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Archive for April 2013

Travel: Fighting for Space on Crowded Flights



   I followed the thread of passengers though the 737 to my aisle seat. The man sitting in what my boarding pass indicated was my seat was a friendly giant. He was huge in that former-college-linebacker-who-has-put-on-a-lot-of-weight way, and he smiled up at me while I stood there looking first at him, then my seat assignment and then the number above the row of seats. Finally, I said “I’m sorry. You are in my seat.”
He looked confused for a moment and then when he realized the window seat was already occupied and I owned the aisle which meant he’d bought a ticket to the middle seat, he looked desperate. Beating back the polite Southern girl who still owns a good chunk of my brain and often insists I defer, I waited for him to slide into the middle seat and then took my own. Of course, he didn’t really fit in the middle and sprawled out into my space was well as the man on the other side.

   After a bit of shuffling, we silently sorted out our seat belts and the plane took off. I surreptitiously took a photo of the three knees, two of mine and one of his, in front of my seat.

   It was a long and uncomfortable flight. He immediately fell into a deep sleep, snoring loudly and sprawling even further into my seat.  I moved to lower the armrest between us but it was somewhere in the middle of his back. Unless I wanted to put my arm behind him, and risk either having it trapped there or waking him up, the armrest would stay up, removing what little barrier there should be between us.

   I felt a little guilty for not surrendering the aisle but the thought of sitting between the two men for a four-hour flight from Denver to Fort Lauderdale filled me with panic. I spent seven hours in a middle seat on two different flights last week. The thought of doing it again was like being asked to wear a plastic bag on my head.

   When our drinks and snacks were served, the man woke up and promptly rested his left arm against the edge of my tray and his right arm on his tray while eating his hamburger. After lunch he was was asleep again. The flight was full, there was nowhere for any of us to move, so I bit my tongue. But it seems personal space has become the weapon of choice for the airline industry. They count on our need—some of us need it more than others— to drive us to pay for the privilege of being the sole occupant of a seat. And that’s what I usually do. I’d tried to upgrade but both First Class and the expanded economy option were sold out. On this flight, an aisle seat was the best I could do and it didn’t do me much good at all.

   Some people will see my complaint as a dig at the man’s size, but it isn’t that at all.  My point is it’s not always about how much space we take up. It’s how we use the space we have.


Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer whose audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and public radio stations across the country. She is the author of Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com
  

Travel: Technology and Family Ties

    If I’d known then what I know now, it would have been no surprise that three of my four children came into the world after waking me up from a sound sleep. (The fourth missed out only because we beat her to the punch and induced labor.) All these years later, they’re all still robbing me of my sleep.
    I can be exhausted when I crawl under the comforter, but one nagging worry, one random thought of how long it’s been since they called or how they’re faring at school or work, and my eyes fly open and refuse to close.
    Just as they were when they were babies, these grown children of mine are always on my mind, just under the surface, only barely covered by the details of my own day.
    Last night, well after midnight, I was still staring at the ceiling. I couldn’t sleep because my mind was on my son who, the last time I’d spoken to him almost two weeks before, was heading out of India and into Nepal. I had no idea where he was or what he was doing. One part of me knew he was OK. But the other, involuntary, side of my brain kept playing out a string of possibilities and ‘what-ifs.’
    I tossed and turned, irritating the cat enough stretch and give me a nasty look before hopping off the bed in search of a more peaceful spot, until I finally surrendered, turned on the light beside the bed and picked up my phone.
    In a chatty “Not that I’m worried or anything…” tone of text, I sent a short email asking how and where he was and mentioning it had been a little while since we’d heard from him. I put down the phone, pulled the covers over my head and went to sleep.
    The next morning, when I sat up, put on my glasses and checked the morning’s email, I saw what I’d been hoping for: a reply. He was safe. He was happy. He would write more later.
    That was all I needed to know.
    For the rest of the day I thought about the solace of communication at the right time and just how easy it is these days for us to stay in touch.
    Like everyone else, I gripe about the flood of emails in my inbox, the frenzy of a 24/7 news cycle and the constant distraction of social media. But as a traveler and the mother of kids who seem bound to wander, I'm immensely grateful for technology. Imagine the wives and mothers of sailors and soldiers in the not-too-distant past who would have given anything for the comfort of one or two lines or a quick Skype call.
    Of course, if I’m honest, there is a more selfish reason I depend on this modern ability to reach out and connect. It allows me to wander now, too.  A freedom that was also denied to wives and mothers in the past.
    Tethered by technology, I can fly away for a day or a week and still be within the sound of a voice should my family need me. I can send a text to say good morning or a virtual kiss at bedtime. I can send or receive photos from around the world. I can be the woman whose heart remains at home but whose feet still itch to travel new roads.
    Technology is sometimes a nuisance, but it is always an amazing gift. Using Google Earth, we follow our son’s path through the Himalayas and with the aid of a maritime program we track our geologist daughter’s ship through the Pacific. Off on my own at even the most remote spots, when wireless is nowhere to be found, I can almost always sit down to a hotel’s computer and connect with the ones I love.
    That’s why, on the table beside my bed, I keep the things that matter most to me so they are always close at hand: A family portrait, a pen and notebook, and the device—my smartphone—that binds us together wherever we may roam.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer whose audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of ‘Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons’ and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com You can read previous ‘Home Planet’ columns at www.spokesman.com/blogs/homeplanet
  

