Why I Bother
Out the train window in the early morning fog a light dusting of frost, evocative of mint glace, covered the green landscape. It was the end of another rewarding European summer, and I was riding the RER train from St. Michel-Norte Dame station to Charles De Gaulle airport, homeward bound. As I rode, I mused over a story I had just heard, about ‘an eighty-year old woman who had recently died in her sleep at an International Youth Hostel in Norway. Her passport was filled with visa stamps showing constant travel for the last ten years, not just around Europe, but also to exotic ports, Myanmar, Rarotonga, Eritrea, and Reunion Island. Her battered backpack, worn clothes (a couple of pairs of long pants, hiking shorts, a few shirts, a sweater), warm jacket, rain gear and hiking boots seemed secondary to the volume of journals, post cards and address books that filled her pack. Other than her country of origin listed in her passport, the hostel manager could find no permanent address listed, nor next of kin. ‘Leave it to the embassy,’ that was his solution I was told.’ Over the years, I have learned travel can be addictive and like any other opiate, it reels you in when you least expect it. Obviously for this octogenarian woman her original week or month of wandering off the grid had turned into a way of life.
My morning musings also bought to mind another unusual travel story told to me many years ago. ‘A stately old Englishman of some means, the father-in-law of one of my oldest friend’s, had listed on his passport, occupation: Gentleman.’ How descriptively quaint. It was then I decided, that at the next re-issuance of my own passport, the new one would read occupation: Traveler. Much like the 80 year old mystery woman, I decided then and there, what I intended to do with my waning days. After a lifetime of working and parenting, I decided it was time. After all, I was getting a little long in the tooth. The travel seed had been firmly planted in me many years ago, and it was time to fess up.
Gazing out that train window at the bucolic scene, I recalled the wonderful time during my fourth year, when my grandfather David Eck, an immigrant from Sweden lived in our household. His story was not much different from the multitude of immigrants processed through Ellis Island in the late nineteenth century.
He originally arrived in America in 1874, at age ten; the minimum age to enter the US at the time was twelve. Rather than send him back, the Ellis Island personal changed his papers to read the requisite age. The spelling of his name, Ek – meaning oak in Swedish - was considered too short so it was also changed, from Ek to Eck. After finishing a tool and dye apprenticeship in Boston, his sense of wanderlust led him to embark on a trip across North America, jumping trains, lumberjacking and taking odd jobs to make his way through his newly adopted land. Here was a brilliant, self-educated man, whose main goal in life was to see the world, until he became smitten with my grandmother, which tethered him with the responsibility of supporting her and their six children.
All his life when the sun when down, this tall, angular, rather regal looking, gentleman with a shock of silver hair and gentle grey eyes, developed a bacchanalian bent, which that year became the bane of my mother’s life. Her sense of propriety was so offended with the constant disruption of both her and my father’s sleep by the midnight calls to fetch him because of his carousing ways, she finally had him banished; sent off to my aunt’s who lived on a country lake far enough from the nearest town to keep him out of my mother’s hair and harms way. It wasn’t that my mother didn’t know what she was getting into. Rather, I believe, though I know she loved him deeply, she had hoped old age had tempered his thirst, but obviously it didn’t.
Yet for me, it was a momentous year. Grandpa Eck was my first travel guru, and we sprawled out together on the living room carpet, spreading out each new monthly National Geographic map and the companion monthly magazine. It was my dear Grandpa Eck, who first told me about Ladakh, a mysterious land of tantric Buddhist monasteries and a strange mountainous moon-like landscape. After he left, I continued our monthly geographical searches for obscure unique world venues. By age seven, I had decided that the ‘soul of the world’ must be in Ladakh. I also decided I would go there before I died. Just to make sure, of course.
Although there were many other fantastic places worldwide I had not seen, I never forgot my childhood memories of Ladakh. Upon returning home from my latest European trip, in September of 2006, at age 66, I walked into my workplace and said, “I am leaving in June.” There, it was done.
I spend most of the winter, deciding what to take, buying luggage and trekking shoes, and deciding on a basic itinerary. Because I believe fervently that flying anywhere for less then a few weeks is thriftless, I planned a sojourn of much more than just Ladakh. Other than a summer in China and Tibet in 2002, I would be in Asia for the first time in my life, and I was going to make the most of it.
My Gosh! What am I going to wear?
Note: Recently, a rather intellectual sort read Why I Bother. “Is this fiction?” He asked. “How could an elderly man in the 1940s have so much information about the world without our modern technology.”
It gave me pause. ‘Was this a four year’s old personal fantasy about the facts, of how it really happened? Who know? But that is how I remember the events of that wonderful year , so I’m sticking to them.
Note: Since traveling to Ladakh, I have learned that Mt Kailask in western Tibet is really considered the ‘soul of the world’ by many eastern religions, (Jains, Hindus, Buddhists and Bons) and body willing, I will go there and decide upon its mystical powers for myself.