At 16, I had the world figured out. One trip fixed that.
It was the summer between my junior and senior years, and my public high school in San Diego made me an offer I couldn’t pass up: a semi-academic tour of Europe. Five weeks. No parent. College dorm accommodations. Two teacher-escorts with specialties in art history and literature. The tab was about $1,700 — that is, 1977 dollars. My dad was a community college teacher. But I lobbied hard. London was the first stop on the trip, and I was desperate to see the country that gave the world the Beatles. The rest of Europe? Whatever.
My parents didn’t care about the Beatles. But they had lived briefly in Germany and honeymooned in France and Italy, which were all on the itinerary. They knew what the trip could mean, and they made it happen. Pretty soon, I was drinking my first pint of Guinness (legally) and hunting down the Abbey Road crosswalk.
At some point between Big Ben and a fledgling restaurant called the Hard Rock Cafe, a few of us struck up a conversation with a retired concert pianist on a park bench at Hampstead Heath. We talked about various cities in the world. He found New York pleasant enough, but those numbered streets and avenues? Was nobody creative enough to give them names?
I’d never thought of that — numbered streets as a failure of imagination.
This seems like such a meager insight now, but I had never had that sort of conversation with a foreigner. Ever so gently, he was letting me know that the U.S. is just one country among many and that we all have something to offer and a lot to learn. He was teaching me the traveler’s humility.
The L.A. Zoo and campgrounds are closed, playgrounds open.
Over the following weeks, as we traipsed through 100 museums, palaces, libraries and cathedrals, each stop pried open my mind a bit further. Travel had me. By the time we got back to California, I felt like a different person — still pimpled and awkward, but now with a dash more savvy and emboldened curiosity, all invisible to the naked eye. And I understood that I would find no more entertaining way to be educated, no more educational way to be entertained.
Years after that initial voyage, when I saw a chance to earn a living by writing about travel, I didn’t hesitate.
I’d spend the next 28 years absorbing lessons from people all over the world — most of the states in the U.S. and Mexico; Moscow; Beijing; Cairo; Cape Town, South Africa; Isfahan, Iran; Patagonia; Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina; and Zagreb, Croatia, to name a few. In each place, people reminded me how little I knew.
Travel, as the 14th century Berber Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta wrote, “leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.”
Cataloging the pandemic
I knew 2020 would be the world’s busiest year of travel ever. It would be a year of too many flights and cruises and tours to count, too much on Instagram and TikTok from the same locations. I knew overtourism would become inescapable.
We’d wake up to the reality that too many people, perhaps including me, were burning too much carbon to grab selfies from a ridiculously short list of global beauty spots. I’d be writing a lot, I thought, about sustainability and how to gently decelerate.
Then late last winter came the squeal of brakes heard around the world: COVID-19, shutting down much of the world’s economy and mobility.
So in lieu of a 2020 travelogue, I created a plague journal to catalog the changes. A few notable entries:
March: As the novel coronavirus takes hold, my beat is redefined. Instead of visiting remote destinations around the world, my new territory is now the trails, beaches and public spaces of Southern California. Surely, this will last just weeks, maybe months, I tell myself. But the infection numbers get worse and public officials change tactics. My colleague Mary Forgione and I post bulletin after bulletin about what’s open and closed.
Toward the end of month, on a reporting foray to the half-open Grove shopping center, I run into the owner, Rick Caruso. We awkwardly bump elbows. “We have to find a way to put some smiles on our faces,” he says. We’re social animals, choosing moment by moment between ancient instincts and new imperatives, I jot down later. Let’s hope we’re doing it right.
May: I visit Joshua Tree National Parkas it reopens after being closed for most of the spring. As I rove among the campers, I toss questions from 6 feet away.
“We were so bored and itching to go somewhere,” says Ydris Hicks, who’s visiting from Carlsbad.
Nearby, on the park’s main road, Wanda and Rick Bogin steered their bikes. The two, who run a group tour business, were supposed to have been leading groups in New Orleans and New York. Instead, they’re here on their own.
“We’re trying to make lemonade out of it,” says Wanda.
Makes sense, I think.
June: After 78 days closed, casinos begin to reopen in Las Vegas. I board a plane for the first time since the pandemic shut down much of the country. The middle seats are empty — a welcome move by Southwest Airlines that will prove contentious in the months to come.
I arrive in time to see the Golden Nugget reopen at midnight. Ten hours later, the slot machines at the Bellagio are ready for a big score. Chrissie Douglas, a waitress at Claim Jumper, serves me on her first day back at work. “It’s been hard,” she says. “Locals are going nuts. We’ve been locked in.
“We hope to God our Californians come back,” she adds.
A few hours later, I notice people dropping their masks and inhibitions.
