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What's the Big Rush?

Slow down and soak in the culture. That's the philosophy of an 86-year-old Century City woman who has spent her life traveling the old-fashioned way: taking her own sweet time and learning.

May 30, 2000|RENEE TAWA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Oh, the polar bears!

Arden Russell sighs.

At home in Century City, Russell, 86, is restless for the road. She is a jet-setting widow, with visits to, oh, more than 200 countries and territories, if you must know. This embarrasses her. She is a member of the Travelers' Century Club, and those people are really well traveled. Why, they put her to shame. They make her want to hop on a plane right now but not in an around-the-world-in-80-days kind of way.

Russell is an old-fashioned traveler, clinging fast to the notion that you should take a trip to soak up a place and its culture. That puts her squarely outside the ranks of today's zippy adventure travelers, thank you.

On this early spring morning, Russell mulls over her next trip. Her voice is musical, her gait is fast. She is elegant, with tailored clothes and platinum hair that frames her face in bouncy curls. Her spotless condominium is filled with jade and ivory carvings, oil paintings and Oriental vases, along with other reminders of her journeys.

The other day, her 52-year-old son, Bob Russell, asked where she was headed next. She confessed that she wasn't sure, and he chided her, saying she must pick a destination.

These days, she is smitten with the idea of trailing 1,200-pound polar bears across the arctic tundra in Manitoba, Canada. Recently, she saw a Discovery Channel feature on the bears' annual migration along the Cape Churchill coast in October and November. That's my next trip, she thought.

But she really should fly to Sweden this year to see her relatives. She hasn't seen them in a few years. . . .

Either way, Russell won't take off alone this time because her doctor is worried about her solo travel, after two hip replacements and open-heart surgery within the last 10 years. (Her son, daughter-in-law and two granddaughters don't worry nearly as much.) She could probably talk her niece, a 69-year-old grandmother, into going with her.

Russell can't say exactly what struck her about the polar bears. She just got that feeling, the one inside that tells her when the trip is right. No slow-mo trips like a cruise or a stroll along the Champs Elysees. Something that thrills and teaches. Nothing against her fellow club members, but she doesn't travel to cross places off a checklist. She never intended to finish off the club's world travel list, which names 313 countries and territories.

"I would have to go to some really remote countries," Russell says. "To go somewhere primarily to get a number--I can't do it that way. I don't have the time."

She feels fabulous; she really does. But although she's in good health, she knows that she does not have the luxury of decades of travels ahead, the way younger club members do. So no dashes across continents on a whim anymore. She must weigh each potential journey now, listen to her heart ("I'm longing to see the polar bears!"). On trips, she doesn't take a camera because she will not waste a moment fiddling with one.

Russell shakes her head when she thinks of the way today's kids covet adventure vacations, seeking to, say, bag all 14 8,000-meter peaks on Earth. (According to a 1997 report by the Travel Industry Assn. of America, one-half of U.S. adults--or 98 million people--took an "adventure" vacation in the last five years. That means they engaged in activities such as whitewater rafting, scuba diving or mountain biking.)

Why can't they slow down a bit and try to learn a little something? Russell wonders. She is reading up on the seal-hunting polar bears of Manitoba. On other trips, she has taken extension classes to bone up on a locale's history and politics.

"The world is such a wonderful place," she says. "It's so enchanting. No matter where you go, there is beauty and art and philosophy, and people. The people are wonderful! [Travel] gives you a better appreciation of America and our opportunities and our life, and you remember to live each day and really, really live it to the hilt and enjoy and not complain. I'm so lucky to have traveled this much."

She has no idea how much her travels have cost her. It doesn't matter. Her words of advice to Americans who say they don't really have the time or money to travel:

"Go! Go! . . . If I had waited until now to travel, I wouldn't have seen the world the way it was. Time is so important, and the opportunity to just go and do it. I have so many friends [who say], 'Oh, you're so lucky [to travel].' I don't say anything. They have better means than I have to go and people to go with, husbands, and as much time as I have. They haven't taken advantage."

She Began Traveling With Her Widowed Sister

Hers was a wanderlust born of grief and then stoked by delight.

She began traveling in the early 1930s, after her sister's husband committed suicide in Los Angeles. Reeling with grief, her sister, Gloria, decided to get away. Russell went with her to Hawaii.

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