I took a trip last week, my first since November 2019. It was just a short up-and-back, three-day trip to Seattle, one of my favorite cities, but a trip nonetheless. I called it my “training-wheel trip,” just a quick jaunt to see what travel felt like in this new world. And make no mistake about it, this is a new world. I also had some mileage to use up (from cancelled 2020 trips), and two free hotel nights, also left over from 2020.
I couldn’t have asked for a smoother flight up (the one back was delayed by a half-hour or so, packed, and I was seated next to two millennials who evidently thought the party started the second they sat down on the plane … kids, don’t drink and fly). The airports were crowded but not obnoxiously so … and what’s the deal with SeaTac (the Seattle airport)? I swear that place is permanently under construction. And Alaska Airlines … just tear down the N terminal and start over. It’s never going to be anything special.
When I first got to Seattle, I thought it was going to be a weird trip. The area near my hotel (right next to the Convention Center) was deserted, giving the city a kind of ghost town feeling. I roamed up into Capitol Hill to a couple of favorite bookstores, and while there were people around, it still felt weird and empty. I had dinner at a favorite pizza place and I was pretty much the only person in the restaurant, while there were others who came and went, picking up takeout orders.
The next day I walked out to Seattle Center, home of the Space Needle and the Museum of Popular Culture, and that made me feel a bit better. The weather was spectacular for the entire trip (see photos above) and the tourist Mecca that is the Center made my trip feel much closer to “normal,” whatever that may be right now. It was crowded and busy with a lot of people lined up to go up into the Needle. I also went to Pike Place Market, my favorite Seattle haunt, and that was really crowded and busy too, as was the Waterfront area, which I strolled though mid-afternoon. I ate dinner at Pike Place Chowder, which was wonderful, as usual, but located in an all but empty downtown mall, Pacific Place. That felt a bit eerie, to say the least, even though the upper floor restaurants were busy and people were standing in line to get into the AMC Theaters to see a movie.
I honestly don’t know how travel is going to be moving forward. My own situation has changed, in that I’m now retired, and travel that isn’t “subsidized,”—i.e. mileage points for airfare, hotel points for rooms—is just not going to be financially viable for me in the future. And that’s a personal change unrelated to the pandemic.
On the pandemic side, I was shocked to see how many things were closed or just plain gone from downtown Seattle. I can only imagine it’s going to be the same in any major city or even small town. I am tempted to do more car travel, but truth be told, I’ve never liked driving (especially in California), so I don’t know how viable that is. And even though I was gone for only three days, I felt this insistent tug to be back home again, no doubt reinforced by being there these past 15 months. I went out a lot in those months, but I always came home the same day. Being away, sleeping in a hotel bed, felt … weird.
I have a very hopeful trip planned for the fall which will take me back to London for an extended period. This is a trip where I have so many hotel points, I can stay for multiple nights for free, and it’s the only way I could afford such a trip in my retirement. It may be, sadly, my last trip to the UK. With their complete reopening on hold now for another 30 days, I’m not sure what the future holds for that trip. I know I don’t want to go if I have to endure multiple COVID tests and have to quarantine in a hotel for the bulk of my stay there.
The allure of travel remains strong for me, but sometimes I feel it’s like a line from an old song called “Greyhound” by the late singer/songwriter Harry Chapin: “It’s got to be the going, not the getting there, that’s good.” I love to plan travel. I love to read travel guides and websites and make lists and find new places to go. But I do hate the plane flights and the airport waiting areas and … well, the enforced proximity of people.
The fall is three months away; a lot can change, for better or worse. The one thing I do know is that life in retirement is going to be different for me, with or without the pandemic. I should embrace and enjoy travel while I can, but I know it’s never going to be like it was in 2019, when I visited six different—and wonderful—cities in one year.