanderingly from South Florida to New England by whatever means I might conjure.
Ironically, I’ve never travelled in my own country. This is, of course, not to say I haven’t taken trips, been in airplanes, stayed at hotels. What I haven’t done is ventured from here to there, itinerary-less, free to journey wherever and however whim and opportunity might allow. I have no idea why this is the case, except perhaps that there is no real infrastructure in America for budget travel which is perhaps an extension of the belief that a vacation is a luxury which must be bought for a price on the free market.
It was from the Greyhound bus station in Naples, Florida, that I first got the sense that “the things which I have seen, I now can see no more.”
“No, thank you sir, I’m not looking for drugs. Just waiting for the bus to Miami. Is that strange?”
Soon after my drug offer, a young stylish German couple were dropped off by an older man to whom they bid farewell warmly, but not particularly affectionately. Were they related to each other? Couchsurfing? AirBnB? Perhaps one of their parents had met this man 30 years earlier skiing in the Alps and now after a lifetime of hearing stories about their American friend they were finally meeting during this gap year?
I never asked them. My German’s bad. I don’t want to interrupt. They don’t want to talk to me.
Once on board and crossing Alligator Alley I gloried in the wifi (or as I and the French affectionately say, “weefee”), one of the unsung luxuries of domestic bus travel. I used the time to answer emails and work on projects. It felt good to accomplish these tasks and even better to have them to do, though they meant I did not read my book (Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War), research restaurants, or even look out the window at the Everglades, one of America’s most distinctive landscapes.
Upon arrival in Miami, I had done enough post-departure research to know I needed to catch the 150 bus to get me to the award-winning design hostel in which I had booked a bed for that night. I had not, though, gotten to the point of figuring out where or how or what. . .
My recognizable confusion caught the attention of a young Panamanian who quickly set me straight. We did not make plans to meet-up later as I once would have thought to arrange. It might be strange? I was worried about checking-in. I don’t need a side-kick.
Later I wandered the streets of South Beach, marvelling at the architecture and cosmopolitanism, but realizing I was not in possession of the tools to navigate the complexities of this landscape: What’s a trap? What’s a gem? Where/when are the best special menus? Is that hotel bar open to the public? This rooftop?
It takes some work to be able to answer these questions. I had intuition and the advice of bartenders at my disposal.
For dinner, I ended up at one of the new American outposts of the French bakery chain Paul with a sandwich mixte. Though technically foreign, Paul, did not offer adventure or newness, but rather comfort, the equivalent of hitting up McDonalds in Paris for a Big Mac.
Back at the hostel at a respectable 10pm, I met my bunkmates. A Swede and an Austrian, both au pairs for families visiting Naples from New York. They’d been given some time off for the New Year and came to Miami, like me, looking for something different. They invited me to the courtyard for drinks. I demurred. I’d been there earlier in the evening. Had books to read. The next day to plan.
And besides, “I’ve had that conversation before,” he said to himself with the dismissive confidence of experience, hardly recognizing the threat the incurious thought posed to his very way of life.