A Sunday in mid-June: Dozens of businesses in downtown Santa Barbara are in a state of crisis over lost revenues and city streets becalmed by the shutdown. The city’s leaders try an experiment in urban planning: They ban cars from a mile of State Street, a prime stretch of real estate, to let restaurants and bars extend temporary patios beyond sidewalks, onto parking lots and the street.
The result: the liveliest street scene in years, powered by pedestrians. In a day of wandering, I can’t find anyone who doesn’t love it.
At 6 p.m., at State and Haley, I start a tally — of 94 adult pedestrians and cyclists, I count 69 without masks, 25 with them.
July: My daughter, Grace, is 16. She has just finished 10th grade, and with my wife, Mary Frances, we’ve mapped out our first college road trip: a family adventure to the Bay Area and back with half a dozen campuses on the way.
The pandemic numbers start worsening across the nation — a Fourth of July viral hangover. We whittle our itinerary, then whittle some more, until our grand adventure is a single overnight in San Luis Obispo (where we have family). Then home again.
Grace is bummed but not astonished. Besides the college trip, this year was supposed to take her to Nevada, Arizona, Tennessee and Dublin, Ireland. All were canceled.
September: A hopeful sign for travelers and the industry: San Diego has held on to some of the state’s lowest COVID-19 infection rates, along with some of its highest hotel occupancy rates (around 50%). I drive south to see how restaurateurs and hoteliers are walking that fine line.
“This is healing,” saxophone player Jason Brown says as pedestrians stroll past sidewalk tables at Date and India streets. As in Santa Barbara, the street is as lively as ever, maybe livelier. But of 135 people I count at India and Fir, just 74 people are wearing masks over mouth and nose.
Soon after that visit, hundreds of cases break out among students at San Diego State, several miles away. Infection rates rise, rules tighten.
Late October in Hawaii: When the state softens its quarantine requirements and decides to let in COVID-tested travelers, I book a flight to see what Oahu looks like after six months without tourists.
Times photographer Kent Nishimura and I find that locals have retaken possession of the beaches and trails for the first time in generations. As the early-return tourists trickle in, locals vigorously enforce pandemic restrictions.
Professor Jonathan Kamakawiwoole Osorio, dean of the Hawaiinuiakea School of Hawaiian Knowledge at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, reminds me that after Europeans reached the islands in 1778, islanders endured a century of imported epidemics, reducing the native population by more than 90%.
“That’s something that’s in Hawaiian minds and understandings,” he says. “That’s something you really don’t mess around with.”
Late November: Thanksgiving is a fiasco. Experts beg, plead and threaten, but millions travel anyway; they want to see family. The infection numbers jump and ICU beds fill. On Dec. 3, Gov. Gavin Newsom issues an order that takes Californians nearly back to those most restrictive conditions in April.
After all the months of experimentation with partial openings and expanded patios, most restaurants are reduced to takeout only. Hotels are warned to accept only essential travelers, no tourists. Almost all international travel is on hold. All the experts seem to agree: Whatever promise the new vaccines may hold, a dark winter is coming first.
I try my best to explain to people why they should stay home.
What will the next generation of travel look like?
For all the enlightenment travel can bring, this pandemic is a reminder of what dark shadows it can cast. The spreading of disease. The subjugations of colonialism. Our carbon footprints. The widening opportunity gap between the rich and everyone else.
Travel will be different after this. For at least a little while, it will be cheaper as airlines, rental properties and hotels jostle to lure us back. But after that? It will be a more complex risk/reward equation, and Grace’s generation will be a delicate part of it.
A kid missing a trip barely qualifies as an inconvenience when there are 1.6 million people dead of COVID-19 worldwide. But around the world, legions of youths in their teens and 20s have lost travel opportunities as educational exchanges, sports programs, school trips, youth tour companies and hostels die, shrivel or struggle to reinvent themselves.
Can we really afford a new American generation that’s even less worldly than we are?
In sunnier moments, I agree with optimists such as Pauline Frommer, editorial director of Frommer’s guidebooks, who recently said: “I still believe in the kindness of strangers. And I definitely believe in the internet.”
I moved to L.A. but went back to where I was born for the holidays this year — Christmas City. I did as many festive activities as possible.
The internet, Frommer reminded me, is where “young, idealistic, excited people” can connect with others — particularly those “who just love to host travelers, who experience travel by bringing travelers into their homes,” whether they’re hosting Airbnb guests, housing exchange students or swapping houses.
I have no idea when or where my first travel assignment of 2021 will be. But at home, the virus and the experts willing, we’ve started thinking about Dublin in summer.
The other day, I asked Grace what challenged and excited her most about these trips.
“Just the experience of dealing with the unknown,” she said. “There are so many things you can’t control when you travel. It makes you more flexible, and it helps you in the bigger picture.”