It’s on the warm end of a cloudless October morning. I’m riding a ferry from the end of Rhode Island to an island with a year-round population of about 1,000. I’m sitting beside the window, feeling my heart begin to race with that precipitate giddiness I used to feel when I’d traveled between university terms.
I remember this feeling from sitting on top of a broke-down castle in Scotland, driving 150 km/h through the countryside curves in France, finding my way through back alleys and mazes of laundry lines in Italy. I couldn’t have been more exhilarated if skywriting had appeared outside my window, tracing words like “wonder!” and “magic!” and “passion!” in an ephemeral haze against the endless.
Across from me, a grizzled man in a knitted hat clears his throat loudly, then resumes his task of spreading mustard on a hot dog.
It strikes me this is just a regular day for him. No matter how magical I find the pale white pelt of sun lying across the bay, he’s seen it every day for who knows how many years, and he’ll see it again tomorrow, if the weather’s nice. Which it might not be — it could be rainy and grey. He’s taken this hour-long ride in all kinds of weather, I imagine. He’s eaten a lot of hot dogs to tide himself over. He’s probably fallen asleep more than once, but I’ll lay money his body knows exactly the moment to wake him up when the ferry reaches its moor.
That’s how it was for me, when I lived in New York. I’d get on the subway at Park Slope and four stops after crossing the Manhattan Bridge, some Pavlovian instinct would jolt me awake, no matter how gentle a stop the train made. (“Gentle,” of course, is a relative term when it comes to the NYC transit system.)
At what moment, I wonder, does magic become mundane? I was so thrilled to live in New York City until suddenly, it wasn’t thrilling anymore. One day, I could spend the whole train ride straining for a glimpse of forgotten graffiti on the tunnel walls; the next day, I was snoring my way through it.
This is my first time riding this ferry, and going to this island. I’m glad, relieved even, this magical feeling hasn’t been entirely chased away by years of life on the road, and the many, many moments of despair and loneliness and annoyance that come with it.
The fact is, I also got lonely, cold and hungry in those travels during school. I remember crying on the phone to my mom in a hotel room, and hearing her confused voice on the other end, “But I thought you wanted to go there?” (Bless her heart, she didn’t play the “I told you not to go” card.) I remember the conflict I felt at her words.
Yes, I wanted to go, and yes, I want to stay until the plane takes me away. But right now, with one thing and another, it’s really really hard to be here.
No matter how magical Venice, Paris and Edinborough were, I felt the gnawing anxiety of missing trains and boats and planes. I’ve wondered feverishly if I would make it out of a dangerous neighborhood with my virtue and my credit cards intact. I’ve had dark, drowning realizations that not a damn person in the world could be counted on to help me, if I lost my way.
That deep loneliness is at the bottom of every fear…that maybe we’re really all on our own and nobody will be there to help us.
Here’s what’s weird: the flip side of that fear is exactly the exhilaration we long for when we travel. The thrill of the unexpected. The rarefied air of risk.
We want to get away from everything and everyone we know. But at moments, it’s very hard to be there. Away.
What makes it so much easier to get through the hard times in travel, and remember only the magic, is that we know it’s finite. Summer break will end; the vacation hours will dissipate. As a result, we intuitively choose not to focus on this light and momentary suffering. Soon, it will all be over, and we’ll have only memories.
Where as daily life, in this job or this city or this marriage, is infinite. We’ll be doing it a long, long time.
…Or will we?
For the first year of living and working on the road, I was terrified. Every failure felt like the end. Every threat felt like certain death. And every magical moment felt like the dawning of the age of Aquarius.
It was really hard to get any work done.
Now, at the end of my second year…well, I’m still scared. And I’m still exhilarated. But neither of them throw me for a loop, the way they used to.
What changed? I realized I could be doing this a long, long time…but maybe not. Certainly, not forever.
Today is worth getting exhilarated by. It’s also worth buckling down and getting to work.
I feel a kinship with the guy with the hot dog. It’s nice to have a good day on the sea, but at the end of the ride, there’s work to do.
The guy licks his fingers. I tap busily on my computer.
But I sit where I can see the water.