CLEVELAND, Ohio — Without a building or human in sight, we arrived at a fork on a woodsy trail with no idea where we were going, for which we were grateful. A serendipitous choice passed through a patch of red and yellow leaves still dangling in November, perhaps just waiting for these two world travelers, thankful even for the slightest sense of being lost in Berlin.
No, not that Berlin. Germany and all the other countries of the world are off the discovery charts in this self-protective year of 2020. Instead, we were exploring a ridge of trails about an hour’s drive west of Cleveland in Edison Woods MetroPark in Berlin Township, Erie County.
What a lifestyle change this year has been, without travel.
Nearly every week for the past 37 years, the focus of my work and life was travel, the first 24 as travel editor of The Plain Dealer and more recently as a freelance writer. When I wasn’t writing about travel, editing other writers’ stories, planning presentations, talking with friends and readers about their vacation issues, or researching and arranging my own travel, I was in the air, on the road on one of six continents (visiting more than 120 countries), or at sea on one of an estimated 150 cruise trips. My daughter says that she pictures me, as she grew up, with a notebook in my back pocket. Much of the time I was coming home or going somewhere, and wherever we traveled as a family, I was working a newspaper or magazine travel story.
Along came COVID-19. One day the virus was a foreign curiosity; the next, it seemed, the virus might be in the air we breathed, every surface we touched. Fear and loathing attacked us all, in different ways. For me, my work and lifestyle disappeared in February as if someone had switched off the lights.
Still, my writer wife and I were fortunate that we didn’t get caught up in the cruise ship virus spin. Our travel ended just as the virus appeared. We flew home from Miami after disembarking from perhaps the only cruise ship that never reported a known case of coronavirus. (Earlier, on a trip West, I caught a serious, lingering bout of flu but so far have no COVID-19 perceptible damage).
Since then, we have not boarded an airplane nor a ship, not a bus nor a train, not a taxi nor a tram. Frequent restaurant goers, we have not ventured inside an eatery since early March, though a bunch of local restaurants know our names well from continuing takeout orders (with a generous tip for beleaguered servers).
These past 10 months, mostly in isolation, have been a serious test of resilience, patience and flexibility. Masked, we keep socially distant, which is such a big distance from our normal lives of riding on public transportation, walking in crowds, attending meetings and lectures, museums, concerts, ballgames, interviews, talking to people we know and don’t know – strangers on the street, on the plane, in taverns, cafes, restaurants, coffee and noodle shops in cities and hamlets all over the world.
I miss the closeness of connecting with fellow travelers, even simple smiles and nods of recognition as we wait in passport lines to enter a country far from home. I miss the kindness of strangers that appears naturally among worldly travelers on the road – and from locals I encounter along the way. I’ve gotten quite good expressing myself non-verbally when I don’t know the language.
Now, I despise my wariness of anyone within 6 feet, especially people without masks who arouse my suspicion about their seriousness in not spreading their potential or real virus toward me.
I miss the anonymity of walking for miles in a foreign city, attempting not to stand out too much (although people all over the world easily recognize Americans because of our fashionable dress and our image of moving and talking so confidently as if, they sometimes complain, we owned the place). I miss mixing with foreign cultures, tasting their food, noticing their styles and odors. I miss the sea, the roll of the ocean, its spray, its squalls, its night sky, and the sound of wind.
Zooming with friends, family and colleagues has made talk and eye contact possible, though Zoom is no replacement for the lack of warmth and hugs from my children and grandchildren.
My wife, Fran, and I walk a lot – close to home around the Shaker Lakes and recently at the Cleveland Cultural Gardens in Rockefeller Park, which I had driven past for 50 years and now have thoroughly toured. In Cuyahoga and surrounding counties, we have explored an abundance of nature trails, as well as wildlife refuges in marshes along the shore of Lake Erie. Using online maps to make a plan offers some satisfaction as an alternative to the missing, more complex travel preparations. Local trails provide a tingle of joy from walking unknown paths.
For drives farther into the countryside, Fran bought a light-weight portable potty that we store in our car, setting it up behind a tree in a roadside park. The potty is easy to use, with foldout seat, legs and disposable bag. For such occasions, Fran dons a muumuu (a long loose dress from Hawaii), which is an image that has created some mirth among friends and family. One friend suggested a YouTube production, but so far we have declined.
Our biggest excursion mistake was visiting a popular trail in Cuyahoga Valley National Park during a warm, sunny weekend. The trail we chose turned out to be crowded. We masked and dodged people until we climbed a set of about 40 steps, which were steep and too narrow for people to pass. As I neared the top, breathing heavily, I realized that more than a dozen people, most without masks, stood in a crowd, waiting for us to arrive so they could walk down the steps. Suddenly, I felt foolishly trapped, sharing their air and consuming it in massive amounts of deep breathing. As I hurried up the last two steps and through the crowd, I promised myself that I would not return on a weekend. My new favorite days for exploring Northeast Ohio are Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.
Someday, probably in 2021 if vaccines work, normal travel will resume. I will wait until I am safe, and others are safe from me. I expect to carry a protective mask with me, perhaps forever. For decades I have been careful about what I ate and touched, washing hands often and paying attention to my health. I suspect all of us will be more careful in the future, now that we have learned how vulnerable we are, not only to bacteria but also viruses. COVID-19 has taught us that whatever is exhaled in China could find its way to our neighborhood tavern in a matter of months.
I am not finished with world travel. So much of who I am, what I know and feel about life outside my comfortable American bubble has been a gift from travel. I realize that most people in the world are just trying to get through the day, focusing on food, clothing, shelter, and, if they are fortunate, love, gratitude and a sense of spirituality.
Images are burned into my memory bank: An evening of Hindu services on the Ganges of India; a Bedouin woman, sequestered from the men having tea with her father, sneaking a peek at me from the back flap of the family tent in the desert; tales from a guide in Vietnam, a boat person who never made it to America; entering East Germany as the wall and Soviet Union fences came down in November 1989; two boys from Iraq sweeping away donkey poop at the entrance of Petra in Jordan, laughing with me and pointing at the front page of my International Herald Tribune with pictures of their Saddam Hussein and my President Clinton; walking in Greece with my daughter to the Eastern Orthodox monasteries at Meteora.
Antarctica awaits, my seventh continent. So do Poland and Belarus, where Fran’s family once lived, and maybe to the Black Sea. Good friends want us to visit, reason for another trip to Israel, and maybe renting a gulet in Turkey. I would like to return to Cape Town and sail up the eastern coast of Africa. England and France repeatedly call me back for more research into my family that left Normandy for a battle in 1066, then left England for America in 1791.
I love my home and leaving home, setting out on an adventure of discovery. At the moment, I don’t know when the next journey will arrive.
Molyneaux, of Cleveland, is the editor of TheTravelMavens.com. He and Fran Golden are authors of “Unique Eats and Eateries of Cleveland.”