Travel: Kicking the Bucket List


    So often when the subject of travel comes up, someone will invariably mention their 'bucket list.' They will talk about a city or continent, a monument or some kind of natural wonder or even an event they want to see before they die. Before, as the cliché goes, they kick the bucket.

    I heard the phrase whispered several times last year as I stood on the deck of a small ship in Alaska, watching humpback whales swim so close I could hear them breathing. I heard it just a few weeks ago watching the Northern Lights undulate across the spring sky over Manitoba, standing in a night so dark and cold it was as if I’d floated out into space.

    I never actually put my list down on paper, I’m not that organized, but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. Instead, I have carried a kind of mental itinerary in my head, images of places I want to see and things I want to experience. But that mental list, like the Northern Lights, is not constant. It shifts and changes, shining on one landscape and then another as I add and subtract. Every time I see a great photograph or read an exceptional travel story, I pencil in new locations. Sometimes the world changes and war, weather or political upheaval get in the way and a destination drops off.

    Of course, the truth is there will never be enough time to see it all, and not just because I got a late start at the second half of my traveling life, staying home to raise a family and then working around that family to build a career. Even if I’d started on a round-the-world trip the day I was born, there still wouldn’t be time enough to experience it all because the more I learn about the world around me, the more I want to see and do. But life is short so I try to treat every trip—large or small— like it will be my last. I remind myself stop and savor the moments instead of pushing to do more and see more. I have learned it’s important to appreciate where you are and where you’ve been, before hurrying on to the next adventure.

     Several years ago, as my daughter and I walked along the Great Wall in China, navigating the ancient, uneven steps, I suddenly remembered a photo of the wall in one of my school Geography books. At that time, China was still a closed and shuttered place. I’d studied the photo with interest but it never once occurred to me that I might one day stand at the place pictured in it, especially with a child of my own. But I did. And in that moment, watching my daughter focus her camera on one of the marvels of the world, I felt a swell of gratitude for the rambling path my life had taken to put us both there.

    So, no real list for me. When my time is up I want more than a column of checkmarks to define my wanderlust. Instead, I want to be the woman who didn’t always know where she was going but always took the time to appreciate where she was.
  

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel journalist  whose audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of ‘Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons’ and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

Travel: A Room with a View

   There is a house down the street from where I live and I often pass it on my afternoon walks through the neighborhood. It is a small white house, a classic Cape Cod, probably built in the lean years before the second World War. There is ivy climbing up the chimney and a tall evergreen tree anchors one corner of the front yard.

    Most days, there is nothing about the little house that would draw your attention. It is like a hundred others in the city. But if you pass it on a summer evening, just at the softest part of the day when the sky is darkening to a deep shade of violet but still light at the western edge of the horizon, maybe a few of the earliest stars are already out, it’s possible the front door will be open. And through the screen door you can see into the small living room of the compact house where two baby grand pianos sit side by side, situated so that the pianists can see one another as they play.
I know nothing about the house or the people who live there, but to my way of thinking it is the pianos that tell the story, the way they fill the room, claiming it as a place where music is, or has been, made. When I look into that room I see love. There are people there who love music enough to make it the center of the house.


    Once, at the end of a day in Paris, I walked down a narrow street near the Latin Quartier and past an apartment building. A tiny slice of one of the apartments was visible through the open terrace doors and I could see a faded but still elegant armchair, upholstered in a soft blue velvet that was worn in places from years of use. Tall shelves filled with rows and rows of books lined the wall and a lamp cast a soft glow over the chair.

    With nothing more than a glimpse into the room I could imagine the person who lives there. I could see him (I don’t know why, but it felt like a man’s room) come home each evening, scan the shelves, select a book and then settle into the chair to read. From the outside, the building gave no clue to its inhabitants. Rows of windows shuttered the lives of those inside, but the love of books, the familiar and satisfying feel of a favorite book in one’s hands, spilled out out through the open door, carried into the night by the golden lamplight.

