About a year ago, friends came over to our house for dinner. They brought along a hostess gift, a thick brown scrapbook, glossy covered and tied together with what looked like a brown shoelace. The scrapbook had belonged to a woman they had befriended eons ago — another life almost — back when they were in school and pandemics were events that had happened so long ago that everyone who was in one was dead by now.
The scrapbook painstakingly documented two months of European travel, beginning when Miss Alma Kirkeby of Denver embarked on a White Star line sailing ship, the S.S. Majestic. At the time, it was recognized as the world’s largest ship. The young nurse was joined by three friends, sisters Misses Mabel and Martha Ford, and Miss Janie, whose last name I can’t figure out from the printed booklet listing Passengers in Second Class.
That was June 23, 1928. The friends were about to commence on A Distinctive European Trip — according to a pamphlet detailing that fact. Professor Herbert A. Youtz of Oberlin, Ohio gave them the deets:
For “ten weeks and a half . . . [with] the choice of a rewarding and varied itinerary which we shall all feel could not have been improved for the limited cost and time. . . [you are part of] the selection of a group of travelers eager for the travel experience and eager to make the social life of the party a memorable adventure in friendship.”
The cost was $1,025, (roughly about $15,600 in 2021) which included everything except steward’s fees on the steamers. The women would travel to France, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Holland, England, Scotland, and Wales. Anyone else out of breath after reading that list?
Before they pushed off from American shores, the four planned to visit New York, including — according to James J. Ford of Denver, in a letter typed on translucent onionskin dated June 15, a must-visit attraction: Niagara Falls. Ford, likely Mabel and Martha’s father, prepared a Memorandum of Things To Do On The Trip.
Ford’s tone was stern: “Put your handbags, valuables, passports etc, on the seat under the mattress under your head. NOT on the mattress under pillow as they might slip out on floor. Don’t place too near the back or side as they might slip under the seat. Be careful.”
Throughout his missive, Dad rode shotgun, advising where to store luggage, how much to tip porters, Red Caps, and Bell Boys, and the importance of getting a refund of $8.40 from the ticket agent before having breakfast at the Falls. With a fatherly flourish, Ford typed an all-caps reminder: “PLEASE DONT GO TOO NEAR THE WATER OR ON THE ROCKS they are slippery.”
He then encouraged the foursome to “have the time of your lives,” declaring that once they get to the steamer, he “can go no further.”
Was there a lot of whooping and hollering with joy at this? I wish I knew, but while Alma memorializes the journey in her scrapbook, she expressed little to no emotion. There are menus from the ship crossing and menus from restaurants; postcards of sights seen; drink coasters; tour maps; concert tickets; pressed flowers and more. It is a pictorial testament that transports us to the past, to a time when European travel was a luxury few could experience.
Fast forward to 2021. We, the travel-starved since March 2020, have endured days of uncertainty, wondering when life might, or if, return to normal in the After-Times. We have with resignation acknowledged that travel is an evolving experience, encompassing the virtual, the actual, and someplace in between.
As I turned the pages of Alma’s scrapbook, pent-up emotion washed over me — a cocktail of loss, petulance, and frustration —, and before I knew it, tears threatened to drop on her almost 93-year-old travelogue. Fearing that I’d splotch and ruin this pictorial history of life lived fancy free, I closed the scrapbook and pondered the good old days.
But then I paused. These women took on months of journeying only eight years after the conclusion of the Spanish Flu pandemic, without vaccines or the science we rely upon today to keep us healthy. Seen in that light, they were intrepid adventurers.
Carefully preserved travel mementos raise a question: Are you a tourist or a traveler?
If you Google “travel,” at some point you’re bound to run into the tourist v. traveler debate. After distilling a number of these arguments, I’ve reached an understanding that:
- tourists plan their trips, often with the help of travel agents; travelers are footloose and fancy free, letting emotions and whims guide them;
- tourists stay in hotels, take cruises, and travel in group tours; travelers can most often be found sleeping in a tent or a hammock strung between two palm trees;
- tourists are fond of restaurant meals, particularly the expensive ones that require reservations; travelers will eat street food (and endure the consequences);
- tourists hail taxis; travelers climb mountains, often alone;
- tourists take selfies; travelers photograph the vibe;
- tourists visit the Taj Mahal; travelers skydive from the highest mountain;
- tourists go to Vegas; travelers seek out green, environmentally friendly locales;
- tourists buy souvenirs; travelers create memories
- Note: souvenir means a thing to help remember a person, place, or event
I preserve photos from our travels because they help me recall places and feelings, often providing a basis to write about the locale. Photos we’ve taken while traveling often figure in my blog posts and novels because I believe you have to visit a spot — and breathe in its very essence — before you can write about it.
The Queen of the night, a dragonfly pin, and that blue taffeta dress. . . A history of wedding dresses figured perfectly in my blog about my son’s marriage. Tight fit. Check. Zooming traffic all around. Check. My crazy human on a bicycle in Manhattan. You got it. There were rocks and stones aplenty in and around ancient Edinburgh, but none that seemed magically penetrable. Pastorale landscapes to help pondering. A scene at the edge of the world. Literally. France is food. Fish market, Ile-de-France. Second day of riding. It’s a bit easier, but still the hills are grueling. The friendliness of Santa Fe was best embodied by this Great Pyrenees. Happy dogs, happy people. Oakland Cemetery, dating to 1850, survived Sherman, the burning of Atlanta, and the Civil War. It may be one reason why people today hold weddings in front of these church-like mausoleums. These marble cats spitting water have been on my bucket list for some time now. It’s wonderful to see ancient art, up close and personal (along with all the other thousands of visitors at the Alhambra in Granada on any given day).
The truth is travel is an experience defined by the individual. For some, adventure happens only when it’s uncomfortable, for others, adventure happens each time you turn a corner. However you define your travels, they are mind-broadening, eye-opening, and if you want to live fully, one of life’s essentials.
Here’s to traveling wherever your heart leads you, and may that be as soon as possible.