On Imagining Travel

I woke up this morning* to a world bathed in white light. Snow, several inches thick, covered everything – the roads, the roofs, the wires, the trees — a shock after the balmy weather of last week. I’d already traded in my cross-country skis for my bike, received a pile of freckles, and even planted a few seeds (indoors). Winter had gone, spring was coming. But the topography of my world has changed overnight. It’s almost unrecognizable, like something in a dream.

As I walked around the block with my husband this morning, each of us pulling a sled behind us before the sidewalk plow passed, I could almost convince myself that the reason there was no traffic was because of the snow. It’s just the return of our Canadian winter, right? It’s the inclement weather that has prompted the closing of schools,  universities, and daycares. That’s why so few people are driving on the roads, I tell myself. That’s why everyone’s working from home. Taking a holiday, even, cozying up. But the eeriness of the empty streets is like no holiday I’ve seen.

It only requires the memory of two days ago, when it seemed the entire community was out walking, for me to feel the reason deep inside of why this is. It never really leaves. As those in my community walked the city streets that day, crisp but sunny, we all gave each other an uncomfortable amount of room. To pass someone on the sidewalk, you transferred to the road. Friends walked along beside each other six feet feet apart. If you happened to accidentally get closer than that to someone who was approaching, you held your breath as you passed. I discovered it was a luxury to be walking so close to my husband, not two feet apart. When I spoke to neighbours outside, our voices ricocheted off the walls, too loud, too distant, several meters — and self-contained worlds — apart.

No, this disruption of our lives is no snow day.

During this time of social distancing, self-isolation, and quarantine, a lot of people have posted about reading. Curling up with a good book sounds perfect. At least, in theory. But I admit I’ve found it difficult to concentrate on anything, other than updates, which I’ve discovered myself obsessing over, my whole sense of purpose being swept away as I’m sucked into the need to know.

As someone who was already at home, the shape of my world has not changed very much. And yet, it has shifted in place, the way snow covers a spring thaw. It’s the slant that’s changed. The way birds are singing spring songs through a world of whiteness; the way dark corners of my home are lit by the brightness of reflected snow, only possible in deep winter usually. It’s the juxtaposition of things occurring in a way which never should. The rhythm of my internal life has been interrupted in a way my brain cannot wrap a thought around.

Except in the past few days, a few thoughts have come through.

I’ve begun to read books I had started (some, from the library, before it closed). I’m reading again Jane Brox’s book (who I blogged about earlier) Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light.

I’ve also been listening to an audiobook (a recent activity for me) of John Muir’s Wilderness Essays, all about the wonders of exploring glaciers and icebergs.

And I’ve been reading other occassional essays (which is probably no surprise, if you’ve been following my blog).

But I also very recently (as in, yesterday), began another book, Seven at Sea, by Erik Orton and Emily Orton, a memoir, written by this husband and wife team who left their New York City apartment and sailed with their five children for several months. I’m not far into it yet, but I’ve already felt how timely a book it is for me right now.

I’d happened upon a video they made only a few days ago while they are self-isolating in NYC with their children, and sharing what they’d learned during their time in closer quarters with their family on the boat, to help others now during this Covid-19 pandemic. Their message was of routine over schedule. Of each member of the family identifying the things which grounded them, determining the things which make them feel like their day was successful, and then centering their everyday lives, each day, around these things.

For me, cycling has grounded me. Since beginning social-distancing, I’ve made it a point to go out cycling every day, except Sunday (and then, we went on a walk). I invite my family to come with me. Our loop takes us three quarters of an hour. Yesterday, venturing to another region of the city, we were gone for two hours. We turned around because of the cold, but really, I couldn’t stomach the growing sense of uneasiness of being so far from home when the city was so void.

Uncertainty is imbedded in the title Seven at Sea. As I’ve struggled to identify how the sweeping changes of this pandemic have affected me, “at sea” is perhaps the best way to put it succinctly. At sea, in my own home. Sometimes, even, on my bicycle.

During this time, I’ve felt the need to determine what’s important, to let the rest fall away. Perhaps as businesses and services close all around me, as the government determines what is essential for its citizens, I too, am doing a reappraisal of the essential in my own life. As I’ve read the beginning chapters of Seven at Sea, these ideas are expanded. Emily writes,

“What could I subtract from my life to make it better? Adding was difficult. . . . Subtracting could be simpler. I started by subtracting toys instead of adding storage containers. [We] . . . kept what mattered most. Our apartment felt bigger. I was learning to curate my space.”

She goes on to “curate [her] calendar, too.” These are not new ideas, of course, but somehow the way she expressed them was revelatory to me. This preparation all happened well before the Orton family did the unconventional feat of sailing with five children for almost a year.

I don’t know that I’ve ever had the inclination to sail around the world, but their adventure does tap into the vein of another dream of mine, which is of bicycle touring. In fact, in the midst of social-distancing/self-isolation, I’ve been dreaming of cycling.

Over the past week and a half, I haven’t merely been cycling around the neighborhood. No, I’ve been on tours in my mind, future cycling trips I’d like to take. Having already gone on several smaller tours, the longest a six week one, I’ve already learned on my bike a bit about what is essential: bringing exactly what’s necessary, and leaving the rest behind. You carry — and feel — the weight of all you bring.

I got on my bike again late this afternoon, the sun slanting the light. The snow had almost completely melted away, and there remained just a few splinters of ice looking like broken glass on the road. So I was careful.

As I rode, I observed my surroundings. One of the things I love about bicycle touring is how it affords the perfect vantage point, a midway between the speed of driving and the details of walking. Others had come out to enjoy the warmth as well. A parent with a child. A family of four. A father with a stroller. An elderly couple, linking arms and shuffling with canes. I realized that almost without exception, everyone I saw together were families.  At what other time would I ever see this?

I passed by the synagogues which had been closed for days, as had the churches. All places of business except essential services will be closed as of midnight tonight. We all work and worship from home now.

As I rode, I don’t see them all, but know that they are there: the gyms and pools, movie theaters and shopping malls, all closed. Even the salons. The parks and playgrounds, too.   (In a city in which the majority of its residents live in apartments, this is the most difficult one.) These, I do see. As I ride by, the yellow and black tape flutter “DANGER” across the park entrances which I used to enter. Now, I stick to the road.

With all the other public places to recreate closed, people have come to the one public space which has not yet closed: the streets. Two siblings throw a ball back and forth. A boy launches a basketball at a netted backboard, the street his court. Two youths stop their soccer game so I can pass. A grown man takes a few slap shots into the hockey net he’s dragged out onto the asphalt. Families playing in the streets. I suppose I am one, too, riding with my own essentials in the bike trailer behind me.

Somehow, I used to think I needed to live my dreams before having a family, dreams which I’d pursued in my twenties and into my thirties, before settling down. But I’ve held onto the dream of cycling again, longer, and to different destinations, even after my circumstances have changed. For the most part, I quietly tuck this dream away.

But it rises to the surface on occasion. Like after I met a couple a few summers ago who were bicycle touring with their daughter, her choice of a final vacation before college. Or, as I’ve cycled around my neighborhood during this pandemic.

Living in a place where we’re now only permitted to be in close proximity to those in the same household, I’m dreaming in a new way. Yes, I’m dreaming of a day I can travel again. (What luxuries we had before, we did not know.) When I can fit everything that’s essential into my panniers and ride, surrounded by those who are essential to me. But that future day can also be now.

Following one of their first episodes on the boat, Emily reflects, “We were going to be okay. I may not be a great sailor, but when it comes to our family, I know which way the wind is blowing.”


*This post written March 24, 2020.

Photo courtesy of Kate Prince, 2012.