My Aborted Vacation

11 Oct


It was the simplest solution to not traveling long distance. Point Reyes National Seashore next to Marin County offered hiking in nature’s landscapes and time to read and reflect. I booked four nights at HI-Point Reyes Hostel, an inexpensive accommodation featuring bunk bed dormitories and kitchen. Over the phone, the receptionist wrote down information for a credit card. Nearly set, I purchased enough groceries for the four days and packed my bags.

I traveled from San Francisco on a Golden Gate Transit bus connecting to a Marin Transit bus in San Rafael. One of my work mates had taken the same trip some years ago and really enjoyed it. Other people I know have visited the park and praise the wildness and remoteness of the setting. It is rich in flora and fauna and offers a number of ecological terrains. Outside of campsites, three very small towns, Olema, Point Reyes Station, and Inverness, offer accommodations, but I assumed that was outside of my budget. The hostel, set within a lush coastal scrub terrain, is very close the shore.

My final stop by bus was to disembark at the Bear Valley Visitor Center. A beautiful wooden structure features a spacious audience hall complete with educational displays. I smiled at the sight of a couple taking a photograph, the husband posing next to a life-size figure of an bull elephant seal, the look of the seal’s open mouth suggesting the two were old friends. The volunteer ranger was attentive and gracious to a first-timer at the seashore. With the help of a second ranger a walking route was drawn for me from a map. The distance between Bear Valley and the hostel was roughly seven miles.

I was loaded down with food, clothing, and books in a backpack and two bags. I must have been a silly sight, certainly not that of an experienced naturalist. I crossed along the Horse Trail and the Fire Lane Trail. The first was a constant zigzag ascent, the second a less angled descent. As I started away from the Visitor Center I passed a large field enclosed within barbed wire fencing. A black-tailed buck spotted me from the other side of the fence and approached quickly as if we had an arranged meeting. But he stopped short of nearing the fence and went on his way once sizing me up.

After a certain distance the walk was grueling, mainly because of the weight I was carrying. I paced grimly and slowly. Several times I had to unload and breathe for a moment. The weather was perfect, though, and the verdant landscape a delight to see. I especially enjoyed the descent from forest to scrub, recognizing the scrub instantly from the smells. There was the sight of many birds, several rabbits, and a lone banana slug. Various insects brushed my body the entire way.

By the time I approached the hostel my body was aching, my steps were unsure and uneven. I plopped my bags on the floor at the reception desk. A cheerful receptionist invited me in and began the quick interview. I had decided to use a second debit/credit card. There would be an automatic deposit in two days ensuring that I had the funds to pay for the accommodation. With the card in hand she attempted to transact payment for the four nights. I explained the funds yet to appear, but she said that payment was upfront. There was no choice: I had to turn back. It was late afternoon. It would soon be dark. But I thanked her and proceeded to walk back to Bear Valley. I would take the road which automobile drivers use to reach the hostel. Before I could leave the reception area a British traveler, having overheard the exchange, asked me if she could help out with any financial arrangement, perhaps one night’s payment, as she would be leaving in two days. I thanked her but said no. She then proposed that she drive me back to the Visitor Center.

Embarrassed, I told my guardian angel that I should have known better. What I did not explain was that although I have stayed at accommodations elsewhere and been billed upon leaving, perhaps common sense would have dictated being prepared for the hostel policy; even reading about policy ahead of time would have preempted my plans.

In my foolishness I am reminded of another traveler named Richard Halliburton (1900-1939). In June, I presented on his attempt to travel by junk from Hong Kong to the Golden Gate International Exposition of 1939 at Treasure Island, San Francisco. His first travel narrative, The Royal Road to Romance (1925), shows the traits that would mark his career as a traveler: impetuous, reckless, daring, and often willing to explore frontier without knowing where his funds would come from. He lived during a colonial era when his youth and charm sufficed to broker accommodation from American and British nationals stationed in far-flung parts of the world. If he could not obtain free passage from a helping hand when he was down on funds he risked adversity by stowing away on trains and boats.

