Tuesday, August 5, 2014

His Greatest Day (So Far)

Did you see this news story?

I love this story. I dig this kid. But  I’m sorry to tell his parents that—I fear—he has caught the Wanderlust.

9-year-old Chris Villavicencio is going to be the kind of person that needs to explore the world. Chris has had the first taste of the freedom, the exhilaration, the satisfaction that only traveling alone can give you. And once you get a taste of that, the yearning for another fix very rarely goes away.

And I know that Wanderlust well. That feeling of setting out on your own and exploring the world. All by yourself. And having the best day ever (so far).

Some people think it is quite weird that I love to travel alone. It really is my favorite way to travel. It’s not that I don’t like to share experiences with the people I love. Of course I enjoy that. I love seeing the kiddos run on a tropical beach. I love cooking s’mores with my sisters. But traveling alone feeds my soul in a way that I have yet to find a replacement for.

I love to be able to go where I want. I love to take detours. I want to get lost. I love to pipe an audiobook through car speakers as I am driving down a road that may just lead me to the world’s largest ball of string or recently discovered dinosaur bones. I love stopping at those metal signs dotting the highways, telling us that something important happened at that exact spot. I am more than willing to evaluate anything edible that claims to be “the world’s best.” Because, sometimes, it really is.

Anyone who really knows me shouldn’t be entirely surprised by this. My family likes to remind me that, since I was a baby, I liked to be on my own. My mother recounts stories of how she knew when I was sick because it was the only time I would let her hold and cuddle me. And my first week of Kindergarten is the stuff of legend.

My mother sent me off to school along the route that we had practiced walking the week before. The crossing guard introduced himself, offered me a Tootsie Roll (“It’s ok to eat because he isn’t a stranger,” said Mom.), and ushered me across the street. But somewhere between that crosswalk and the school doors, my imagination was captured by this giant open field. Huge piles of dirt. A stagnant water pond that with tadpoles swimming in it. The bones of some animal I could not identify. That field demanded to be explored. It was much more exciting—and, I still contend, much more educational—than some stupid Kindergarten class.

Well, that went on for an entire week. I would wave goodbye to my mother, cross the street, and head straight for the field. Then the school called my mom to ask her if I would be attending school that year. I can only imagine the incredulous look on my mom’s face as she was being told how I had not been in class for the entirety of the last week. I can’t quite remember her nonplussed tone of voice when she asked me how I was liking my teacher (who I had yet to meet). But I can almost hear it. It wasn’t until I became a mother myself that I truly knew what that fear-induced-sudden-drop-of-all-internal-organs feels like.

That may have been the start of my Wanderlust.

And, unfortunately, I think I am still giving my mom that same stomach pit. Sorry Mom. My family doesn’t really understand why I would ditch them at the beautiful Cancun resort to climb on a hot bus to see Chichen Itza. For me, hearing the magical acoustic qualities of a 2000-year old Aztec pyramid trumps a pina colada by the pool any day.

And it didn’t surprise my family one bit when I announced that I would be spending my vacation this year on a road trip to try to see the Northern Lights. This October, I am packing a small carry-on bag, flying to Minneapolis, and heading towards the rim of the Arctic Circle. Maybe I will see the wild polar bears with their cubs. Maybe I will see Aurora Borealis. And if I don’t? I will try to again on another great adventure. Finland, anyone? And don’t worry, guys. I will totally be blogging this upcoming adventure.

I have always needed to travel. I remember the thrill of getting my first passport. And using it on my first adventure outside the country. And having it stamped as I walked off the plane in Milan.

My Italy story is a tale of the Davids.

After I graduated from college, I had the unique opportunity to take a 3-month-long trip to Italy. I was seeing a guy that was in the Air Force and stationed at an airbase outside of Venice. Because there were many more people stationed there than there were base housing units, the Air Force found small apartments in a town called Portofino to cover the housing gap. With my guy settled into one of these apartments, I could not only crash there, I could come and go as I pleased. And that was exactly what I did.

My Grandpa David really understood me. A retired doctor who could never satisfy his thirst for knowledge, he introduced me to the ideas that the world was meant to be seen and that no home should have anything less than a wall full of books. In a lot of ways, he understood me more than my parents or sisters did.  He was the one that heartily encouraged me to go seek adventure in Italy. He was the one that warned me that being in Florence would be a life-altering experience. It was his favorite place on Earth. So far.

He was right about Florence.

Florence was where I learned that there is truth in clich├ęs.  My breath was very literally taken away when I turned the corner of the Galleria dell'Accademia and saw David under the natural light of the glassed dome 20 feet above him. It was a gloomy late fall day, and rain speckled the glass. The storm clouds caused the light to become soft and diffused in the great hall, built in the 16th century.

It was a magical moment. It seemed like the whole city was taking cover from the storm. Tourist season was over. The usual bustle of the street market was calm. And David and I were completely alone for 5 minutes.

Aside— When Michelangelo was 26, he was given a block of marble—rejected by many other artists—from which he bore what is arguably his finest work. Let’s all stop for a moment and think about what we were doing when we were 26 years old. At least I can say this: By the time I was 26, I had seen the small stone David carried in his delicately-veined right hand.

As I was leaving Florence, I purchased a postcard of David and mailed it to the tiny town of Toquerville, where David had one of the largest mailboxes available in that tiny post office. He received more correspondence in a week than the rest of that rural hamlet received in a month.

Grandpa David received my postcard from Florence. He died only a few weeks later, as I was on the plane traveling home. But I got to tell him that he was right about Florence and right about exploring the world.

Dr. David knew that there was no cure for Wanderlust. Young Chris Villavicencio, take it from me. You can’t fight it. So you might as well embrace it.


  1. Your adventures are a highlight; the stories you can tell your kidlet and grandkidlets will be legendary. I'm happy to have seen you explore life.

  2. Your way of expressing yourself, of telling a story with such vision, takes my breath away! I've learned a lot from you - Don't stop traveling, exploring or letting us live through you!