Many happy returns

by Eric Lucas

Oh, how I love new places, new tastes and smells and sights and sounds. Just this year, I have discovered hot, amber sabia chiles in Tucson, peaceful historic beguinages (cloisters) in Bruges, the warm chartreuse water of Kanaka Bay in British Columbia, the mind-bending apocalyptic canvases of John Martin in London.

Love, love, love. But.

While we’re admiring the snazzy glamour of new discoveries, let me bring on stage the simple wonder of happy returns.

It was while visiting Tucson last week, dipping into the pool at dawn with my wife Leslie, that I had second thoughts about the siren song of newness. Not second, exactly; call them revisionist or retrospective. I was enjoying something I have often done before, in the exact place I had been many times. Hundreds of times, in fact, have I slipped into this exact pool, which is framed by subtropical plantings and the stern, cactus-clad heights of the Santa Catalina foothills behind, burnished by the fierce, loving sun of the Sonoran Desert.

A morning breeze feathered the mesquite fronds of the desert woods just yards away. A hummingbird buzzed by. Spent bougainvillea blossoms laid their vermilion origami on the surface of the water. A Gila woodpecker whacked a roof tile. The summer-warmed water was 85 degrees, both cleansing and comforting. Tendrils of overnight thundershowers curled by nearby escarpments, and the monsoon humidity lent the air a silken touch.

“Doesn’t this feel like Tobago?” asked my wife.

It did. Years ago, in the full bloom of courtship, we spent a few luxurious days in a private villa on the Caribbean island, swimming when we pleased in languid waters beneath a cotton sky. At dawn, at dusk, under the moon.

So that morning in Tucson we were savoring the warm bread of familiarity, renewing our appreciation for an experience we have enjoyed many times, and will surely seek many more. In Tucson, perhaps back in Tobago one day, maybe in Hawaii or Belize or Bonaire or Mexico, all places we have been and loved and swum in soothing waters.

This is the opposite of adventuring. The modern, spasmic philosophy of travel seems to be to set foot in new spots as much as possible. There are about 190 countries—why not see them all? Adventurers sky-dive over the South Pole and swim the Arctic Ocean; chase whales in Alaska and bike across Asia. Good for them. At least they are not invading silly Mideast countries or trafficking narcotics, but I think their haste turns real appreciation into a sort of corrosive gulping that fills the wrong belly. Oh, I’ve done that (Leslie chides me for my habit of collecting countries), and in fact my profession, travel writer, demands it. “Eric, we’ve published a dozen articles by you on Western Canada,” editors grump. “Try something new.”

Which I often do. But now I’m discovering the sheer joy of renewing old acquaintances. This year I have napped beneath the willows of my favorite fishing stream in the wilds of Oregon, and saw the evening star rise over the same mountain ridge over which I have watched it for 10 years. In May I made a point of returning to one of my favorite urban vantage points, London Bridge on the Thames. I’ve ridden my bike along a pine forest trail I ride every September, and each turn on the trail and copper-red pine greets me as I do it.

This whole process is akin to my adventures in iTunes, or to the life schemes of homo sapiens. We are meant to simultaneously broaden our horizons, ever and always, or else we’d all, such as there might be of us, still be chasing dik-diks across the Serengeti. And yet we also continuously reaffirm our love for what’s constant, harvest one more time the same fruits as last year. Music offers an apt analogy: I might not listen to Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #5 for a year, but one day I’ll be working and my iTunes catalog will cycle into it, and I am stunned by the simple, breathtaking beauty of the 2nd movement therein. An hour later, John Denver strikes up the plaintive notes of “I Guess He’d Rather Be in Colorado,” and my own hands halt their key-pecking.

Yes, I have a place I return to in Colorado. I don’t have to rather be there, because I do go there, regularly, to savor the scent of rain on dusty sage and the butterscotch of October cottonwoods, which I have done every autumn for 40 years. No matter where I live.

I love my home. It’s where my garden grows and my love works at real bread at our stove. I treasure equally the reassuring, soul-filling joy of going back where I have been, all the lovely places and scenes that have embroidered my spirit. I don’t know if I’ll ever give up on the search for the new—it is the spice of travel—but I am sure I’ll never cease the going back. One day I suppose I’ll be down to only wishing for just one more time back in Hawaii, or London, or Arizona; and then the memories of all the returns, the birdsongs and moonrises and hand-holdings in sun-warmed water, will still come back in my heart.

 

Eric Lucas lives in Seattle and writes for MSN/Bing, AOL, Michelin Guides and Alaska Airlines Magazine, among others; learn more at his outspoken website, www.TrailNot4Sissies.com.

photography by smaehl/istockphoto.com and Eric Lucas.

 

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