Shedding skin

9 February 2010, from Barcelona

In the best kind of travel, I shed my skin, that hard exoskeleton of personality that grounds me in a regular place. I break the link with the past moments that led here and the future moments that lead away. The everyday schedules, the projects, and the to-do lists fall away, filed into into the future in a small pile in my bookcase. I close the doors of my kitchen cabinets, allow my stomach to grow hungry, and accept (mostly) the new food placed in front of me. I even shed my language, or at least my unthinking use of it; English becomes the exception, a small bird singing, occasionally, in a forest of foreign phrases.

I am only in Centralia, the heart of southwest Washington state, on the Amtrak heading north from Portland to Seattle, and yet already the skin has started to shed. I have left behind my usual Northwest/backpacker garb, abandoned the overpacked messenger bag of fraying nylon, put away my comfortable but battered slip-on shoes. Instead, I wear a new suit jacket and woolen trousers, topped with a smart city hat, supported by newly shined leather shoes. I carry a single canvas shoulder bag, within which resides an umbrella, a camera, a laptop, and a very small collection of clothes. I am traveling lightly, but more importantly, I am traveling in disguise: as the Traveler.

I am heading to Barcelona, to visit my friend Jim. Last summer, in Tokyo, Jim began a round-the-world trip, intending to travel entirely on land and sea and avoiding airplanes. He has been successful in his perambulations thus far, crossing first Asia and then Europe. Now he waits in Barcelona for his friend who is preparing to sail across the Atlantic, the next phase of the planeless circumnavigation. In the meantime, he rents a room in a shared flat in the central city, and writes software for friends back in San Francisco.

In 1995, Jim sent me a brusque email: ‘WANNA JOB?’ That simple query led me to an enjoyable and successful five-year programming career. A few weeks ago, just having arrived in Barcelona, Jim emailed ‘Come visit!’ In the Willamette winter, gray and cold and drenched, the thought of Barcelona was a ray of sunlight into my seasonally-affected brain. The simplicity of the journey was appealing: to visit another of the great cities of the world, with two weeks and a few hundred frames of film.

While some of my journeys have a definite purpose, others are more vague and uncertain in plans. I have learned to accept this, even revel in it, for it is the vague journeys that often are the most enlightening. Those trips, the ones that start with a simple germ of an idea, leave the most not to the imagination, but to the exploration. The journey unfolds not through narration and hypothesis, but through observation and experiencing. Only when the trip ends do I understand the story.

From the train window, the scene along the southern Puget Sound is typically salmon-colored, the second most natural color of the Northwest besides the green of the forests. I look across the water in the darkening evening, and think that two days from now, with traveler’s fortune, I will be looking over the city of Barcelona, into the Mediterranean sea. Jet-lagged and plane-tired, I will traverse Plaza Catalunya, enter the twisty streets of the Barri Gòtic, looking for Carrer de Sant Pere Més Baix, my home for the next fortnight.