People who know me refuse to travel with me. I don't understand this. I think I am the perfect travel companion -- curious, unflappable, knowledgeable, cheerful, seasoned, undemanding, prepared. But friends claim that I don't go on vacations; I go on disasters.
People travel for a lot of reasons -- to lounge around and do nothing, to learn about places, to challenge themselves, "for the sake of the kids," to bask in the envy of friends and enemies, or just to eat and drink extravagantly every night. But if all I am going to do is lay around and rest up, I stay at home -- it's cheaper. I'm not into the envy thing. My children are grown and on their own. I've always preferred the learn-about-new-places-and test-myself kind of vacation.
Many people seem happier planning a trip than actually doing it. They have to maximize every minute, worry about whether they will have time to see the biggest ball of string in the world, if the hotel has their reservation, if there is a MickyD nearby. Their vacation ends up like a checklist and time-and-motion study, and if it doesn't turn out exactly as planned, they return disappointed. People like this ought to go on a canned cruise: No surprises, everything just like home and on schedule, and if the passengers come down with some hideous stomach ailment, they get reimbursed.
This is not for me. I make no plans, no reservations, no checklists; I don't look at weather forecasts. Sometimes I start out for Point A but end up at Point J because I got distracted somewhere around Point F. I do some homework, but not a lot of planning. I find my passport if I plan to leave the country, but I prefer to do most of my traveling in the Four Corner states and Wyoming -- the more remote, the better.
The best vacations, according to psychologists, aren't ranked by how long you travel or how much time you spend getting ready to go. This is reassuring, since short vacations -- sometimes only a few days long -- are my specialty. The intensity of the experience is what matters, even if it is painful or scary. I remember those exciting moments and how I felt after it was all over.
Did I really lose a front tooth in French Guiana one time? Yes, and if I had more time I could explain why it was sort of worth it. I've come back from vacations bug-bitten, sunburned, scabbed up and sometimes even hungry. But what's the point of traveling if you only eat food you can find at home? I would have missed Royal Rat in Belize, cowfoot soup, guinea pig on a stick, iguana eggs and once even the whole iguana, a key ingredient of Don't Ask Stew.
What I remember most about really good vacations are often the low points -- killer diarrhea, say, or getting robbed or lost, or tumbling down a canyon face. But I never forget moments of awe -- being surrounded by butterflies in a jungle clearing in Peru or watching a drop-dead sunset from the edge of a canyon in Utah.
Not all my vacations have been short and intense, but I cannot imagine staying in one place more than a day or two. The place starts getting predictable, whether it's a big city or a lake in the Wind River Range. My favorite vacations involve doing things one wouldn't ordinarily do, like poking around where you're not supposed to, looking for weird stuff. And understanding that not everything you do will turn out well.
I love searching for butterflies in the Spring Mountains, or coatis waving their long tails in troops or the aptly named elegant trogon, a bird in the Chiricahuas. I like to have a focus, something to help organize my way of looking at the world. It doesn't matter if it's cemeteries, doors, cacti, Utah petroglyphs, sandstone formations, ruins, falling-down buildings. Good vacations involve an element of surprise.
There is a word used by Chesapeake Bay watermen - "progging" -- that I'm told means poking around without a precise goal, hoping something might turn up. My travel approach seems a lot like progging, and some remarkable things have turned up. I may never missed that elegant trogon, but I think I saw some thick-billed parrots.
Rob Pudim is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He's rarely at home in Boulder, Colorado.