Going Forward

On Sept. 11, after we had heard the news about the terrorist attacks in New York and on the Pentagon, I was standing on the balcony of my apartment in Los Angeles on a rare night when I wasn't on the road. Suddenly I realized that something was different about the night sky. With commercial planes grounded across America, it was eerily silent and more scary and empty than I could ever recall.

That was the most memorable moment of my year in travel. Whenever I think of it, I'm forced to wonder whether things will ever return to normal, and what the coming year may hold. Will we ever again be able to go where we want, when we want, with a minimum of trouble and fear? Is the freedom to travel an American birthright or a luxury now too expensive to afford?

Evidence suggests that people are starting to travel again--or at least are thinking about it.

At Off the Beaten Path, a Montana company that specializes in guided and custom trips to the Rocky Mountain West, Alaska and Patagonia in South America, CEO Robert Hietala says people are asking, "What do I want to do next summer?"

Surveys by Yesawich, Pepperdine & Brown, a Florida-based marketing, advertising and public relations company, found that 22% of American leisure travelers polled in November say their travel plans will be influenced by the threat of terrorism, compared with 37% in September and 27% in October.

Asked recently whether travel will ever be the same, William Maloney, executive vice president of the American Society of Travel Agents, said, "Absolutely. This is a robust country. The urge to roam is a part of our national character."

Of course, it's in the best interest of the travel industry to point these things out, just as the airlines often note that it's more dangerous to drive a car than to fly. All the same, the post-Sept. 11 public may still be unsettled, even fearful, about traveling.

As Rick Steves, the author of "Europe Through the Back Door" and host of public television's "Rick Steves' Europe," says, "There's a difference between danger and fear. Danger is a matter of statistics. Fear is an emotion."

Indeed, one of my friends told me she is staying home because flying would force her to revisit what it must have been like for the people aboard the hijacked planes.

I can't argue with that or tell people not to worry about getting stranded in case of another terrorist attack.

But the more I talk with people, the more it seems clear that many of those who have decided to hunker down just want to avoid the new hassles of flying, created largely by a tightening of security at airports.

The extra time required before takeoff, the long lines, the carry-on baggage regulations, the X-ray machines set to a highly sensitive level--these I can personally address.

I saw all of them at LAX on my way to Washington, D.C., five days before Thanksgiving. It took me an hour and a half to check my bags and get through security. As my airline had suggested, I had given myself plenty of time. Once I got to the gate, I still had plenty of time.

That was OK. There was no one in the bookstore on the concourse, so the clerk had a chance to show me where to find the mystery section. Fellow passengers were quiet and civil, offering one another help and advice.

There was no line at the concourse coffee bar. Restrooms were tidy. People didn't crowd the gate during boarding, and my flight left on time.

Dulles International Airport, where I landed, was emptier than usual, as was LaGuardia in New York, where I caught a flight home two weeks later.

For me, that trip was the most surprising of the year. There were hassles, but none I hadn't planned for.

It was the positive aspects of post-Sept. 11 air travel--the orderliness, small crowds at the gates, camaraderie among passengers--that struck me most.

I don't think the trip was an anomaly. Before that, on post-Sept. 11 flights to and from Phoenix, Portland, Ore., and Boise, Idaho, I noticed the same calm, order and esprit de corps.

"Flying will never be quite as easy as it used to be, but things have settled down," says Michael Batt, president of Carlson Wagonlit Travel, a travel agency with headquarters in Minneapolis.

Batt, who is from Britain, says Europeans were already accustomed to dealing with travel regulations because of the terrorism in the '70s and '80s. "After a while you just can't allow it to change your life," he says.

But it did change our lives. I was scheduled to fly to London and Greece two days after the attacks. My flight was grounded, so I didn't go. I haven't traveled internationally since last spring, when I went to Poland, Paris and the Seychelles.

Still, 2001 was not a bad travel showing for me, with trips to Hawaii; Sonoma County; Yellowstone; the lush Brandywine Valley of Pennsylvania and Delaware; Utah and Montana for yoga; pristine eastern Oregon; thrilling Yosemite (for the first time); the Navajo reservation in New Mexico and Arizona in search of rugs; and the Grand Canyon.

As it turns out, in 2001, even though I was a little older than I used to be, I still made it down the Grand Canyon's South Kaibab Trail and back up the Bright Angel Trail, carrying a 35-pound pack on my back.

The bottom of the canyon, where Bright Angel Creek pours into the Colorado River, is one of the most powerfully moving places on Earth. Lord, let every hesitant heart see the Grand Canyon. Every aging travel writer and American schoolchild. Everyone who thinks it's easier just to stay home.

The most difficult but most meaningful trip I made this year was my vacation in Washington, D.C., and New York. Vacations confound me. What do you do with two weeks off work when your work is traveling? This year, though, the answer was clear. I needed to see family and friends in both cities and wanted to find out how New York, my home until 1997, had changed.

I took the train there from Washington, a trip I've made countless times. Around Newark, N.J., the Manhattan skyline comes into view, a long rising and falling fence of skyscrapers across the horizon, with the World Trade Center towers at the end of the line. In a curious way, I didn't miss the twin towers because even without them, the Manhattan skyline is nonpareil.

