Bay Area Road Trip: A Glimpse of Future Travel
Last week I wrote about the future of travel and asked you, dear fellow wanderlusters, what will post-pandemic travel look like? Many dozens of you wrote thoughtful responses that showed both how passionately you are wanting to travel again and how seriously you are considering when you will feel safe to venture into the wide world once more.
Your sentiments covered a wide spectrum, from some who are ready to get on a plane as soon as flights are operating and countries are open, to others who are waiting for specific developments or milestones to be attained before they will feel comfortable adventuring again. Tellingly, the most commonly mentioned factor was a reliable vaccine; more than one-third of you wrote that you will wait to travel until an effective vaccine is available.
For all of you who responded already, thank you very much for sharing your reflections! And for those of you who haven’t yet responded, if you’d like to share what you’re thinking about the future of travel, I’d love to hear from you! Please email me at [email protected] or write a response at the end of last week’s blog post here.
After I had posed this question last week, the universe serendipitously gave me my own small glimpse into what at least one aspect of future travel may look like.
This began when I unexpectedly had to drive to Redwood City to pick up a package. Redwood City is about 40 miles south of my home. There are two routes to get there, one that parallels primarily characterless urbanscapes on the east side of San Francisco Bay and the other that passes through San Francisco and into surprisingly unspoiled countryside on the west side of the bay.
I make this journey about a dozen times a year, and normally, the San Francisco route is so congested that Google Maps will send me via the eastern route, which is usually a half-hour quicker. But this time, when I got in the car and fired up Google Maps, it told me that I should drive via the San Francisco route and that the entire drive would take about 40 minutes.
After two months of sheltering in place, with my driving basically restricted to the local grocery store, I was already feeling a little giddy at the prospect of venturing so far from home.
When Google told me to drive via San Francisco, I felt almost intoxicated. Suddenly it hit me: road trip! I was going on my first road trip in what felt like an eternity.
This exhilaration was enhanced by perfect road trip weather: a sun-drenched day with a deep blue sky festooned here and there with fleecy white clouds, with the temperature in the high 70s.
I ran back inside and gathered some appropriate road trip provisions: a dozen carrot sticks, a chocolate chip granola bar, and a bottle of coffee Frappuccino. Then, sitting in my driveway, I lowered all the windows and—on a wild impulse—opened the sunroof. Now, this is living! I thought. As I started the engine, “Born to Be Wild” played in my mind.
I backed out of the driveway. My adventure had begun.
Driving toward the highway, with the wind blowing through the car and ruffling my hair, I felt liberated and full of energy. Anything was possible. The world stretched ahead, vast and limitless as the Pacific.
I closed the car windows when I got on the highway, but I kept the sunroof open, and the sun poured through like a soul-soothing balm.
Long ago, in pre-pandemic times, I would drive this road three or four times a week. I had done this for decades. But this time, as I was approaching the Bay Bridge, my jaw dropped. I was stunned. I had never noticed the bridge’s balletic beauty. It looked like a ballerina in a white tutu performing an elegant grand jeté across the glinting blue-gray waters of the bay. This bridge is spectacular! I exclaimed to myself.
As I entered the Bay Bridge, on my right, a half-dozen sailboats scudded on brilliant white wings through the glinting waters. Beyond them—Oh, wow!—the International Orange icon of the Golden Gate Bridge gleamed dreamily like some towered talisman, entryway to the shimmering infinity beyond.
Then the silver and blue-green towers of San Francisco appeared like a high-tech Camelot. There was endearing Coit Tower, surrounded by green trees, atop the pastel cubist cupcake of Russian Hill. There was the Transamerica Pyramid poking quixotically into the sky. And there was the architectural enfant terrible, Salesforce Tower, ready to blast into the clouds. Spectacular!
As I neared the end of the bridge, I saw another wonder: a vast rectangular signboard seemingly floating in the air. It showed a photograph of a woman in the foreground wearing sunglasses and standing in front of tram tracks. There was an eye-catching reflection of something in her glasses, and behind her, next to the tracks, a row of stately homes. Beneath her was a line of text that read “Shot on iPhone.”
Billboards! I said to myself. What a brilliant idea! Whoever came up with this? So beautiful, so breathtaking. Signs in the sky? Fabulous!
