Beth and I met a hundred years ago in another lifetime, filled with children and responsibility. As the busyness of young families lifted, we, on a whim, jetted off to Ireland. We wanted to be spontaneous, adventurous, and free. As a result, our trip had few plans and even fewer reservations. We got sucked into Londonderry history, searched Beth's family roots at Stormont Castle, scaled the iconic rocks of Giants Causeway, stayed at the foot of Yeats famous Benbulben, boated to the Aran Islands, and hung out at a lot of pubs.
But our adventure was not perfect. The two of us white-knuckled the narrow Irish, dry stack wall-bordered roads in a full-sized car on the left-hand side of the road and learned first-hand why American Express did not offer rental insurance. As Beth said," Everyone's swapping paint!" We also realized there is a dark side to spontaneity and wound up spending the night in our rental car in a motel parking lot in Northern Ireland. Horrified, uncomfortable, and exhausted, one of us made a sarcastic comment, the other giggled, and soon we were cracking jokes about how others would have handled the situation. The blaming. The anger. The lack of control. We could not stop laughing.
Our next destination was Scotland. We read tons of books about Mary Queen of Scots and made nerdy comments with obscure references to her lover, Bothwell, at Stirling Castle. We drove alongside Loch Lomond singing "The Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond" and visited the historic site of the Battle of Culloden. Tacking on a side trip to England, we traced Hadrian's Wall and explored the Lake District. Our piece de resistance was peaking Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh. Viewing the Scottish vistas, we never wanted the trip to end. For our nomadic souls, traveling was breathing.
Like any trip, there were misadventures. We made reservations at a "backpacker's hostel" and discovered one should never use those two words in the same sentence. The drunks in the lobby pub, the stench of urine in the stairwell, holes in the walls leading to nowhere, and weird beds with stained sheets greeted us. We were appalled by the place and sat in a restaurant on our computers, searching for alternative accommodations. We were soon on a ferry to the Isle of Mull and a spotless B&B with oversized window views of the sound.
France found us descending the Eiffel Tower steps, clicking pictures of gargoyles at Notre Dame, and sipping coffee on trains between our French destinations. We hiked the mountains around Chamonix, explored Normandy's beaches, lunched with my cousin and her husband in Lyon, walked along the French Riviera, and canoed the castle-lined Dordogne.
But this trip also was not perfect. After being locked in a jetway at the airport for almost 2 hours and begging security to let us out, we arrived at our Montserrat flat in the 18th arrondissement of Paris. Having no air conditioning, we realized there was a reason the French exit their city in August. We threw open the windows of our stifling 90-degree apartment, but it made no difference. Adding to the discomfort was our location on the main thoroughfare. All night emergency vehicles sounded like they were driving through the middle of the flat, and we were permanently sleep-deprived. Mornings found us grabbing hot chocolate or coffee and some delicious pastry. Although exhausted, we did not miss a thing.
Circumstances heading south is part of life and a big part of travel. When one has a friend like Beth who giggles in the middle of the night from the hatch of the rental car, echoes my outrage at the urine doused stairwell, waves across the airplane stuck on the tarmac for four hours, takes over the driving when those crazy Irish roads are a little too nuts, and sucks the marrow out of absolutely every adventure, you know you have a friend indeed. She is not a tourist checking off destinations, nor does she want layers of luxury shielding her from the locals. She is out there living the journey and enjoying every minute of it.
We have plans to visit Canada next year, and Beth is already sharing obscure Canadian facts. Like all our trips, most of it will be magic, and a little bit will be tragic. Knowing I have a dear friend like Beth, who handles life's annoyances with such aplomb makes satiating our ravenous travel bug hearts so much better.
Beth is definitely part of a life well-lived!
Happy Birthday, Beth!
A train trip is not a great idea right now, but I hope this piece provides you with a little escape. Writing it certainly gave me the respite I needed.
Every once in a while, when my to-do list is becoming lengthy, and I am feeling a little overwhelmed, I toss my paperwork, laptop, a bunch of pens, and a couple of post-it pads into my canvas messenger bag. I don my favorite comfy sweater, some snazzy jeans, sneakers with thick cushy socks, a light jacket, and a pashmina, pulling me together. I tap out a first-class Amtrak ticket on my cell, grab a cappuccino and catch the 7:30 northbound train from San Juan Capistrano to San Luis Obispo, about 250 miles away.
A seat on the upper level with a panoramic unobstructed view is where I land. I pull down the tray, set up my laptop, organize my office supplies, and refresh my coffee. (First class benefits!) This will be my office for the next 6 hours. I plan how I am going to use this valuable time in a detailed to-do list, prioritizing items, and assigning time allotments to tasks. Sometimes I create a comprehensive bucket system for my finances, or I plot out clothes for an upcoming trip. Responding to emails with thoughtfully worded responses is usually on my list, and I might send a cute online card or write a couple of thank you notes. Often, I am making big decisions with long pros and cons lists. I have a first-class ticket, coffee and pastries down the aisle, and a bathroom downstairs. The proverbial "corner office" has nothing on my workspace.
