By Tom Robotham
This summer, for the first time in a long while, I haven’t ventured outside of Hampton Roads. There are a number of reasons for that, a tight budget chief among them. If all goes well, I’ll wander farther afield in 2023. Meanwhile, I’m moved to reflect on past journeys.
Throughout my childhood, my trips were exclusively domestic—but they are memorable. I can vividly recall, in particular, summer drives with my family, in the early ‘60s, from our home in New York to Tallahassee, Florida, where my mother’s parents lived. Also imprinted in my memory is a cross-country road trip in our family Plymouth in 1968. For sheer variety, it was the richest I’ve ever taken. I can still picture the desolate landscape of the Mojave Desert, the surreal expanse of the Grand Canyon, the Magic Kingdom of Disneyland, and the enormous trees in Sequoia National Park.
I’m forever grateful for those experiences for ingraining in me the notion that traveling is an essential component of a life well lived. That said, there’s something limiting about childhood travel, when we’re at the mercy of our parents’ decisions. As I reflect on my personal journeys now, I’m more interested in those I’ve taken as an adult—those that afforded me absolute freedom.
This all began in May, 1979, when—a year out of college—my best friend, John, and I decided to go to England and Ireland to explore our respective family roots. I’d never even been on an airplane at the time, so the prospect of flying across the Atlantic was exciting in and of itself. We chose Laker Airways because it billed itself as “no frills” and was therefore unbelievably cheap. It was quite comfortable and efficient, nevertheless.
Other than booking the plane tickets, we had no plan whatsoever—no hotel reservations and no itinerary. After landing at Gatwick Airport, we took a train to Victoria station, strapped on our backpacks and started walking in a random direction. At one point, we stopped and asked a man on the street if he knew of any cheap hotels in the area, and he pointed us to one right around the corner. My recollection is that it cost about 20 pounds per night—approximately $30 at the time, which we split. Nothing fancy—two single beds and a small bathroom, but it was clean.
Then, as now, I like going to pubs when I travel, not just for the beer but for the local culture. At the first one we went to, I noticed “Scotch Eggs” on the menu. I had never heard of them but ordered two. One, as it turned out, was more than filling, and it struck me as the perfect pub food for someone like me—someone who often eats more for sustenance than for any culinary curiosity. Nevertheless, it was quite tasty, and I’ve always wondered why they haven’t caught on in American bars. At any rate, although I’m not even close to being a gourmand—or foodie, to use the current vernacular—the experience taught me that sampling local fare is one of the great pleasures of traveling.
After spending a few more days in London, highlighted by a magnificent symphonic concert at Albert Hall and a visit to the National Gallery—along with about 20 other pubs and dozens of miles of aimless wandering—we took a bus to Oxford. I’ve always been drawn to university campuses when I travel, and having read Brideshead Revisited, I was especially interested in this one. It did not disappoint. We lucked out, weatherwise, and the light that bathed the ancient buildings seemed every bit as dreamlike as that of Paris.
Interestingly, when I went back to Oxford in 2016, it seemed to have lost its magic. All the grand old buildings were still there, of course, but the general surroundings seemed disappointingly modern. Or was it that I had changed? Hard to tell, but therein lies another lesson of travel. If we’re fortunate, we encounter places when we need them most. I needed to be in Oxford all those years ago when I was fresh out of college and just beginning to cultivate my sense of identity as an aspiring intellectual. My dreams meshed perfectly with Oxford’s history—or my ideas about it.
From Oxford, we ventured on to Leicester, where my grandfather was born and raised. I still had cousins there at the time, and they were kind enough to put us up for a couple of nights—and, even more generously, drive us all the way to Liverpool two days later so we could catch a ferry to Dublin. While in Leicester, I saw the thatched-roof house where my grandfather was born and the old granite quarry where he worked as a stone-cutter. That is a special kind of travel, indeed—the kind that not only introduces us to new places but connects us with our roots.
Next, it was John’s turn. His people were from County Cork. Alas, my time was limited. I had a job to get back to. I did get to spend a few days in Dublin, and enjoyed it. Of particular note is a conversation we had with a couple of locals in a pub. We were there during the height of “the Troubles” in Northern Ireland, and though Dublin wasn’t really affected, it did occur to us that our ancestors—mine English protestant, his Irish Catholic—might have been at odds, had they known each other. John was especially conscious of his roots and ardently supported the IRA. When we brought this up with the locals, they laughed. “You’re Americans,” one said. “Nobody here cares about where your grandparents were from.”