On the one hand, Halliburton researched his destinations for historic and cultural value in order to enhance his travel routes and subsequent writing. On the other hand, he often plunged into action without adequate background. The Royal Road to Romance records his first launch, working his way on a freighter with a classmate from New York to Hamburg. From Calcutta, Halliburton decided to return to America traveling through Japan, making several stops in different Asian countries. In Rangoon, Burma (now Yangon, Myanmar), the author chose Bangkok as his next destination. In the remote European outpost of Victoria Point on the Burmese coast, Halliburton weighed his options. He was loathe to “becom[e] a tourist and mov[e] eastward with the herd to Singapore and Hongkong” (267). He also did not want to travel around the Malaysian peninsula, two thousand two hundred miles, by freight boat. Through informants he chose a more direct route along the narrowest part of the peninsula, only two hundred and fifty miles.

His departure point was at the Pukchan River separating Burma from Siam (now Thailand). It was monsoon season and heavy rains had already held him up for two days and nights. He “pushed off in an especially furious rainstorm” (278). His boatmen let him off at Taplee, on the Siamese side, in a “dripping wilderness”. Traveling with a paid guide from a remote village, his path was a former cart-road “smothered by the jungle and all but obliterated by floods” (279). Two days of torrential rains, a muddy trail with water sometimes above their necks, a fight through dense vegetation, leeches feasting on their bodies, the discovery of a forest of animals when the rains relented, a near-death experience when a cobra wrapped around the author’s leg, left Halliburton, beyond his trials, with a “fierce joy in the entire adventure” (281).

I am certainly not that traveler. At sixty-three years of age, I am lucky to walk weighted down over seven miles of trail. But I do remember a trip that was full of the unexpected.

Around 1990, I worked with two dear people at Teachers College, a former small private institution now owned by Columbia University. Tina was leaving for a new curatorial position with a museum in Hong Kong. On a lark, Patrick and I decided to celebrate her success by driving to a remote beach on Long Island with picnic food, wine, and tent. Leaving Manhattan at ten in the evening, our destination was Robert Moses State Park, a long, thin strip of land facing the Atlantic Ocean. We arrived at a deserted parking lot a few feet from the water’s edge. We picked a spot in the sand and began to unpack, giddy at our good fortune. Minutes later we looked up frozen as deer in headlights. The blinding light came from a jeep that had pulled up to our camp. A park ranger got out with flashlight and gruffly told us to leave. He softened long enough to tell us we could camp at Heckscher State Park across the bay.

By now it was close to midnight. As we entered Heckscher we passed a ranger’s office but continued driving afraid we would be denied a campsite. Once again we parked near a beach. We were certain we had found a safe place. Our tent was up, our food spread out, our bottle open, when another ranger discovered us. We had no choice but return to New York. At midnight, the road ahead seemed long. We decided to rent a room, as there were many motels dotting, if I remember correctly, Southern State Parkway. We pulled into the parking lot of a motel, the office lit and occupied. Patrick and Tina were out of the car first as I trailed behind. I didn’t hear their exchange with a woman, but I could see the stone cold expression on her middle-aged face. They told me she said she didn’t have “that kind of room.” A few miles further we found a motel and proprietor who welcomed us. Exhausted, we decided the party was over and quickly fell asleep in the two furnished beds.

There was a similar resignation when I decided to return to Bear Valley. And a similar feeling of comfort accepting the ride as there had been when my friends and I found a motel room on Long Island. I donated my groceries to the hostel kitchen and thanked my driver when she let me off at the Visitor Center. It was by now deepening twilight. The buck was munching on grass at the entrance. He didn’t seem to mind my proximity. In fact, as I sat on a bench, he ambled slowly along the edge of the asphalt parking lot toward another grassy area, not twenty feet away from me, standing alert, though, whenever I adjusted my position. By the time he left it was dark; a few lights positioned along the entrance staircase kept me company. The landscape was near black. The sky was full of wondrous stars. I listened to a lone howl in the distance, a sweet note ending a ballad. Soon it was joined by others culminating in a brief, intense din. I thought of the coyotes I listened to at night when I was a kid. I had traveled a great distance and that was enough.

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