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Essay

Checking Your Baggage

Why traveling old haunts with new loves gets complicated

January 09, 2005|Jan Worth | Jan Worth is a freelance writer based in Flint, Mich.

I didn't understand the tug of sorrow in my throat. My new "boyfriend" (silly term, because we are on the senior side of middle age) drove with me into Yosemite on a blustery, rainy spring day. I'd never been there, and I was predictably wowed as we emerged from the granite tunnel into the expanse of valley, cliff and gushing waterfalls. We pulled over and climbed out of the car to take it in. The gloom of the day accented the beauty: Moody patches of fog drifted across the cliff tops as we watched, silent and in awe.

When we reached the turbulent Merced River, Ted described how he had brought his kids, now grown, to this place when they were little, and how they had gone tubing for hours, and how glad he was then to be their father and to see them happy. He and his kids had made memories here, and Ted, now divorced, cherished these vacations with Yosemite's reassuring continuity in the background.

Then my sorrow made sense. It was too late for Ted, at 60, and me, at 52, to make that particular kind of memory. "I wish I could have been there," I said, as I wrestled with the truth of the matter: Life has limits.

We'd known each other 25 years before in the Peace Corps. We found each other again, unexpectedly, through a friend and with the help of e-mail. Our rediscovery of one another has been a miracle. We are trying something new for both of us--commuting back and forth between my home in Michigan and his in L.A. We recognize that we cannot abandon either of our lives, which have decades-deep roots. Thus, the peril of traveling with a new mate.

Travel is a ritual for creating important stories and marking time, but sometimes it's also a poignant, even unwelcome, reminder of a bygone life or a lost opportunity. Travel sometimes thrusts a sojourner, open and unsuspecting, into pain.

The next morning in Yosemite, still on Eastern time, I woke before 6 and watched my California man dozing in West Coast slumber. From our room in the Ahwahnee hotel, I could see and hear Yosemite Falls, engorged with spring runoff. I was just a month shy of my legal divorce. New at emotional control, I didn't know how to stop the thought that grabbed me: I wish my ex-husband could see this. Some of our best times had been on trips. Even though I'd never been to Yosemite with him, an irrational thought pushed in: I shouldn't have come here without him. Yet there was a competing reality. In the present I was happy, my spirit soothed by the scale of the cliffs and the brave granite. Watching Ted as he slept calmed me, but I wanted to be alone to think.

I crept out of the room, down the wide stone stairs, out the door and into the fragrant meadow. Four deer grazed quietly 20 yards away. Looking back at the hotel, I saw blue TV light in various rooms--other Eastern time travelers, I thought, checking CNN for bad news or familiar voices. I told myself this was my moment, my place. I was sharing it with Ted, who loves Yosemite and wanted me to be there. I was laying down new patterns in my brain and heart. The morning, the meadow, the deer--I walked back to my room as balanced as if I'd been to a chiropractor.

One of my friends had advised, "Go someplace neither of you has ever been. Anything else is trouble." But it's hard to resist taking new loves to old haunts. I want to take Ted to places that matter to me. I want to be able to say "Remember that time we . . . " as if we'd been together forever. I want to co-own a stockpile of stories that makes us both laugh, that we can tell and retell our friends--even though his friends and mine are from different tribes and laugh at different things.

I invited him to Lake Superior, a magic and spiritual spot for me. "Please tell me you won't take him to Grand Marais," my soon-to-be-ex uttered on the phone, and the guilt stabbed. I knew what he meant.

But, I reasoned, I'd first gone to the quiet village in Michigan's upper peninsula decades ago with another boyfriend, before my husband. When I took my husband there I had hoped to claim the place for us, and it was ours for a time. Later, angling for peace of mind, I went to Grand Marais alone, stayed in my favorite funky motel and let it just be mine. I reasoned that my personal connection to the place trumped partner loyalty.

So I did take Ted, hoping geography would transcend broken hearts, as if my healing would be hastened by seeing that particular turn of light on water, watching stiff beach grass fight the wind, palming the black stones on the beach. I told him I wanted my ashes scattered on that beach, and he hugged me while the sun set over the breakwater. I wanted to see if Ted would love me there, and he did. But the old sorrow bubbled up. I told him I couldn't spend the night there, so we found lodgings up the coast at a place I'd never been.

By definition, the traveler moves on. Just recently, sitting at a restaurant in L.A. that is now our favorite, we held hands across a familiar table, waiting for what we knew would be fabulous creme brulee, and I found myself saying, "Remember that time we . . . . "

That night I was happy to take the good with the bad, savoring the bittersweet tastes of starting over.

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