After I left to head back to the States, John ventured on to Cork, then points south and west. When he returned, he told me of many other conversations he’d had about the conflict in the North. As a result, his views on the IRA had flipped. “I realized they’re just terrorists,” he said.
Another travel lesson: Sometimes journeys reinforce our fantasies, as mine did in Oxford; sometimes, they burst those fantasies. The important thing is to be open to whatever the experiences have to offer—the sights, sounds, tastes and conversations—and to let them wash over you as they will, rather than approaching them with expectations.
THE FOLLOWING YEAR, I took another trip—this time alone and in the States. My ultimate destination was Los Angeles, to visit a childhood friend, but I decided to explore San Francisco first.
As I look back on that trip, I’m amazed at how traveling has changed, due to the Internet, smart phones and other conveniences. Hell, I didn’t even yet have a credit card—just cash and Traveler’s Checks. (Remember those?) That and the address of the hotel I’d booked by phone at the corner of Market and Powell. I had no idea how I’d get there once I got off the plane, but I figured I’d deal with that when the time came.
Yet another gift of travel, especially solo: The ways in which it tests us and requires us to have faith in ourselves—and in other people. My entire stay was like that.
The morning after I arrived, I grabbed a city map at the front desk and set off on foot to find the legendary City Lights Bookstore. I had no other plans—I figured I’d just wing it.
When I got to City Lights, I browsed for at least an hour, imagining all the Beat gatherings that had taken place there. Finally, I picked up a few books and headed to the cash register. A disheveled old man (old, to my young eyes, at least) started chatting as he rang up my purchases. He ranted in particular about how unsafe BART (the transit system) had become and how City Hall was doing nothing about it. For some reason I didn’t take his warnings too seriously, but I was grateful for the local splash of color.
After leaving the bookstore, I stopped at a bar, ordered a beer and pulled out my purchases, one of which was new and selected poems by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. When I flipped the book over to the back cover, I saw his picture and my jaw dropped. The eccentric “old” man at the store was none other than Ferlinghetti himself. I’d never seen his photograph before—not a current one, at least—and he’d given no indication that it was his book that I was purchasing.
The pleasures of that first day, however, were just beginning. After walking all the way to Fisherman’s Wharf, I settled in at a restaurant and ordered crab-meat mornay. I’d never heard of mornay sauce—just ordered it on a whim. It turned out to be one of the best meals I’ve ever had in my life. On the way back toward my hotel I passed the Keystone Korner, a great old jazz club that closed a few years later: “Tonight:” the sign said. “Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.” Not gonna pass that up, I thought—and needless to say, I wasn’t disappointed.
It was the perfect end to a day that I’d spent improvising with just a loose plan, creating my own melodies over a few preconceived chord progressions, as it were.
And so, the next day, I decided to do the same—just walking in a different direction. I ended up spending a fair amount of time in Golden Gate Park, which, I concluded, was even nicer than my own Central Park, before heading onward. Finally, in late afternoon, I found myself on a high bluff overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge to my right and the Pacific Ocean in the distance. I sat down on the grass, pulled a joint from my pocket and began to smoke while taking in the magnificent view. The moment was a little bittersweet. In some ways I wished I had a companion with me to share it all with. That feeling passed, though, and gave way to a sense of awe at the vista—an image I carry in my mind to this day, as clear as any photograph.
I could go on. There’s no need to rehash more recent trips to the UK, Paris and Amsterdam, since I’ve already written about them in this space, but there have been so many others. Many were business trips for Hearst Magazines, from the late ‘80s through the mid-90s, and they were special in their own way—particularly because I got to stay in utter luxury on the company’s dime. Perhaps I’ll write about them another time.
It occurs to me, though, that those experiences were no better because of the first-class hotels and restaurants. Those are great, to be sure, and if I had the money I’d give the Ritz in Paris a try, next time I go there. When it comes right down to it, though, I think of what I truly value from my journeys: That first Scotch Egg, for sure, and that modest room in London; the sight of my grandfather’s thatched-roof house, and the quality of light in Oxford; the musty basement at City Lights, certainly, that crab-meat mornay and, of course, the view from that bluff. All of these things were either inexpensive or free—and yet, they remain invaluable.
The older I get, the more I cherish such memories with profound gratitude for the associated experiences. Nourished by these recollections, I don’t mind that I’ve been unable to venture very far this summer. The key, of course, is not to become too complacent—not to live in memories, exclusively, like so many people do as they age. Travel, after all, brings not only pleasures but growth—and reflecting on these journeys has deepened my hunger for more.