Discussions about online fatigue and the value of face-to-face experiences are prevalent these days. I’m sure we’ll have more virtual options in the future, but engaging with a screen can’t compete with being on site and physically being with others.
I receive many emails from places like Road Scholar advertising a virtual tour to countries like Ireland or Italy. I delete them. The value of traveling for me is to experience the culture and make emotional connections. A virtual tour just doesn’t make it.
I’m returning from my first long-distance trip in a year, which included a tour of a historic fort in Mobile, Alabama. History became real when I touched the cannons and strolled the same beach that had been a battleground for many others before me. Walking the same pathways where the enlisted men ate and slept in tight barracks, passing the laundry room where women suffered verbal abuse from some of the men, and touching a memorial honoring a relative killed at the fort, left me with a powerful feeling of connection.
I wondered if others had similar reactions. I asked a fellow writer for her opinion. Liisa Eyerly visited Pompeii while researching for her mystery novel, which is set in a Roman city seventeen years after the volcano Vesuvius erupted. As Liisa sat as a spectator in their historic theater and walked through their market square and along an excavated popina (a sidewalk bar) her story came to life. She clearly saw her characters’ homes decorated with paintings of their gods, statues of their heroes, and elaborate floor mosaics. After touring the area, it was easy for Liisa to write about the men and women who loved their families and the finer things in life, including tasty food and rousing entertainment. I’ve gotten a sneak preview of her novel, Obedient Unto Death, launching in December. Readers will enjoy solving the mystery, but they’ll also appreciate the immersion in that fascinating era and exotic setting.
Similarly, I’ve seen pictures of the long line of people hiking up Alaska’s Chilkoot and White Pass trails on their way to find gold. Still, it wasn’t until I put my foot in the depression of others and saw the discarded cans and a rusted sewing machine along the trail that that time in history came to life. I felt their initial hope and excitement and their dreams of wealth, which soon dissolved along with the soles of their shoes. Their desperation became as real as their weary horses, their dying dreams, and their uncertainty of survival.
I was also deeply affected emotionally while touring the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor. The visitors gathered at the underwater tomb of 1,177 service members were respectful and somber, allowing one to reflect on the tragedy of war. Anger over the attack, sadness for the loss of lives and the grieving families left behind, gratitude and pride for those who fought, and thankfulness for the officials who finally put an end to the war flooded over me. Tears rolled down my face, and I felt a powerful connection to the past.
We don’t need to travel far to find this same connection, and it doesn’t have to involve tragedy. I feel it when I hike a favorite trail in the Dells. Walking in the folds of the fern-lined sandstone cliffs and seeing a turkey vulture fly out of a cave, where I’m sure she has a nest, makes me imagine earlier times when Native Americans must have hiked this same path. Had they, too, seen a nesting turkey vulture? Had they, too, had this same feeling of being sheltered from the outside, cozily enclosed by the protective sandstone cliffs? Did they, too, see strange shapes in the rocks? Did they, too, feel humbled while thinking about the people who walked in this valley before them and who will walk in it long after they’re gone?
Whether on an exotic trip or in special places close to home, we can experience the wonder of connecting with those who have come before.