"Vacations are the heart of the summer months. With the start of fall, we’re left with stories of where we’ve been and what we’ve seen. Writer John Hildebrand thinks the best memories are from when things go wrong."
What remains memorable after a journey are the things that went wrong. The capsized boat, the detour-to-nowhere, that little supper at the nightmare café--all these mishaps gain in reflection because they can be put into a story. And it’s the story you remember. The perfect vacation fades over time as it gets harder to separate actual memories from the generic scenes depicted on the brochure that inspired the trip in the first place. There’s no narrative to lovely sunsets or waiters who aren’t surly. Misfortune, on the other hand, has a way of making the world feel strange and new, and isn’t that the point of travel? Forget where you’re going, says the blown tire. Look where you are!
I used to enjoy hitchhiking for the randomness it brought to travel. Thumbing from Daytona Beach to Fort Lauderdale one spring break to visit a girl, I narrowly avoided being hit by a 60 mile-per-hour grapefruit hurled from a screaming, white convertible filled with people my age. It missed. But here’s the point: I no longer recall the face of the girl I was hitchhiking to see, a young woman I thought I loved. Now all I remember is the yellow arc of grapefruit as it sailed past palmetto trees and smashed into the pavement at my feet as if to say “Welcome to Florida!” Over time, I’ve come to recognize the hurled grapefruit for what it was—an unexpected gift.
Tourism -- paying X amount of dollars for X amount of fun -- serves to isolate the traveler from locals and make it harder to distinguish acts of kindness from contractual obligations. The well-heeled tourist is constantly digging into his pocket to tip the natives for singing “Hooray for Captain Spaulding!” But anyone who’s ever stopped to ask directions knows the best way to ingratiate yourself with locals is to show incompetence.
On a motorcycle trip through Nova Scotia, I once found myself marooned at an isolated crossroads. All day I’d been riding toward the coast only to have my engine conk out at this little gas station in the middle of nowhere. Now it was dark and beginning to rain. Mechanics and assorted loafers filed out of the station and watched me try the starter. Nothing. Then they each took a turn. Too bad, they said then told me their life stories. Roaring into the station an hour earlier, I’d been of no interest, but once I was transformed into a Man of Misfortune the locals couldn’t do enough for me. One fellow put me up for the night at his house. Another loaded my lifeless bike into the back of his pickup the next morning and drove me to a repair shop in Halifax. (The problem was a cracked coil.) When I offered gas money then breakfast, my benefactor refused. He’d had seen me as the problem and once I’d been solved he saw no reason to reverse our roles. Later, that day I reached the coast, and it was beautiful in ways I no longer remember.
Now that I’m the one planning family trips, I do my best to limit randomness. I make lists, study the map, keep an eye on the weather. On a recent trip to Door County, we found a lovely campsite on Duck Bay. We pitched our tent and cooked supper over a campfire. That night I awoke to thunder booming in the distance. It grew louder until the storm sounded like it was stomping down the stairs in a bad mood. As the walls bellowed in and out, I realized I hadn’t staked down the tent. To keep us from para-sailing into the night, I stretched my body the length of the tent, arms and legs splayed to anchor the corners. The gravity of the situation escaped my wife. Between lightning flashes, she told the children that it appeared Gumby was having a nightmare.
Next morning, a new tributary flowing under the tent floor toward Lake Michigan had made islands of our sleeping bags. Everything was soaking wet. Afterwards, we all agreed it was the best part of the trip.
John Hildebrand teaches English at the UW-Eau Claire and is the author of three books, including "A Northern Front ."