Jolted Into Journeys

What I most like about travel is it keeps me on my toes. No matter where you go, whether it’s two counties away to check out a local event, or two days away on a unique adventure, you always have new sensations to feel, new ideas to ponder, and new people to enjoy. In being human, many of us like to get comfortable, I know I sure do. I sleep best on my own mattress, feel better when I can cook my own delectable foods, and I savor the utter peace of my little home in the woods. But I can’t get too comfortable at home or I start to slide into ruts, complacency, and can tend toward being less tolerant. Traveling may not be for everyone, but it is definitely a joy for me. There is a whole world out there, after all, and it’s full of extraordinary wildlife, breathtaking landscapes, and fascinating, diverse cultures.

I grew up in a household where we took road trips several times a year, so I absorbed some of the travel bug at a young age. Then in college I worked two jobs and saved up enough money to spend a semester in Austria. But here’s the real dirty secret that set my life on course:  I was jolted into journeys by the Loma Prieta Earthquake.

It was a regular work day in downtown San Francisco, October 17, 1989. At that time I was a freelance writer in the mornings, and in the afternoons I had an administrative job in a big law firm downtown. I was in a high-rise building, in a room with six or seven other people when we were all literally knocked off our feet. I knew to go to the doorway and stand under the jamb where it was safest, but trying to get there was like walking on an airplane in extreme turbulence. The cubicle walls were swaying so savagely that I couldn’t grab onto anything to stay upright. The whole building jumped and jerked:  file cabinet drawers flew open, desks were dancing, and people were tumbling like dominoes. My co-workers and I huddled in the doorway watching out the window at the next door high-rise swaying dangerously close to us; we watched a Coke machine in their breakroom get flipped on its side.

After 15 seconds or so (it felt like a lifetime), the violent shaking stopped. We all knew that it wasn’t over, though, because aftershocks would inevitably follow. Attorneys and professionals in business suits were screaming and crying, many folks were huddled on the floor, and through it all an announcement on the public address system instructed us to leave the building immediately. I got to the appropriate stairwell but I smelled fire, and my instincts flared up a warning. I looked at the masses of people in that crowded stairwell and didn’t know what to do. Were we walking into a fire?  But elevators were out of service and the crowd seemed to be moving. I was also disheartened by a five foot concrete wall hanging that was on the ground in broken hunks crowding the stairs.

Eventually I got out of the building, found my girlfriend who had been working on the 21st floor. We got to the sidewalk but this was no safe place either. Bricks were popping off of buildings and plate glass windows were exploding. With the flying bricks and broken glass, the center of the streets started to fill with people emptying out of the buildings. We all walked, not exactly knowing where to go. It was 5:15 so fortunately it wasn’t yet dark. Traffic lights were not working, unattended alarms were screaming, buildings were in piles, people were stunned—some cut and bloody, some speechless, some sobbing uncontrollably.

As we walked along in the flustered crowd, we learned that the World Series baseball game, playing across the Bay that day, had experienced live coverage of the earthquake. The world had watched our earthquake. We also learned that the Bay Bridge, one of the two major bridge arteries to the City, had collapsed.

We kept walking. I remember one particularly busy intersection that was thrown into chaos without the traffic lights. Several homeless dudes had taken to directing traffic and restored some order. All the buses were filled to capacity and there was mayhem everywhere, so we just kept walking toward home, still miles away. The street was loaded with walking people. After awhile residents with pick-up trucks opened up their back tailgates and allowed whoever could fit onto the truck bed to hitch a ride down Market Street. We hopped on for the last mile or so.

After that day I started to eat dessert first. I decided to go for the gusto first, in case an aftershock took my life and I wouldn’t make it through the entire meal. I started to think differently. Some people had died that day; everyone had stories of friends or family who didn’t make it through that day. And I noticed a few people at work who had a difficult time recovering from the emotional trauma; some poor folks went out on permanent disability.

I glued myself back together, just like I glued broken items back together that I had found shattered on the floor of my apartment. With each new day I felt better, I survived the aftershocks, and although there was some looting, mostly the community did well and we helped each other. I did have to stop going to a certain Pier One store, though, because it happened to be located under a commercial gym. And the shaking of those walls when someone upstairs put down their barbells was entirely too unnerving for me to stay in the store. As long as the walls and floors didn’t shake I did okay, and fortunately there was never a really big earthquake like that again.

We all have these situations in our lives at one time or another, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly. Natural disasters that rip the roof of your house, ghastly terrorist nightmares, devastating experiences, accidents. They remind us that life is fleeting and there might not be a tomorrow. That can be a very humbling, but useful, reminder.

Usually, however, there is a tomorrow. Most of us cannot afford to stop working and just do fun things. Bills have to be paid, we have responsibilities and aspirations like education, career, dependent loved ones. It’s a difficult balance of immediate gratification vs. future goals, and a lifelong conundrum of how to manage our time and funds to embrace both.

In the decades that followed the devastating earthquake that rattled me into adulthood, I have found that if I am still yearning for something six months or a year after I started thinking about it, then it’s something I need to attend to. Travel, career change, relationship, whatever. Sometimes it’s a matter of researching it fully and discovering the truth about my dream before I actually embark. In regard to travel, for instance, if I realize that a place may be too touristy for me or what it would cost to get there is not worth it to me, I change the dream. Other times, the more I look into it, the more I realize that this is a place I really want to visit. Then I set down the plans for doing it and stay focused on my goal.

LandIguana.BTPhelanLike a trip to the Galapagos Islands. To be up close to something like this land iguana, well, that was a total thrill. That trip was something I had always wanted to do and it was really really fun. It had its moments of discomfort (like throwing up my dinner every night when we had to return to our rocky boat), but many more moments of wonderfully freaky creatures and crazy adventures. Right now I am working on a mystery novel that is set in Africa, but there is definitely a novel-in-waiting set in the Galapagos.

The world is a gigantic place. Sometimes it’s hard to get going on the specifics of just where to go first. But keep at it and it gets easier, because you become more familiar with what brings you the most joy.

Once when I was working at a shop on a busy street in Oakland, I was walking down the sidewalk to get something to eat for my break. It was a part-time evening job after a long day of working my “day job.”  I had started my own business and I wanted to keep it going but I couldn’t support myself with it entirely, so I worked this night job for the extra income.  That night I had my head down, deep in thought about something, and a homeless guy was spread out on the sidewalk. I had hardly noticed him. He said in a deep voice, and very clearly, “Keep your eye on the prize.”  I’ve been doing so ever since and I hope you are too.

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