Betrayal of Destinations

Some say (William S. Burroughs) that if you know where you’re going, you’ve already been. The truth underlying that is that we never know where we’re going because we don’t just travel through space, we travel through time. We are not the same person and the place we revisit is not the same place.

Which is why the statement, “You can’t get there from here” is usually true. Whatever place we  have in mind when we set out is NEVER going to be the place where we arrive.

Back in the day, I tried explaining THAT to international students in a reading unit on “going on the road.” Partly (as many cultures are far more static than ours) it’s something Americans are prone to as a way to change their lives, their reality. A lot of my students were planning a road trip, and I encouraged them to get on Route 66 — it was close, easy, interesting and historic. Not that they could ever actually GET on Route 66 as I imagined it (traveling in a 1955 Ford with my brother in the backseat, one of those water bottle bags hanging out the window, no air-conditioning, two-lane roads, up-and-down hills, no McDonalds, motels in small towns, roadside fruit stands, velvet-clad Navajos beside the road weaving rugs for tourists, mom saying, “Tourist trap!”, my dad’s sunburned left arm…)



A typical argument to “you can’t get there from here” was,

“I am in San Diego. I traveled here.”

“Is it what you thought it would be?”

“Yes. There are the palm trees, the beach, the pretty girls, all here.”

He’s face-saving OR the illusion with which he arrived at the airport is powerful because just in going from the airport to school would have been enough to shatter THOSE ideas of California. I imagine he’ll learn that California girls will prove to be notoriously hard to meet though superficially friendly, palm trees are full of pigeons and the beach can be very dirty.

Sometimes a student was silenced by the question, “Is it what you thought it would be?” because it wasn’t how he/she thought it would be; not at all.

That you can never “…get there from here” makes everything a journey.

Of course, Journey is also a band.

Tourist vs. Traveler

I’ve done some thinking about the difference between a tourist and a traveler. Neither is intrinsically better than the other, and many times a tourist turns into a traveler and a traveler into a tourist. Of course, I’d rather be a traveler, but I also know that’s not always possible. So, anyway, what’s the difference?

A tourist is looking at things with home as the reference point, concerned about sharing the experience with people at home, showing things to people at home. Souvenir shops are a real draw. Everything they see demands a photograph. There is something between them and the place they’re visiting. They have objectives and destinations. They often have their bucket list of sites and experience they want to “cross off.” Tours are designed for tourists. They are organized, timely, hit the main sites and offer comfort and convenience.

The biggest difference between a tourist and a traveler is that the traveler is not thinking about home. Therefore, a traveler has no list of destinations, can’t imagine anything in a souvenir shop that would represent what they’re traveling for and is generally more curious about what is around them. The traveler seeks a more intimate relationship with a place than the tourist does. The traveler will not see as many things, but they will see what they do see more deeply.

I first recognized this when my best friend came to visit me in the People’s Republic of China in 1983. She was a tourist. I was living there; I was a traveler only because I knew I would not be staying. When she first arrived I asked her what she wanted to see. Her response was, “You have been living here; just show me what you have liked.”

A traveler isn’t going to see the sites; only accidentally. I didn’t know where all the temples were, the pagodas, the jade shops. I knew where there was one temple that had taken on a spiritual and human significance to me (and so I returned often). I knew where there was ONE pagoda because it was near that temple. I had no interest in or money with which to buy jade, so I had no idea about that. What I did know was which peasant in the nearby open-air market was my friend and saved the best chilis for me, or potatoes, or any other thing she’d learned I liked. My friend was quickly frustrated by the local bus that I took all the time to go into town — if I didn’t ride my bike which was usually what I did. Our cross country journey to Hangzhou in the Aeroflot plane scared her and the public bus trip frustrated and angered her. Inconvenience was a fact of life in the People’s Republic of China and my friend became angry at me for accepting that. That people went home at noon for two hours and things closed was, to her, reprehensible and could only happen in a communist country where people were paid whether they worked or not.

The biggest problem was China was not her IDEA of China, but it was its own place. She would never have had to deal with this if she’d chosen to be a tourist rather than link up with a traveler. Unfortunately, because I didn’t “get” it (I could have arranged a tour for us) she had a bad time and left almost 2 weeks before she’d planned to. “You love this place,” she said. “I can’t love it. In fact, I hate it.” She’d suffered during the two weeks she’d been there; near heat-stroke, roaches, broken-down busses, scary toilets, scarcity of food, unpredictable transportation — basically everything that would describe the People’s Republic of China. She’d been forced to travel.