More sky-signs followed, each one clever and engaging. I was touched by the effort these signs were making to reach out to me, to connect with me. In pre-pandemic life, I had never once stopped to think of billboards as anything but a nuisance, but somehow, now, they represented the presence and promise of a world much larger than the neighborhood I had been inhabiting since forever. These are like messages from another planet, I thought. Amazing!
I kept driving south, beyond San Francisco. After about 15 minutes, I saw, painted on the side of a building to my right, “Welcome to the Portola: San Francisco’s Garden District.” San Francisco’s Garden District! Imagine! The lush greenery and fecund flowers those words conjured were obscured from view, but I was sure they were there, just out of sight.
Shortly after that, my heart began to beat more quickly, and I could feel anticipation building in my stomach. For a minute I was confused, then I understood: I was approaching San Francisco International Airport! Dearly beloved SFO!
In another lifetime, I reflected, I would come here a dozen times a year. Suddenly a succession of images flashed through my mind: getting out of a Lyft and wheeling my suitcase into the International Terminal, walking to the United Airlines desk, going through TSA, scanning the departures board like a global dream-screen of possibilities, striding past the shiny shops towards my gate, stopping for a latte at Joe & The Juice. I began to get just a little teary remembering all these cherished rites that seemed so exotic and nostalgic at the same time. When I spotted a control tower and planes lined up on the tarmac, the image seemed as poignant as a vintage travel poster.
Then I turned onto Highway 280 and suddenly I was in another world. There were no office high-rises, warehouses, or even homes here; unencumbered hills stretched greenly away on both sides of the road. After 10 minutes, off to my right, an alluring stretch of water shimmered in the distance. Behind the water rose a dark green, densely pine-cloaked hillside. This looks like the brochure cover for a summer vacation getaway! Though I had driven this route perhaps half a dozen times for the past five years, I had never seen the landscape in quite this way.
A few minutes farther on, I passed a sign saying, “Portola Expedition Camp, Next Exit.” Portola. Of course! That’s the historical figure who gave his name to the town where the lush greenery and fecund flowers hide, waiting!
I still have so much to learn about this area where I’ve lived for four decades, I thought. History is all around us; we just don’t have the knowledge to see it.
When I exited the highway to pick up my package, I began to notice the brilliant flowers that lined the country lane—bright orange California poppies, deep purple lupine, red geraniums, golden roses. Again, it was like a world I’d never seen before.
This phenomenon continued on my return trip home. Shortly after getting back on the highway heading north, I looked to my right and was astonished to see a house I’d never noticed: a rounded red and orange single-story home with a purple dome and a red dome, and rust-colored dinosaur statues arrayed in its back yard. There was a stegosaurus, a tyrannosaurus, a brontosaurus, a woolly mammoth, and a, well, giraffe. Situated around these statues were a multitude of small, plump, mushroom-like sculptures in a rainbow of colors. How have I never noticed this?
After a few minutes, another stop-worthy roadside attraction appeared: This was a gigantic statue, perhaps 30 feet tall, of a priest or a missionary in a hooded cloak, kneeling on one knee, with an out-thrust right arm and hand pointing dramatically toward the west. How many times have I blindly passed this fervent sight?
As I drove home, reflecting on all this, I realized that my impromptu road trip had bestowed all manner of unexpected gifts. Although I was driving a route I had traveled dozens of times before, it was as if I were seeing everything for the first time: the ballet of the Bay Bridge and the alchemy of the Golden Gate; San Francisco’s soaring skyline and spectacular sky-signs; the romance of SFO and the wilderness just below; California’s early history and idiosyncratic artistry. Sheltering in place had given me new eyes—and a renewed sense of the wonders in everyday life.
And that was my glimpse into travel to come. When that blessed day arrives when we return to Kyoto, and Cusco, and Kathmandu, I believe I will bring this perspective with me—and so, I hope, will you. I believe that, for a while at least, the world will look more full of magic than ever before—and we will be more appreciative, attentive, open, and grateful, whenever we walk out the door.
Yours in abiding wanderlust,
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I truly appreciate all of your thoughts, words of encouragement, and dialogue over these past weeks. Please continue to share your reflections below; it’s gratifying and inspiring to read your comments!