It’s 5 a.m. and I’m on the 12th floor of a Crowne Plaza hotel looking out the window. Down below in the parking lot I can see a white pick-up camper. It showed up just after sunset last night. The owners are fairly bold to spend the night in the parking lot of this hotel, especially when there are numerous open parking lots nearby and the hotel lot is quite small. Perhaps they are connected to the hotel in some capacity, because when walking by earlier I could see that they had strung an electric cord to an open socket on the nearby lamp post, too. Either that, or they have cajones the size of bowling balls.
Although I am ensconced in the plush trappings of the hotel, and it is cold outside, I still find myself looking down on the camper with a little wistfulness. The truck camper says something to me about the freedom of roaming around and staying where you want. I imagine that the occupants are on a big road trip, and I remember how it feels to pull up in a strange town and find a place to park for the night. It’s fun and frightening. I want to do it again soon.
When we came “off the road” from full-time Airstream travel last October, I didn’t think it would turn out like this. I have been traveling quite a bit lately, and much of it has been in the conventional venues of airplanes and hotels. I really envisioned months in our house, slowly and luxuriously exploring the nooks and crannies of Tucson, and occasionally slipping away for weekends with friends in the Airstream. Instead I have been flying around hunting for business and trying to survive a tough business climate for magazine publishers.
There is rarely anything memorable about modern air travel, except when awful things happen, which is probably why most people regard it as an experience simply to be endured. The only really good thing I can recall about my most recent 10 flight segments was the singing Flight Attendant on Southwest Airlines:
We love you
You love us
We’re much faster than the bus
We hope you enjoyed our hospitality
Marry one of us and fly for free
I’m already married, so if I had a choice I’d rather be traveling in the Airstream. But business happens at high speed sometimes, and then you fly the Airbus 319 (or the Boeing 737, or the Canadair RJ700, or whatever they’re flying that day). I’m on a two-day quick trip right now, and later this month I may have another one. It would be hard to complete these missions in the Airstream, especially with winter weather. Rapid travel is what I must do to survive, so that’s what I’m doing. I can take solace in the fact that the Airstream will be there for me later.
A peculiar aspect of jet travel is how quickly the scenery and climate change. Yesterday we were hiking in the Santa Catalina mountains, up the steep Ventana Canyon trail. We stopped about two miles up the trail and looked back on the rugged canyons, studded with saguaro cactus and palo verde, with the city of Tucson spread out below. It was breezy and in the 80s, and the springtime pollen was blowing around, which made us cough a little. We had lunch under a mesquite tree, and I thought, “24 hours from now, this will all seem like a far-off memory.” And now, here in a northern city with patches of snow on the damp, muddy ground, it does.
When we had the Airstream, that sort of change rarely happened. At 60 MPH, you can pass through a lot of terrain in a day, but the evolution of climates and landscapes happens at a speed you can easily absorb. The most dramatic change we ever had in a day was leaving Death Valley and driving up to Mammoth Lakes CA. Death Valley was heading for 116 degrees, but that evening we camped in a green pine forest with snow all around us. When your environment changes that rapidly, it’s nice to have familiar surroundings. When you don’t even have that (as in a hotel), it is much harder to stay on an even keel …
… which explains why I’m up at 5 a.m. I don’t sleep as well in hotels as I do in one of the two beds I know (the house and the Airstream). The Crowne Plaza has a wonderfully comfortable bed and even a handy little “Sleep Advantage” CD with soothing sounds. The booklet that comes with the CD lists ten “Sleep Tips,” most of which I usually observe naturally, but nonetheless here I am wide awake far too early, on what promises to be a very busy day.
Still, early mornings like this are an opportunity. I can get a jump on the day, writing a little, editing a little, and thinking without the slightest chance of interruption. It’s a chance to re-think priorities and consider options. Lots of people wake up this early every day and just get on with their routine, but since it’s a rare thing for me, it’s always bonus time. You’ve got to take the bonus time when you get it.
And the flip side of the rapid change in scenery is that it will all change back again in 24 hours. Tucson is getting warmer — the way I like it — and my daughter is getting taller, and my wife is expecting me with open arms, which are all things I can look forward to embracing. If I can’t travel with all the things that I love, at least I can get back to them soon enough.