Running from bears, or racing truckers, we’re all searching for something.
I’m waiting in the boarding area for my flight from Chicago to Germany. A gate agent waves me to a check-in table that functions like a wall barring my passage. She has something I need. I hand her my COVID-19 vaccination card and an electronic passenger locator form required for entry in most European Union countries. She scans my documents. I stare at a piece of chewed gum on the carpeted floor. It’s September 2021. Europe opened to vaccinated visitors in July. I’m nervous. It’s only been 48 hours since the airline and Germany approved my entry, and I haven’t traveled internationally in 20 months—sort of a record for me. I’m dressed for comfort with my hair pulled back in a ponytail. I’m wearing a floral face-mask with the word kindness printed across the front. It covers my lips but underneath I’m smiling. The agent places a pink sticker on my passport.
“You’re good to go,” she says. I exhale for the first time since arriving at O’Hare Airport.
“Thank you,” I say, and line up to board.
There’s a freedom in travel that I took for granted before the COVID-19 lockdown. My physical ability to move around the world, the opportunity to meet new people and interact with locals and other travelers, the courage it takes to travel alone, the ease in which other countries welcomed me, a solo American traveler.
I mean people were dying, hospitals struggled with inadequate staff and supplies, and I’m worried about travel. That’s right, I’m selfish. Privileged. A spoiled child who couldn’t sit still. Being locked down (or as I refer to it, locked in) stirred something in me. I’m a traveler who couldn’t travel. I’m somebody whose bags are always packed, but now I had to sit still. Wait. Stay in one place. I didn’t think I could do it. I didn’t think I knew how to sit still. Then I remembered: I’m a traveler. I didn’t need to think. I needed to move.
As soon as U.S. states opened to visitors, I packed my bags and flew to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, hiking the Grand Tetons in the American west where I encountered bears playing in the wild. I rented a car and ping-ponged from New York City to Boston and up to Portland, Maine, darting from the Atlantic Ocean’s coastline to rural New England during the fall foliage.
I took my first cross-country road trip from New York City to Los Angeles stopping in Amish Country in Pennsylvania, devouring a Whoopie Pie, two chocolate cake tops filled with vanilla buttercream frosting. I stayed the night in Intercourse. Yes, that’s a place. I followed Historic Route 66 through the states of Illinois, Missouri, and Arkansas, crossing the Trail of Tears, where tragedy and power collided with the forced removal of approximately 60,000 Native Americans from their homeland. Sickened, despondent, stuck with the visual, I detoured to Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the Capitol of the Cherokee Nation to learn more about the Native American experience. I raced truckers driving 80 MPH in my SUV, jamming foot to pedal through Utah’s canyons, its snow-covered summits resuscitating my desire for the great wide open. I spent time with friends eating, drinking, and laughing (always laughing) from coast to coast gathering in backyards, patios, neighborhood parks and outdoor restaurants maintaining six feet apart. I stepped back in time in Tallmadge, Ohio where I not so discreetly conducted a photo shoot of my childhood home until the owner invited me inside for a look. I stood in awe at the edge of the Grand Canyon’s Southern Rim and wondered how nature creates divine beauty. I watched a man die in Lancaster, Pennsylvania despite the attempts of strangers trying to revive him. The weight of his body in my arms.
That’s the marvel of traveling the world. Having visited many places—60 countries on six continents—and 49 of 50 states (sorry Idaho), I’ve seen and done things I never imagined possible, stretching myself well beyond my comfort zone. Pushing myself to taste foods I don’t eat at home, wandering until my feet ache, talking to people on every bus, train or street corner, smiling until it invites captive conversation that leaves me hungry for more, following the unofficial traveler’s code:
Be kind. Be respectful. Be curious. Be open. Be authentic. Blend in.
I used to believe traveling abroad made me special. That ticking off boxes and adding pins to a map added value. That pounding the pavement to post a picture on social media or running through every museum or castle just because I could made me whole. The pandemic changed that for me. It forced me to slow down to reflect on the places I’ve been and the people I’ve met and how to make travel a part of my everyday life.
When I boarded my flight to Germany, my first international flight since the pandemic started, I remembered I wasn’t really traveling. I was going home—to see family and friends in Germany, Greece, Scotland and Ireland. Sure, I might visit a palace or two, take a bike ride, eat some Wiener Schnitzel or fresh Brezel, take a shot of Ouzo or Whisky, but I knew when I stepped off the plane in Frankfurt, I stepped into my life—accepting that we are all connected and that my way isn’t better, it’s just different. Travel has given me the capacity to see beyond the exterior and into the heart and soul of others. The people make the place, and I couldn’t wait to hug the people I missed.
We’re all travelers on a journey searching for a secret ingredient. No boarding pass required.
KELLY GLYNN is a graduate of Michigan State University, a recovering Democratic Party fundraiser, and travel writer. When not exploring the world, she splits her time between New York City and Chicago. Follow her on Instagram @fantasyaisle, or on her travel blog fantasyaisle.com.
1 thought on “The Traveler’s Code”
Loved what you expressed. So true.