My then mother-in-law, who was also with us on this adventure, was a traveler. When she was gently mocked for carrying a fork everywhere, she learned to use chopsticks. When waiters didn’t understand, “Green beans” or “Ice cream” she learned to say those words in Chinese. The scary toilet was “No worse than in Greece. They’re actually more hygienic since you don’t have to touch anything.” Never mind that this 72 year old woman was obliged to squat and carry her own toilet paper. She didn’t care. On the breaking-down bus, she stuffed tissues in the windows to keep them from rattling. When we found ourselves obliged to hitch-hike, she was interested in the scenery. I think her month in China and Hong Kong was a major highlight of her life. She was born to travel. A tour would have been OK, but she’d likely feel she hadn’t seen “real China.”

Because of my friend, I saw things in the city in which I had been living that I hadn’t seen the whole year I’d lived there. And, during her tourist visit with me she took these photos (and more) and I’m so grateful now that she did. Because of my mother-in-law I was able to relax and share the experience of living in China. I benefited greatly from both perspectives — and my friend went back to try again. I think she enjoyed it more the second time around.

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Almost Over… 

Four days of fog, heavy wind, cold rain and what happens to people on what was to have been their dream vacation of riding horses, hiking, driving through splendid vistas?

Add to this the lack of a proper bed, aching, brutalized joints and a ridiculous load of laundry and you have, “I wonder what the suicide rate is in Iceland.”

the lounge section of a sofa made long enough by the addition of sofa pillows and an arm chair — all the real beds were up stairs from hell that could only climg on all fours.

stairs from hell

Lois hit the wall yesterday; I hit it the day before when I couldn’t ride horses and had to go “home” in the sodden grey day. I had resources, but I still felt lousy because my body isn’t able to do everything I wish it could any more.

And it can’t be over soon enough.

Today the sky lifted some and as we drove from Hellnar to Rekjavik blue skies emerged, the wind died down some and it was altogether more pleasant. We went to Thingvellier — the site of Iceland’s government from Viking days. I learned of it from reading Njal’s Saga and it has fascinated me for more than fifteen years. It is in the geographical center of Iceland — which the Vikings knew — and it is, coincidentally an enormous rift along a fault line where the North American and European continents are pulling away from each other.


The Thingveller photo by Lois Maxwell

Travel is a great teacher, both of new lessons and reminders of those we have forgotten.


In Switzerland, when someone asked where we were going next, and answered, “Iceland,” the response, universally, was;


Now, in Iceland, all I can do is laugh at that.

We arrived at the airport in Rekjavik where we were to pick up a car we were renting from the same person whose vacation home we’re now staying in. The car is an older Grand Vitara with the clutch from hell. The vacation home — which is nice enough, and located on the dramatic and wild Snaefellsjokull Peninsula, has no bed down stairs, and horrific stairs to the top floor, so I am sleeping on a make-shift bed assembled from the lounge part of a sofa, sofa pillows and a chair… The weather is abysmal and makes sense of every bleak Icelandic film I have ever seen. The wifi doesn’t work except on my friend’s lap top which I am enjoying the use of now.

The landscape is beyond beautiful, exceedingly dramatic, and I like it very much. Icelandic horses are all around, including on the menu. This makes sense to me as there are at least as many horses per square mile here as there are cattle in the San Luis Valley — but I would find it difficult to knowingly eat horsemeat. The small Icelandic sheep wander everywhere. It’s lambing season and the tiny ones follow their mothers into the road.

Lois went to ride Icelandic horses yesterday. I went, too, but when I saw what I would have to do to get up on one (which isn’t far, mind you, these are small horses) I knew it wasn’t going to happen for me so I returned to our “haven” to watch the rain and further plan the feature film I’ve begun which will be called “Icelandic Clothesline.”

This trip has made me very, very aware of my physical limitations and the top of my list right now is finding out about joint surgery as soon as possible after I turn 65.

I love Icelandic sagas, and we went to Bogarnes to the Settlement Museum and saw museums of both the settlement of Iceland and Egil’s Saga (which I love). The museum was really a work of art, original and evocative and brave.

In the photo above — taken at the Settlement Center — Skallagrim, Egil’s father, is telling Egil (the little boy) that he cannot go to a party because he’s too difficult to deal with even when he’s sober and impossible when he’s drunk. Egil is three…

Not having internet and not being able to get around easily and comfortably, and having recently walked and stayed in the “ancestral valley” in Switzerland has renewed my interest in the novel I started writing last year and it might just happen that the Schneebelis make it to America after all.


