On The Road, Reluctantly
The soothing splendor of gardens and art helps get past the hassle of travel
I'm not fond of travel; never have been. I'd rather not leave my family, my dog and my garden. And I don't understand why so many people subject themselves to the discomforts and delays, even humiliations, of airline travel, just to get somewhere else.
Mostly I love books about other people's journeys and have spent a great many hours, safely at home, reading Paul Theroux.
Yet this past year has been my perfect storm of travel, a confluence that began with an invitation to visit friends in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. I thought about how much it rains in Seattle in January and gratefully accepted. Then I had a book published in February and realized, to my horror, that my publisher expected me to go to the East Coast and California to promote it. Then it just so happened that my niece was studying in Edinburgh last spring. My son, two days older than his cousin and her lifelong friend, was game to visit. It was a chance for me to join in celebrating their 21st birthdays in a European city famous for its gardens. I booked yet another trip.
Unwilling tourist that I am, I ended up getting on and off airplanes 14 times between January and May. My plan to compensate myself was to squeeze in as many gardens and as much art as I possibly could.
The first trip, in late January, was to San Miguel, a colonial city reminiscent of Rome but on an intimate scale. San Miguel's narrow, cobbled streets are lined with galleries featuring all manner of art from fine to folk. The russets, lavenders and hot pinks of the plants and architecture warmed our bones and cheered us up after months without sunshine. The concept of roof dogs was new to me; the city's many watchdogs hang their heads over the parapets to bark at passers-by.
Everywhere are bougainvillea, cactus, palms and succulents that make your head spin with delight. On Candelaria Day, a plant marketplace held the first weekend of February, vendors from all over the state of Guanajuato display a stunning variety of plants.
While San Miguel seemed a place out of time, getting there was all too new millennium. The Continental flights, first to Houston, then to Leon, were late, long and uncomfortable, with surly flight attendants and no meals.
A month later, my Alaska flight to Los Angeles sat on the runway for an hour while the crew "caught up on paperwork." After we finally took off, a passenger suffered an acute anxiety attack (perhaps from being stuck on that stuffy plane). The flight attendants were efficient and kind, gave her oxygen and followed up with strawberries from first class.
Out of all my many flights, those on British Airways were the most pleasant, with friendly crew, decent food and individual movie screens. Yet none of it made up for the chaos that is Heathrow Airport, with construction, acres to travel between flights and security lines from hell. No, you don't have to take your shoes off, but here purses are included in the single-carry-on rule. No matter how many signs they see, women never believe it, so their last-minute scrambling to stash their purses slows down the long, long lines. Heathrow was so crazy it took our entire three-hour layover to negotiate it.
But my garden-and-art plan almost made the travel worthwhile. The newly reopened Getty Museum in Malibu retains its elegant courtyard gardens, many paved in original mosaics. And spending hours in the leafy gardens and sophisticated galleries of the freshly rebuilt de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park was well worth the flight to San Francisco.
I was lucky enough to arrive in Washington, D.C., at the peak of cherry blossom bloom. Because we have plenty of cherry trees here in Seattle, I'd always wondered why the Tidal Basin site was so hyped. Now I know — the mass of trees nearly drown that end of the city in an ethereal haze of pink. Truly, a site unlike any I'd seen before.
Edinburgh delighted me so much I felt as if it was a personal discovery, despite so many travelers enjoying it before and all around me. It's a surprising mix of stylish young people and businessmen wearing kilts with their coats and ties, all overlooked by an ancient castle. I spent happy hours at the meticulous Royal Botanic Garden, watched the daily penguin parade at the zoo, strolled the length of the sunken urban gardens below Princes Street.
At the Writer's Museum in Old Town I read the words of Edinburgh's famed literary son, Robert Louis Stevenson, who died in Western Samoa 10,000 miles away from home. After months of travel, awed by this most atmospheric of cities, I could at least grasp a little of Stevenson's sentiments. He wrote:
"For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly, to come down off this featherbed of civilization."
This year? I'm staying home and reading Stevenson.
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "A Pattern Garden." Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.