On Monday, my official spring break starts. As a college professor and a parent, spring break has meant a week out of the classroom, and sometimes if we’re lucky, a chance to see something of the world. But travel in our household also comes with great uncertainty; uncertainty because my husband is an airline employee which means mostly we fly standby to a place we didn’t expect. This year, we’ve contemplated Paris and Puerto Rico, with fleeting dreams of Istanbul, Barcelona, Mexico, and for one short night we talked about the possibility of Prague. All of this imaginary travel means hours on the Internet, books borrowed from the library. I’ve planned more trips than I’ll ever live to take, and when Sunday comes, I can’t tell you where we’re going, or where we will be staying, or what it will be like; I only know the pet sitter will arrive and my journey will begin.
“Isn’t that nerve-racking?” people ask. “All of that unknown?”
And of course, it absolutely is. Every year, I long for a vacation of stability, a chance to buy a ticket, book a regular hotel room with our destination known, arrangements set, maybe an umbrella on a beach, or one of those luxurious blue pools I admire in the pictures. But then I think about the fabulous surprises: our sudden week in Nice, the blue doors of Delft, the village in the French alps with the beautiful canals—and my adventure-self comes to life again, suddenly I’m ready to set out with nothing but a suitcase and the faith that we’ll end up someplace worthy in the end.
I suppose it’s mostly temperament, how much unknown anyone can take, and maybe it’s the years I’ve clocked at writing, embarking on so many novel-journeys with no sense of what’s ahead, that makes this kind of travel possible for me.
“Isn’t that nerve-racking?” people ask when they hear about my writing. “All those years of working without guarantee? Spending all that time on a book that won't be published? Tossing out two hundred pages at a time?"
And in truth, it absolutely is. Some day I’d like to write a book I could predict; a book where all the twists and turns were known, a book without the messy detours, the missteps, the characters that turned out to be flat, the plot that petered out. I’d like to sit down at that blank page that marks every beginning and know exactly where I’m going, when and where it will be published, the reviews that will be written, how many copies will be sold. Better yet, I’d like the book to write itself while I sit beside the pool sipping fruity drinks. And I’d like it to be perfect. Is that too much to ask?
But then I think about the story trips I’ve taken: The day I met Gray James, first saw his old guitar, heard the shy, sweet way he asked Raine to take a walk. I think of Pride and Nightingale and Baby setting up their souvenir shop, or Faina McCoy seeing her first snowfall. I think about Justine’s secret letters in that drawer, how broken Old Finn was the day I finally found him in Duluth. I think about the orphans coming to the Arts Extravaganza, watching Raine dream Lyman into life. I think about the summer nights I swam under the stars, the turtle pond, the way Sparrow Road smelled like candle wax and lemon. Unexpected destinations every one. And I think about how glad I was to be there, to meet the story people, to enter their new world. The thrill of unplanned travel.
Now my husband interrupts to tell me about Arles. Aix-en-Provence. He’s found six flights a day we could take from Paris. Maybe they’ll have space. “That’s where Justine was,” I say, “when she wrote those secret letters to Old Finn.” Maybe next week I’ll land in southern France and see them for myself—the greens and golds and blues she loved so much. “Sounds great,” I say, reaching for the guidebook, hooked again on all the possibilities ahead.
In travel and in story, it's the mystery that gets me every time. It's why I pack my suitcase, and why I sit down at the page; it's why I travel through the story-dark with the heart of an explorer, a modern day adventurer convinced that some amazing wonder is waiting up ahead.