Big Disappointments

Yesterday was cold and rainy, but I was excited that I was going to meet Mrs. Anglo-Swiss at the main train station in Zurich. We got there in good time, asked where the train from Mrs. Swiss’ city arrived, and waited. She never got off. Meanwhile. Mrs. Swiss arrived at completely the other side of this immense station and waited for us, finally going to the main entrance.  We all waited for an hour or more before giving up. Since I didn’t get a Swiss SIM card my phone doesn’t work as it usually does, but even so I would not have been able to receive messages from Facebook without wifi.

We went to a Starbucks where I logged on and learned the whole sad story. This has made me think aboutour dependence on these machines. 20 years ago we would have been a lot less casual about setting a meeting point but we assumed we’d connect and/or be able to message each other.

The next misadventure was at the little church that inspired Martin of Gfenn — it was locked and there was no caretaker to help us out. We did manage to meet Sonja and that redeemed the day. We went together to the pretty medieval town of Greifensee.

Today we leave for Iceland though, honestly, I’m done with this and would really like to go home.

 Alp Horns

My first visit to Zurich was in 1994 and I did not like the city at all. 21 years later, after many subsequent visits, the city feels like an old friend, even its darker history feels like a poorly resolved and largely forgotten fight between siblings. Just a few years ago, Zurich apologized to the Anabaptists (Mennonites) and even put a plaques beside the Limmar where Felix Manz was executed by “baptism” (drowning) back in the 16th century.

Yesterday we had fewer problems navigating. I drove us over the Uetliberg into the city, parked our car and led Lois through Zurich’s ancient and labyrinthine streets. We spent some time in the Grossmunster, and Lois climbed up the tower. It was a lovely day, a Zurich postcard. There were people everywhere enjoying the sunshine, relaxing at outdoor cafes, kids playing.  

At 5:30 we we to meet a friend of mine, Rainer, and his girlfriend, Kirsten, for dinner. They are both historians, one working in the state archives and the other in the city archives. 

I first met Rainer in 2004 when I was writing Martin of Gfenn. I needed help with the historical accuracy of the story and I found him in a Google search — he had published a paper about Gfenn! When we met that first time, he brought along a map of medieval Zurich. Last night when we met he brought me two more maps — on that is of Canton Zurich (including the tiny village of Obfelden where I’m staying now) and the other showing the Zurich war. They are wonderful!!

Dinner was good, conversation even better, and then, more or less out of nowhere, or so it seemed, four men were standing in the middle of the street playing Alp horns. “For you,” Kirsten said to Lois. I had the same thought. 

I also made more attempts at speaking German and did well enough that Rainer said he didn’t even notice. 

Because the drive home involved a winding mountain road and more navigating, we had to leave while there was still daylight, so we all walked back to our parking structure, stopping on the way outside Cabaret Voltaire for a photo evoking photos we took eleven years ago.

I think most of the time people share elements of their individual experiences. But Rainer and I, eleven years ago actually shared an experience. Meeting last evening we picked up our conversation, returning to those moments while telling our stories of our lives through the intervening decade, here at the “Navel of the World.”

Life’s Labyrinthine Chaos Course

“To travel is to be born and die at every instant.” Victor Hugo

Long ago when I arrived in China with my second husband, and the school where we were teaching did not send anyone to meet our plane, Jim laid down on a bench in the airport and surrendered. His year in China was vastly different from mine, but he remembers it now as the great adventure of his life.

I didn’t surrender. I found a taxi driver willing to take us and our two large trunks to the Bai Yun Hotel. I was exhilarated. The school came and got us the next day.

The frustrations and alienation involved in traveling affect everyone differently, I guess. When my friend came to visit us in China, she was basically freaked out by how different it was, by the suspension of customary values. She was primed to see the evils of communism everywhere and none of its virtues. The dirt, inconvenience, not being able to be a master in communication or even read a street sign drove her to a kind of wall. She blamed me for the ubiquitous cockroaches. She was angry at me for (by then) finding everything normal and accused me of “going along with their horrible system.” Our friendship nearly ended in constant confrontation caused by culture shock.

She felt out of control, alienated from herself, unable to find psychological comfort or ease. She (and my husband also) took hundreds of photographs. Each image tied them to home and normalcy. For both of them it was a way to experience the experience later, when the hard part of living, being, in a different world was over and they had survived it. I’m glad they took all those pictures because now for me, they are memories. That world vanished quickly in China’s rapid development

A few years later she returned to China and having had that first experience was able to enjoy China for what it was.