The rhythmic hum of the train paces my work as I concentrate, periodically looking up. Every train station has its distinct character, and I take a few seconds to appreciate them. Santa Ana is a lovely combination of wrought iron, white stucco angles, Spanish tile, and large arching paneled glass windows accented with palm trees. In stark contrast, the Anaheim station or ARTIC (Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center) is a massive, modern bowing structure with glass quilting, housing shops and eateries. It is the entrance to the Honda Center for concerts and events. On the way home, if I am lucky, bright colors will dance on its surface, presenting a light show for me and all the neighboring areas to enjoy.
The world rushes by fueling my diligence, and I happily work until I see the skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles: the cylindrical U.S. Bank Tower, mirrored Wilshire Grand Center, and gleaming iconic City Hall. (Its architecture is based on the Mausoleum of Mausolus, one of the Wonders of the Ancient World.) An hour and a half has passed, and we are entering Union Station. I have no layover and feel a little sad because Union Station is such a treat. There is the Streamliner Lounge reminding one of a speakeasy from the 20s, the massive, cathedral-like waiting area with Spanish style chandeliers dangling from the paneled ceiling, art deco font message boards relaying one's possible destinations, and heavy wood-framed leather chairs. It is the crossroads to Santa Monica, Olvera Street, the Rose Bowl, Hollywood, the Mission Inn, and so many other guidebook hotspots. But I have work to do and no stopover.
Photo by Mary Minerman
At this point, I always double-check with the conductor to make sure I have a westward looking window. I want an unobstructed view of the mighty Pacific.
Departing Union Station, I happily return to my paperwork, but my concentration is more patchy. I do not want to miss Chatsworth, north of L.A. in the San Fernando Valley. Its rock formations sweep the landscape appearing oddly familiar. During Hollywood's Golden Age, Chatsworth was a popular setting for movies. John Wayne rode his horse in "Stagecoach" here, and the area became China in the Academy Award-winning movie "The Good Earth." Lex Barker also swang from the trees as Tarzan and Shirley Temple starred in Rudyard Kipling's "Wee Willie Winkie." There is magic in its familiarity, and I find myself spellbound, but the reverie is suddenly broken when the train goes black. We are entering the Chatsworth Tunnel running 1.2 miles long, completed in 1904, and one of California's longest.
I should be halfway done with my To-Do list by this point. If I'm ahead, I loosen up and start enjoying the scenery a little more, but if I'm behind, I redouble my efforts to get things done.
With my first peek at the ocean, I become a little giddy, take a couple of minutes to soak it in, and marvel at my good fortune. I get to sip a cup of coffee and luxuriate in a multitude of $10,000,000 plus unobstructed views of the largest ocean on the planet. I see people camping, riding bikes, and living their lives. ( I really need to take up camping.) The old-fashioned Santa Barbara station greets us with its massive banyan tree, and the downtown area, within walking distance, but I have no layover and work to do.
Beyond Santa Barbara, we enter the desolate Bixby Ranch area, where few people travel unless they are on the train. Miles of unsullied coastline and mountains stretch before and behind us. I become a little more distracted. In another life, due to a series of complicated connections, I stayed at the Bixby Ranch. I watched a sea lion rolling in the surf, and spied strewn abalone shells on the virgin sands. I toured the Point Conception lighthouse and keeper's house with its peeling wallpaper. I witnessed the crashing waves and the cove where sharks find their prey. We four-wheeled to the World War II gunneries and partied at the ranch. I have been here and know its mysteries. So perhaps this place means more to me.
At this point, I always need to discipline myself. I took this trip to get work done. If I don't, I can't do this again. I get back to it but still periodically peek at the coast. I've seen a massive beached whale, dolphins playing, and lone sailboats in its vast waters.
The train glides past Vandenberg Airforce Base, and I always look for a rocket but never see one. Inland we head to Guadalupe through bucolic valleys full of little ranchitos stuffed with chickens, goats, cattle, and horses in the hilly Old California landscape. My friend Patty lives here, but there will be no adventuring with her today.
Sweeping valleys with pointed peaks swathed in clover greens and wheat yellows greet us. We are entering charming San Luis Obispo with its Spanish style casitas.
After over 6 hours, I have arrived. I check my to-do list and make a couple of notes. I pack up my office, give my seat a nostalgic glance, and exit the train. There are tons of little eateries within walking distance, and I choose one with exceptionally healthy food. After a delicious bowl of couscous, quinoa, fish, and microgreens, I throw my bag over my shoulder and head up the Terrace Hill Trail. The word terrace is somewhat misleading as the trail heads straight up with no switchbacks, and I quickly become winded. Knowing my train is leaving in an hour, I push forward. The slog is rewarded with panoramic views, some much-needed exercise, and peak bragging rights. I hustle back down.
Photo by Mary Minerman
After grabbing some snacks, I jump on the train heading home, sitting next to another westward viewing window. The conductor serves wine, and I appreciate the long shadows coursing green valleys, closing out the day. As we trundle down the track, the sun sets on the Pacific in a panorama of pinks and violets, and I make a silent toast. The world is not leaving me behind, working at my desk. I am moving with it, soaking up its beauty, and getting stuff done.
A day truly well-spent and part of a Life Well-Lived.
M.J. Minerman writes for spinsters around the world who have "not found their lids and are pursuing lives well-lived."