My husband Bill and I were walking along the Alki beach shoreline in Seattle at sunset. In the sky were cloud dancers wearing red, lavender, and pink chiffon. A small group of kayakers glided close to shore as the green and white ferries crisscrossed Puget Sound. The falling sun tucked in the Cascades and then Olympic mountain ranges for bed. I noticed an approaching car with an out of state license plate carrying two young women. As the car slowed and rolled toward us, the passenger hung her head out of the car, pulled out her camera and took a picture of the dusk light shining across Elliott Bay and onto the downtown skyline. The car never actually stopped, and in just a few seconds it drove away.
This is a popular place for tourists and bridal parties to take photographs. I will never know if the women were on vacation or if that was the first or twenty-first time they had seen the glorious sunset from Alki. Even so, they inspired the first portion of this post, which is a rant about vacations.
What is a vacation and what purpose ought one serve? The word vacation comes from the Latin word vacare, which means to be unoccupied. A vacation is a time to get away from—to vacate—the pace, regimen, and work of our daily lives. Even so, many of us come home from vacations more tired and stressed than when we left. The average vacation takes a lot of work to plan and implement. We have to find and schedule flights, hotels, cars, tours, and entertainment. The hot tickets must be purchased in advance. Pet sitters, house sitters, and plant sitters are needed to keep our current lives intact. Flying is no longer fun as we spend hours waiting to squeeze into our arboreal sardine cans. We read guidebooks, purchase maps, and then herd to the same attractions that most other travelers seek. The lines are long and unforgiving; minutes and then hours of our precious vacation vanish into the air.
The hassles of planning and implementing our well-planned vacation are compounded by our need—or perceived need—to stay connected to work. We pack multiple battery chargers for the laptop computer, cell phone, and PDA. Add to this the digital camera, music player, and video camera—one suitcase just for electronics.
Is this a vacation or work? Seems like a lot of work to me. Many of us plan and manage trips with the same precision we use to orchestrate our jobs. Gatorland from eight to ten o’clock, lunch at the Space Town Café, then Water World. Go, go, go, then we collapse in our hotel room from exhaustion. Are we are manufacturing fun to the point it is neither fun nor restorative?
You know that your vacation was not a vacation—you did not leave your daily life behind—when you need another vacation when you get home. Confession: I have overmanaged many vacations. It’s a sickness, really. I have a keen ability to transfer my control freak tendencies from my work into my leisure. It is too easy to make vacation decisions based on a bit of research and a drive for clarity. The problem is that what I am left with is a detailed plan based largely on ignorance. These flawed trip plans feel nice to have but fall short of delivering a great vacation experience.
Planning and expectations can sap all the “vacate” out of our vacation. First of all, nothing goes as planned. If you have a rigid plan, you are setting yourself up for stress and disappointment. Detailed plans also reduce genuine play and relaxation time and often don’t allow for wonderful unexpected surprises. Whatever happened to exploration? I mean genuine exploration, not the kind created by a group tour led by professional guides who take hundreds of tourists through the same experience each day. If vacations ought to help us escape crazy stress filled lives, then a new approach is needed.
I have been working on the plans for a trip to New Mexico for about a year. It started out as a solo motorcycle trip. I had a detailed plan. Then it was a thematic trip focused on the chile pepper harvest. My mind and plans changed several times. Should I go here or there? How much ground can I cover? Should I spend more time at just a few places or move around each day? All of this inquiry and planning started to bubble up and bother me. I must be missing something, I thought. The key was hidden in my broken sense of what a leisure trip ought to accomplish and how to do a proper vacation.
Before I share my new vision for vacations, I must acknowledge that there are times where planning is important and group tours offer a wonderful experience. If you want to climb mountains or bike across Italy, you must train. If you are heading into unknown foreign territories, it is wise to do your research and work with reputable operators. For our hiking and kayaking trip to New Zealand in December, Bill and I are doing both of these things.
Every now and then, we should seek something closer to real exploration. It is this rare concept of an unoccupation of daily life that I wish to now share with you.
I am calling this new vacation concept the Random Walkabout. The name is a combination of two terms, random walk and walkabout. A random walk is a mathematical concept describing a process in which each step can occur in any direction and is independent of the previous step, much like a disoriented person stumbling in the dark. The location of the current point determines the possibilities for the next point. If there are two possible directions, for example right and left, then each will have a probability of ½ or 50%. If there are four possible directions— for example, right, left, forward, and backward— then each will have a probability of ¼ or 25%. Random walks are a type of fractal, and are used to simulate things such as some aspects of stock price fluctuations, genetic drift in populations, wireless network behavior, neuron firing patterns in the brain, and eye movements. I like thinking about vacations through the lens of random walk because it forces me to see possibility in a different manner. Instead of planning and comprehending the entire experience at once, a random walk experience would be reinvented—with some limitations—each day.
According to the Oxford American Dictionary, a walkabout is a “journey on foot undertaken by an Australian Aboriginal in order to live in the traditional manner.” We also use walkabout to describe leisurely wandering around. To wander means to move away from a fixed location—like our hectic daily lives—in a gentle, meandering way. When we go walkabout, we move away from our already lives and explore the twists and turns ahead.
So what, then is a Random Walkabout? More on that to come.....