I’ve been in Switzerland many times and other than the language thing, I feel very at home here. Driving is difficult because the distances between places are so short it is confusing for me, and this is the first time I’ve tried it. BUT I remember my first trip to Europe. I did not like Switzerland one bit. Zurich (where my friends lived) seemed ugly and claustrophobic. It frightened me. I had jet lag — something experience has taught me how to avoid. I never knew where we were or where we were going. Everything seemed random and chaotic and I often felt trapped.

The good experiences in that first trip were the moments when I could slow down the “roller coaster.”

That first trip included a sojourn to Venice. In Venice I rediscovered the posture of the wanderer and the beauty in being born and dying “every instant” that took me to China and stood me in good stead, the willingness to be lost.


Deer in the Headlights

Ich Liebe Schweiz but it might not be always mutual. Why? I look like a Swiss grandma but I can’t understand Swiss German. So when a young woman at the grocery store said, €%~€|#%\#}\%#|€%#.£^%!” To me yesterday because I had improperly brought apples to the cash register (no tag for weight) I could only stare at her. Sigh.

Ich bin nicht ein Dumbkopf….

I did a bit better at the airport when the clerk selling overpriced salads told me to order from his colleague because his shift was over. He didn’t speak Swiss German, but so-called high German.

I have actually studied German for three years with Rosetta Stone and yesterday — my first back in Switzerland in 11 years — proved its value at least in the development of the passive language skills, reading comprehension and listening. The problem is I have never tried speaking German. 

We are staying  in a converted 18th century barn owned by expat-Australians. It’s absolutely stunning — as are the owners. It is in the village of Obfelden in Canton Zurich a few minutes by foot from the village in which my ancestors lived. The house reminds me very much of my little stone house in Descanso. The living room floor tiles came from an old church! The floor is heated. 

Living Room Floor

From our window we can see the total romance of the Swiss countryside — and the Rigi, a mountain loved and painted and described in poetry during the Romantic period.  Eight or ten sheep graze in a small field below us, the cheery sound of their bells says “Switzerland.”

For dinner I had Appenzeller cheese and truly good bread and one of the apples of shame. 😬 Breakfast? Yoghurt from Swiss milk and strawberries… And coffee but no Dusty to share it with. 

Today we will be taking it easy. Lois has gone back to bed. I will go out soon to see where the Wanderweg sign outside the front door points and leads. At least my tiny Swiss German vocabulary in the Zurich dialect is Gruezi! = Hello.

Outside the Front Door


Going to See the Dalai Lama

Daily Prompt Journey Tell us about a journey — whether a physical trip you took, or an emotional one.

Any halfway decent physical journey will be an emotional one. Many who like to travel go out seeking transformation. Some philosopher guy wrote somewhere something like, “To travel is to be born and to die every minute.” I don’t remember who; I just remember what. Some people travel to far away countries and never leave home.

I’ve done a bit of traveling to faraway places, but some of the most transformational journeys did not involve leaving town. When I was in my 20s I desperately wanted to get out of Denver and see the world. I was profoundly influenced as a child by a couple of books and watching Lowell Thomas Presents. I remember watching him meet the Dalai Lama and thinking, “Wow, that’s about as faraway as it’s possible to go. I want to go that faraway someday.”

But there I was, stuck in Denver, working an office job, plodding through life, waiting for something to happen, not knowing how to make things happen, and not even knowing what WAS happening all around me. Some great stuff was happening, but I couldn’t see it. I was single-focused blind on SOMETHING SOMEWHERE SOMETIME in spite of the good reminders left in coffeehouse toilets saying, “Pee here now!” (Sartre) One afternoon, a friend, the secretary of an amazing man, Ved (Ved was actually trying to date me but he was so far away on a completely other plane that I didn’t notice that’s what he was doing) called to say Ved had gotten us tickets to see the Dalai Lama, that very night. There was a reception and then the Dalai Lama would be speaking. What? In Denver?

We went.

He had been invited by the Naropa Institute and the University of Denver College of Law (where Ved was a professor). At that time, the Dalai Lama didn’t speak English, so he had an interpreter. People who wanted to ask him questions wrote them on index cards so they could be translated. He would answer them after his talk. He spoke and his interpreter shared the Dalai Lama’s words with us. It was a great speech. He spoke about being discovered to be the Dalai Lama when he was a baby and moving with his family from China to Tibet to start learning his job. He spoke about finding one’s way through the dark forest of life. He said that each person has his/her own unique way through this forest and it is one of our life’s purposes to find that road. He said no one can tell us what our road will be, that finding the road is why we are alive. He then spoke about having left Tibet and rebuilding the community in Ladakh, in India. He spoke at length about the political situation in Tibet — in those days, 1980, it was very, very dark and the People’s Republic of China had only begun digging itself out from under the detritus of the Cultural Revolution.