    The peek into those two rooms has changed the way I think about my house. Now, I try to look past the usual clutter, the sleeping, shedding, cats and dog, past the unfinished projects on my to-do list. I focus hard on the way the chairs sit next to the window, perfect for watching the seasons change and the parade of people on the way to the park. I look at the books I’ve collected over a lifetime and the photographs I’ve taken of the people and places I love.

    The places we call home say much about us in ways we don’t always appreciate. We focus so much on the superficial—the wreath on the door, the curb appeal, the fresh coat of paint— that we forget that what defines any room as the place we belong has little to do with the decor and everything to do with how we live, and love, in the space.

 

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a journalist and travel columnist whose audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of ‘Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons’ and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com



  

Travel: Northern Lights over Churchill, Manitoba

    I had three nights and three tries to see and photograph the Northern Lights over Churchill, Manitoba.


    The first night, after flying in to the small airport on the edge of Hudson Bay and checking into the Tundra Hotel, after dinner in one of the two restaurants open during the winter season, we climbed into the massive Frontiers North Tundra Buggy, the vehicle that carries tourists close to the polar bears that overtake the little town each fall. We lumbered out onto the frozen Churchill river, navigating around massive tidal hummocks and drifts of deep snow.
    

   Finally, at the edge of the wide, bare, tundra we stopped. The Northern Lights were already spreading across the sky just above the horizon, shapeshifting slowly, almost imperceptibly changing from swirls to vertical streaks to a wide arc overhead. We quickly gathered our gear and rushed out of the buggy, leaving the warmth of the two big propane heaters, and stepped out into the frigid March night.

   The air was as clear and sharp as glass.

    My gloved hands fumbled over the controls of my camera and when I freed them to adjust the settings and touched the frozen metal of my tripod, the tips of my fingers burned. My breath instantly froze in my nose and in the scarf around my neck. Even layered in fleece and wool and heavy boots, my toes began to chill and ache but I didn’t want to give in. My eyes watered, making it hard to focus through my viewfinder, but I kept pushing the shutter as the lights shifted, moved and teased. They faded and then returned, growing stronger then disappearing only to reappear in another place.

    There were others on the ice nearby, hunched over their tripods or gazing up at the sky, but the silence was broken only by the sound of our footsteps on crusted snow that crunched with a peculiar dry, hollow, sound. The deep darkness separated us with more than distance and we didn’t just watch the lights, we were immersed in the experience. But finally, at 2 a.m., when it seemed as though the show was over for the night and we were growing slow and clumsy with fatigue and cold, we surrendered, packed up our gear and climbed back into the warmth of the big vehicle.

    It shouldn’t have been a surprise, nature usually gets the last word, but as though waving farewell, the lights suddenly reappeared and pulled together until they coalesced in the sky directly above our tundra buggy. Someone called out and the group spilled back out into the cold as the lights began to dance above us, weaving and undulating as we tipped up our faces to watch. This time we were unencumbered by heavy cameras and gear. There was nothing to distract us. All we could do was gaze up and exclaim.

    The next night was cloudy and dangerously cold—with a windchill of almost 60 below zero—so we stayed in the hotel, trading stories and comparing photos. But the third night the clouds blew away and we loaded up again. The trail over the frozen river had been swept clean by the scouring wind so we headed out— this time in smaller vans—to a dark road just beyond town.

    Doug, our guide, had told me that sometimes the light show begins with a faint glow just over the horizon. Keeping my eyes above a row of tall spruce trees, wiping away the frost where my breath crystalized on the van window, I waited. At first I was sure I’d imagined it, but soon others in the van could see the gathering brightness. The Northern Lights were back.  Again, we grabbed our cameras and hopped out into the night.
    

   It was even colder than our first night out but this time it didn’t bother me as much. Perhaps it’s because we were more experienced, better prepared for the cutting wind and bone-deep chill—I’d added a layer and tucked extra handwarmers into my pockets and mittens. Maybe it was because we knew we were running out of time. Our adventure was almost over.
    

   The lights were even more brilliant than they'd been before, painting the sky in wide strokes, streaking down toward the ground like silent fireworks. I pressed the shutter again and again but I’d already decided that whatever kind of photo I brought home with me wouldn’t matter. The real magic had imprinted in me and I knew I would never forget it.

   But frozen fingers and all, I did manage to get a few photographs. So I have proof of the adventure and a reward for standing in the dark Manitoba night, tracing the stars with my eyes, watching a cold and distant fire sweep across the sky.

 
   

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer whose audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of ‘Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons’ and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com You can read previous ‘Home Planet’ columns at www.spokesman.com/blogs/homeplanet

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About this blog

Cheryl-Anne Millsap's Home Planet column appears each week in the Wednesday "Pinch" supplement. Cheryl-Anne is a regular contributor to Spokane Public Radio and her essays can be heard on Public Radio stations across the country. She is the author of "Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons."

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