Oh the Places You’ll Go. A hopeful promise doled out to graduating seniors every year, conjuring up images of optimistic futures filled with limitless possibilities. It was hard to make those promises this year when the world screeched to a grinding halt in the middle of March. And it is hard to maintain that optimism and hopefulness as we enter into what is predicted to be the deadliest, darkest stretch of this pandemic. Still, as 2021 quietly creeps into our lives with cautiously less fanfare than 2020 did, there is a renewed, if at times vigilant sense of hope for the upcoming year. As a person who spends much of their free time hopping planes, trains, and automobiles to far-flung places, this year has been a challenge; a stifling, prolonged moment in time where one is forced to grapple with not only the larger narratives and hard truths of a world flung into chaos, but also of one’s own lived realities. Yet, it was a much needed, and at times, welcomed period of slowing down and reflection. Although 2020 may not have been full of the far-flung journeys or newfangled friendships across international borders that previous years have brought, it was not lacking for wonder or adventure, albeit it would have to be found a little closer to home.
With a deep-seated sense of loss for the things that could have been, combined with an unwavering uncertainty about the future, I find that there is still much to be thankful for in 2020. The following is a loose rambling of my thoughts and reflections on a year that has been like no other.
New Year Eve 2019. The fire blazed into the humid black sky as a crackling sound engulfed the low rhythmic beats coming from the nearby stage. With the burning of individual Ano Viejos all around us, the promise of 2020 loomed bright on this celebratory night ringing in the New Year on Isle Isabella in the Galapagos. Whether it was from the loud thumping music, the festive street stalls selling liquor and fried snacks, or the beer I had had with dinner, the hopeful anticipation of 2020 and the decade to follow beamed from every corner of Puerta Villamil.
By the time my second, and what would turn out to be my last international trip of 2020 came around in February, stories of a new, unknown virus were already creeping into the news around the world. As I packed my bags and dusted off my passport for Iceland, I told myself there was no need to worry, we had seen this before. As with sars 1, H1N1, Ebola, Zika, etc., it would be contained in some other part of the world- that sort of thing can’t happen here. Still, a few hours before I was to set out for JFK airport, I found myself desperately searching for a mask. Just for the flight. Just in case.
A few hours later, I emerged into the arrival terminal at Keflavik International Airport, carelessly wandering among thousands of people from all over the world, rubbing elbows as I tried to reach for a few extra bottles of Malbec and Brennivin from the duty-free liquor store. Within a few hours, I was blissfully floating along the sulfur-laced hot waters of the Blue Lagoon with not a care in the world. Little did I know how much that world was about to change.
By mid-March, news outlets and media were warning of what may lie ahead if things we had never heard of, things like “community spread” took place. They offered unsolicited advice and numerous precautions one could and should take to thwart the virus. And then, seemingly overnight, as the whole world shut down, my day-to-day life took on a very different rhythm. Suddenly, I found I had hours within the day I had never had before. The daily chaos of teaching all day, dashing off to the city in the evening to teach a course, and squeezing in writing my dissertation proposal in any free hours I could find suddenly shifted to a less hectic schedule of reading books I had piled on my shelves over the years, taking long leisurely walks through my neighborhood, and listening to podcasts…..all the podcasts. Still, with the cancellations of my planned spring and summer trips, the reality of the virus and the border closings it prompted took hold and seemed to suffocate me in its grasp. Oh the place you won’t go increasingly became the new mantra of 2020.
Now, please don’t misunderstand me. I am fully aware that not being able to travel has been a minimal inconvenience compared to those families and individuals who have lost a loved one or their lively hoods or both since Covid-19 came barreling through our front door. But for my fellow travelers out there, whose identities are bound up in knowing that a previously unexplored part of the world was just a click of a plane ticket away, the sense of loss is real. What I found however, was the best parts of traveling, the things that make it truly special, do not need to be had thousands of miles away. I found that one can nourish their intrepid appetite right here at home, if they’re willing to work for it. So, with an open mind I adjusted my travel lens and spent most of 2020 exploring my own backyard.
From the hidden beaches of Long Island, where you can wander and not be bombarded with thousands of people jostling for the same stretch of sand, to the crisp mountain air in the Adirondacks, to the beguiling natural wonders of the Finger Lakes region, New York State proved to be a worthy companion for my wanderlust.
I learned to paddle board, found new places to hike, and had (for the first time) some extra money lying around to fix up my house.
I enjoyed the wineries of the North Fork, took crisp morning hikes in the Catskills, and enjoyed warm apple donuts from local cider mills.
I spent time with my dog and my mom, uncovered local histories, and learned about Long Island’s heroes; both past and present.
I celebrated the centennial anniversary of women’s suffrage, stumbled my way through Watkins Glenn for sunrise, and stared longingly across to Canada from the northern cliffs of New York State.
I took in the sunset from the hospitality of a friend’s cabin in the mountains, found my way onto secluded islands in Indian Lake and Moriches Bay, and scaled fire towers for panoramic views.
I had a long-overdue reunion with beloved college friends, sipped hard-seltzers at the beach, enjoyed my favorite old restaurants, and discovered new ones that I love.
I learned to appreciate the beauty of the sky, the simplicity of nature, and the power of kindness and humanity.
I spent more time with friends outdoors (when it was safe), discovered new paths to bike and waterways to paddle, and had some amazing encounters with local wildlife.
In the end, I came to love New York more broadly and in ways I had not previously known or expected. I also came to know more about my home country and fellow Americans in ways that both lifted my spirits, and at times, challenged me.
As the original epicenter of the pandemic in our nation, New York demonstrated once again that this is a resilient and tough place that doesn’t falter in the face of tragedy or despair. I watched in tears and trepidation as friends and colleagues lost loved ones, elderly and immune compromised friends and family lived in panic, and as beloved stores and restaurants closed their doors. I watched in horror and sadness as the lively, bustling city I love so much became, however temporarily, a backdrop for a dystopian future. But I also watched as families donated money and supplies to local hospitals, as first-responders and essential workers risked their lives and health so that our society could continue, and perhaps most importantly, I watched as our nation finally began to emerge from its long slumber in facing racial inequalities. As calls for social justice rippled across the nation and world, that old familiar mindset of “how important it is for me to bare witness to this” creeped in. And, maybe that’s the thing. Maybe, rather than escaping to a seaside Balkan city this summer where I could sip wine, explore ancient ruins, and read about the tragic, yet beautiful histories of other countries, I was meant to bare witness to the very same forces taking hold within my own. Maybe, with most Americans being confined within our own borders for most of 2020, we were given an incredible opportunity to take a deeper look and reckon with our own histories, cultures, and peoples. Indeed, an opportunity to reckon with ourselves. Where we choose to go with that is up to each of us, but as we sit at the dawn of a new decade, if we are truthful and hopeful in spirit and mind, and intentional in our actions…oh the places we’ll go.