I did not know that, in just a couple of years, I would live in China, but I wanted to. I was studying Chinese. My teacher was an English professor from Beijing Technological Institute who was studying at the university from which I’d just earned my MA. It was clear to me that the Dalai Lama’s agenda was creating sympathy for Tibet much more than giving spiritual guidance to people in the audience. His spiritual message was clear; it was every man for himself in that regard. He couldn’t tell anyone what to do.

He was right.

The time for questions came and each question was a version of “What is the way?” He looked through several cards and said, “You are all asking me what is the way. I have said I cannot tell you your way. That is why you are alive. You must find your way.” Then there was a question about Tibet and then this trick question, “What did you learn when you left China and moved to Tibet?” It was another way of asking, “What is the way?” The Dalai Lama laughed. His eyes sparkled. He grinned. He answered, “Tibetan.” Then he giggled.

That night I spoke on the phone with my Chinese teacher and told him about what the Dalai Lama said about the Chinese invasion of Tibet. My teacher had the Chinese line down pat. “They were living in poverty, very backward, living in superstition. All their wealth went into the monasteries who took from the people and gave nothing back.”

I didn’t disagree with my teacher, but I thought, “I imagine the people thought they got something back.” I didn’t know, but it seemed they loved their Dalai Lama and had a right to be whatever they wanted to be, even if it was backward, ignorant and superstitious.

I did all this traveling in the space of two and one half linear miles. Interestingly, within that same distance, a few months later, I also met Lowell Thomas. And, on a Colorado ski slope 70 miles away, the very next winter, I met Sir Edmund Hillary.


This is written in response to Bumblepuppies prompt on Blacklight Candelabra. I’ve linked it to the Daily Prompt because it’s far more interesting (to me).

July 19 (719) was the day I retired from a career of more than 30 years.

Two months later, having sold my house, I took off in a rented van (never driven a van), with three large old dogs, some possessions (the book on how to move across country said put irreplaceable possessions in your car, not in the truck) expensive art supplies I got in Switzerland years and years ago. I set off across the hot southern Arizona desert, up the lush corridor to Flagstaff to a nasty Motel 6 that did, at least, allow all three dogs in my room. From there up and out through Arizona’s hypnotic northern desert, with its wild horses, wild rocks and a sweet Navajo waitress in Dennys who said, “You look tired.”

I was driving through the American landscape, driving to freedom, driving from what I perceived as failure and betrayal into a larger world dominated by natural landscape. Shiprock rose ever higher on the horizon to the northwest. Herds of tame horses ran alongside the van. Small flocks of sheep lounged on the low slopes of a butte. Then…



Green fields. Neat farms. Slo-mo McDonalds in Cortez. Young Indian cowboy dad says to me, “This is taking forever,” he’s worried about his hungry kid and I’m worried about the dogs in the car.

Small town, small town, green valley, a Colorado I’ve never seen. A Colorado I want to see, but I must drive. South Fork tonight, a cabin, sleep, a place to walk the dogs. Mancos, Durango — no, this is not where I want to live, I erase the glimmer of possibility. Bayfield, Pagosa Springs (beautiful!). Many of the places I pass are possible homes though my sights are set on Monte Vista, I am not locked in yet.

The pass, Wolf Creek, lingers in my memory of other people’s conversations as being “dangerous” “Yeah, yeah, we had to go over Wolf Creek!” “Oh God. How was it?”

Beautiful, smooth, even, empty. My pass. On the west end a fantastic waterfall, on the east end? Home? Maybe?



I arrive in South Fork at the cusp of fall. Aspens turning, first higher in the San Juans, then gold creeps down the elevation to the Rio Grande valley. The river flows not far from the field where I walk my dogs. I watch it change color from black to blue to golden in the light. I love it. Rio Grande. The words are romantic and beautiful. I love the drive down from South Fork to Monte Vista when I have to shop or look at a property. Tense times; where will I live? But the beauty around me is a balm on my uprooted soul.


In the Dewey Decimal system 719 is “Natural Landscapes.”

That turned out well 🙂 And, what’s more, 719 is the area code here!


You might like a map!

You might like a map!

Morning alpenglow

Morning Alpenglow from my front porch.

Wildlife refuge

Monte Vista wildlife refuge, August, 2014, south of my town