During my week in New York, I shopped in SoHo, saw the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center, went to the theater, walked across the Brooklyn Bridge. But my beloved New York traditions were interspersed with reminders. Across the street from my East Side hotel, a hook and ladder company displayed the photos of a dozen lost firefighters, surrounded by flowers and cards that children had made. Lunches and dinners with friends routinely began with the stories of what they were doing when "it" happened. Some talked of leaving the city or of hopeless searches for 9-to-5 jobs.

One morning, on my way to visit friends in Brooklyn Heights, I stopped at ground zero, more in the way of pilgrimage than for sightseeing. There isn't much to see, because the roughly 10-square-block World Trade Center neighborhood is now mostly a construction zone surrounded by a fence, like the outlined corpse on the floor at a murder scene.

For me it was a sad trip, but that had mostly to do with my memories of a sassier, more electric New York. Someone whose name escapes me once said that we travel to find memories of things we've forgotten or didn't know we knew.

Even if it weren't my job, I would keep traveling for that reason alone. But there are other compelling reasons to travel now, including low gasoline prices and some air fare bargains, and smaller crowds at attractions.

So as a new and, I hope, better year approaches, I'm dreaming about where to go next.

Travel industry experts are speculating about which destinations are most attractive in the wake of Sept. 11. Safe, cozy, familiar places you can drive to, they say. The top holiday destinations for Southern Californians are Orlando, Fla.; Hawaii; the Pacific Northwest; Las Vegas; and the ski slopes of Utah, according to a recent poll by the Automobile Club of Southern California. I have my heart set on our national parks and monuments. I'd like to explore Bryce and Zion in Utah and the Grand Canyon in winter, when ice clings to the sculptured rocks. Or go spelunking in Mammoth Cave in west-central Kentucky, where curious cave creatures dwell.

When it warms up, I want to canoe in Voyageurs National Park, more than 200,000 acres on the border between Canada and Minnesota, and hike in the bone-dry Parashant, a new and still primitive national monument in northern Arizona. On the 100th anniversary of the historic trek to the Pacific Northwest, I want to explore the trail that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark blazed, opening the way for westward expansion.

I'd like to get to know the 110-square-mile Theodore Roosevelt National Park in the badlands of North Dakota, where 24-year-old Teddy, a naturalist and soldier, went hunting in 1883 and told his guide, "By Godfrey, but this is fun!"

Cruising in the Caribbean and Alaska, where many ships have been redeployed, looks like a smart vacation choice, particularly because lines have cut fares to keep berths full. Bob Dickinson, president of Carnival Cruise Lines, says prices for 2002 itineraries are at 1974 levels.I could cruise Alaska's Inside Passage all summer and never get tired of it, though I'm fondest of doing so on small ships that put you face-to-face with the blue ice of the glaciers.

Canada and Mexico are full of possibilities, and the favorable exchange rates don't hurt either. I'd like to spend a long weekend in cosmopolitan Montreal and see the spring wildflowers in Nova Scotia, one of the Maritime Provinces.

I'd like to try B.C. Rail's Totem Circle Tour, which takes travelers north from Vancouver to Prince George and Prince Rupert by train through British Columbia, and then south through the Inside Passage on a B.C. ferry.

In Mexico I'd like to follow the Ruta Maya from Chichén Itzá to Uxmal and Palenque, spend a month in Cuernavaca learning Spanish or lie in the sun on the west coast in Zihuatanejo or Puerto Vallarta.

The Holy Land and Afghanistan's Hindu Kush are out--for now, anyway. Still, with air fare deals to some exotic places, safe travel in a post-Sept. 11 world doesn't have to mean staying close to home. I'm thinking of south India, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, a train trip across Australia, a visit to cosmopolitan Shanghai.

A colleague just returned from a grand tour of South America, including Iguaçú Falls on the border of Brazil and Argentina; the multi-legged air part of the trip cost less than $500. South America is high on my 2002 wish list.

The recent unrest in Argentina might rule it out for a while; instead I want to go all the way south to Chile's Torres del Paine National Park, which people liken to Yosemite, then on to the 5.5 million square miles of Antarctica, the bottom end of the Earth, where penguins fledge through February.

And I still haven't been to as many places in Europe as I'd like, including Switzerland; Prague in the Czech Republic; the Côte d'Azur in France; the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, once the home of the Moorish monarchs; and Scotland.

I'm keen on booking a low-price wintertime airline package deal to Paris, Amsterdam or Rome.

And in Britain, where a string of problems, including mad cow disease, has kept American tourists at bay, I want to do another London theater tour and ramble on the Yorkshire moors. Besides, British Prime Minister Tony Blair has proved himself the best of friends to America, and 2002 is Queen Elizabeth II's Golden Jubilee, which will be celebrated June 4 at St. Paul's Cathedral in London.

Of course, people have to reach their own conclusions about traveling in an uncertain world, which may not be exactly the same as before Sept. 11.

As for me, I've seen the night sky from my balcony. Now I want to see it from Antarctica.