Although we’re well into the New Year, afraid I only just completed my final holiday related chore – I cleared from my living room bookshelf all the delightful cards I’d received from family and friends over the month of December.
Yes, I’m a notorious procrastinator. But I can honestly say I put off this task more out of sentiment than laziness (as to the holiday lights framing the window that I simply leave up year round now, I have no comment at this time…).
Keeping in touch by “snail mail” is more like a quaint and old-school choice in this era. But it wasn’t so very long ago that spanning distances – sometimes long and lonely ones – with a letter was really the only choice.
On trips these days, I take for granted how easy it is to stay in touch with fellow travelers (vitally), with home (happily) and with work (regrettably…). I’ve watched as the moms in my carload of friends who met to journey around Ireland were able to see their kids off to school by phone even as we cruised through the Burren! But I’m old enough to recall the times when making a call from the road wasn’t nearly so simple a thing. And I’ve wondered: “How on earth did we get along?”
Well, of course we got along! It’s just that before our phones became portable and intelligent, we had to try and be the smart ones – and, on occasion, the slightly daring ones – in order to make our way.
Like on my first backpack trip around Europe.
Back in 1985, managing logistics on a journey was a very different ballgame!
Still being a year away from having a real job or my very first credit card, I had to invest in traveler’s checks – which I didn’t leave home without! And since “Google” at the time was how I’d have attempted to spell that number with a value of ten to the 100th power or some such (that’s “googol”, actually), I did my homework on what to see and where to stay by carrying around the massive tomes Let’s Go Europe and Let’s Go Britain and Ireland. I don’t have these books anymore – not because I wouldn’t still consult them. But my romantic notions about backpacking around Europe faded just a little in the face of realities like falling over backwards trying to heft my bag into the luggage racks of moving trains. As a result, I came to grudge every single ounce I was carrying to the point where I’d rip out pages from those tour books that covered countries I’d already visited or didn’t figure I’d be hitting, just to lighten my load…
The lesson I learned of course was not about packing more lightly, but waiting all the more impatiently for the advent of luggage that rolled!
When I wanted to call home on that trip, it’s hard to believe now that I had to save a pile of coins from whatever realm I was in to feed into a public phone – and pray I could comprehend the operator. Or I could wait in line at a post office for the chance to use one of their phones. Either way, I had to hope in those pre-answering-machine days that I wouldn’t just have waited more than an hour only to hear endless ringing – for no sound could be sadder when I’d have been happy even to hear a recording of Mum’s cheery voice coming to me from around the world…
Traveling could also prove perilous if you wanted to change your itinerary on the fly – like when I parted ways with fellow backpacking traveler Kelly one Friday in the south of England. Our plan was simple enough – Kelly would check out Glastonbury Tor while I pursued my Tregaskis Family roots at a library in Cornwall, and then we’d meet back up in the mystical town of Tintagel to spend the weekend exploring the dramatic Cornish coast!
After finishing my genealogy work, I discovered a potential flaw in the plan was that a single bus was covering our region that afternoon and would be the last into Tintagel until Monday. So with no other way of connecting, I figured Kelly and I might as well have tried to meet up in Brigadoon if we missed it…
I was relieved to find the right bus where it originated at the Bodmin Parkway train station – then became increasingly nervous as stop after stop, a procession of unfamiliar faces began to fill its seats. Finally, as we pulled over yet again, there was Kelly waiting with her backpack and lots of tales to share about Glastonbury and King Arthur!
As so often seems to happen when I really think about, everything worked out!
Maybe that success emboldened me to gamble again later in the trip when I left Kelly on the Greek island of Corfu to journey on my own to Athens. As before, without much info to support the notion, we resolved to meet back up in the south of Italy in a couple days’ time.
Thus began my personal odyssey (covered in The Thrice in a Lifetime Bit) which involved several ferry trips and a bumpy overnight ride on a less than reliable bus to get my own look at the birthplace of democracy!
Beyond the obvious attractions I’d learned about in the very first course I ever took in college (Classic Archaeology), there was another reason why I’d opted to risk splitting up again. I had asked friends and family to send me letters in care of the Athens American Express Office – and after nearly two months out on my first big overseas adventure, I found I very much wanted some word from home.
So on top of touring Athens’ ancient Acropolis, strolling the Agora, and drinking in the vibrant atmosphere of the Plaka, I had the tearful pleasure of picking up kindly written letters from Mum, my big brother Jack, and another dear friend, Kathy. Although I was having the time of my life seeing the world, it meant the world to hear from each of them.
In his entertaining book Orphans Preferred, Christopher Corbett offers context and history for the legendary Pony Express which, starting in 1860, offered mail service between St. Joseph, Missouri and Sacramento, California at the blisteringly fast speed of about ten days! Corbett includes eyewitness accounts of how great the need had been among those who ventured west during the Gold Rush for word from the loved ones they left behind. Rough 49ers would sometimes wait days in line at the post office in San Francisco, or drop every mining tool they were in the midst of hefting when mail arrived at the diggings – all in the hope of being one of the happy few to receive a precious letter.
The Pony Express operated only 18 months before the telegraph and train more efficiently connected east and west – but it remains an enduring symbol of people’s desperate desire to stay connected even while moving farther and farther apart.
Several branches of my family were among those who traveled west for gold or a homestead. At times, members of the Oregon branch lived only a matter of miles apart – yet postcards saved by my great-grandmother Mabel Cover Rothery show that, even in an era when car travel and party phone lines were becoming viable ways to stay in touch, the family still spanned the distance between them by dropping a line in the mail.
These cards are mainly filled with the kind of small talk we’d cover nowadays with a call, an Instagram post or an emoji. But they’re charming little examples of how much my kin cared for one another and wanted to stay connected.
Whew – speaking of spanning distances! I’ve been reading lately about NASA’s rover Curiosity that landed on Mars in January of 2004 and which until this summer has been faithfully staying connected too! Sadly, the latest news is that after Curiosity remained in contact years longer than its projected 90 day mission, a Martian dust storm may have finally left it unable to respond any further.
Just another example I guess of how whatever distances we become able to traverse – around the country, the world, or even the galaxy – you still can’t put a price on keeping in touch!