The world that I look out upon from the window in my home office, here in Wisconsin, is pretty quiet right now. In other times, the interstate just beyond the woods that surrounds my house would be busy with fast-moving cars and semitrucks. But presently, only occasionally does the sound of any traffic reach me. The few vehicles that I do hear, however, remind me of all of the avid nature-travelers out there, staying close to home and trying to keep safe from the COVID-19 pandemic.
That mini measure of highway activity makes me think of you, because I like to imagine that those few cars are filled with park-goers and trail-walkers; those who are managing to get in some small travels with big nature moments. I’m still traveling, too, small and big: I physically take my greyhound on a local, short, daily walk, and I think a lot about past journeys to places faraway.
Therein lies one of the great things about traveling. Each trip doesn’t happen just once. Travel invites a hypermindfulness, an acute presence in the moment. It kick-starts all five of your senses. And because of those sensory memories that you’ve accumulated, you can “push replay” in your mind anytime you want and feel as though you’re experiencing your travels all over again.
Here are five of my favorite travel moments, seared into my memory because of the senses that they excited.
1. Sense of smell: sulfur in Yellowstone National Park
While some would say that the smell of morning espresso, bread in bakery ovens or the briny scent of the sea brings back pleasant memories of past travels, for me it’s the somewhat less pleasing smell of sulfur.
That rotten egg, unmistakable smell reminds me of my first trip to Yellowstone National Park in 2004. I was absolutely spellbound by the artistry of the landscapes there, as most first visitors are. One afternoon, while traveling through a mountain pass, the guide for our small group said that on one side of the road, the mountains were quite young; but on the other, they were extremely old. I didn’t catch the number of years that separated them, but I was delighted to know that I was being embraced between ages in some hourless space.
At another point in our trip, our guide pointed to a general, forested area that was off in the distance. He said that it was the remotest place in the United States. I later learned that deep in the southeastern corner of Yellowstone National Park is the place farthest from a road—and therefore the outermost spot in the Lower 48. It is the only place you can be more than 20 miles from a road in the United States; this particular point is 21.7.
I think we sometimes imagine that such a remote place would have to be austere and silent. But if that place beyond my guide’s finger is anything like the rest of Yellowstone National Park, it is probably songful with the sounds of birds and wolves. There, a human being would just be one of many species wound into a beautifully intricate ecosystem; an inverted place from the one in which we usually find ourselves, where asphalt and home offices are what feel strange. In these times when we all want to escape our current situation, I think of that place often.
2. Sense of sight: grizzly bears in Katmai National Park, Alaska
When most people envision Alaska’s Katmai National Park, they think of grizzly bears. That’s because Katmai is one of the premier brown-bear-viewing spots in the world. About 2,200 brown bears are estimated to reside in the park, and more bears than people are believed to live on the Alaska Peninsula.
The grizzly bears of Katmai National Park are known for their incredible sizes and insatiable appetites. But nothing I had heard previously prepared me for the sight of more than 30 grizzly bears fishing together at Brooks Falls on a sunny Sunday morning in 2006.
In the ensuing years, I have gone to that image many times in my mind. It’s my favorite “happy place,” a phrase which describes the mental safe havens we can go to—no matter what is happening in our lives—in order to find peace and breathe a deep sigh of relief when we arrive. Happy places warm us from the inside out.
I can still see the bears slowly swinging their huge heads from side to side, scrutinizing the waters for salmon and the other bears around them for their positions. I can still see the brilliant sparkles on the water that the sun created. I had never seen water shine and blind me like that before.
As many bear populations around the world decline, Katmai provides one of the few remaining unaltered habitats for these intelligent beings. There’s a triumvirate of wins at Katmai: scientists are able to study bears in their natural habitat, visitors are able to enjoy unparalleled viewing opportunities and the bears are able to continue their life cycles largely undisturbed.
3. Sense of taste: Baileys Irish Cream liqueur on a Patagonia glacier
Glacier-walking is an activity that I believe is a true privilege—and one that I fear will someday be impossible as glaciers around the world go extinct.
The first time I had the opportunity to walk on a glacier was in 2007 in Argentina’s Patagonia region. After donning crampons and trekking on the ice for half an hour, our guide asked our group of travelers all to have a seat. He then pulled a bottle of Baileys Irish Cream liqueur and a pickax out of his backpack. He climbed up the glacier to a spot above us and proceeded to chip away a slight bit of the ice. After coming back down to us, he dropped pieces of the ice into half a dozen glasses and served us each the most meaningful aperitif I have ever had.
To this day, I can’t see a bottle of Baileys without again feeling the cold, clear taste of 12,000-year-old ice in my mouth—and the bitter taste of climate change.
4. Sense of hearing: ravens in the Southwest canyons
Among the most intelligent animals in the world, ravens are a predominant bird in the Southwest canyons, particularly in Bryce, Grand Canyon and Zion. Agile and acrobatic fliers, ravens are one of the only types of birds that can fly upside down.
Over the last decade, I’ve traveled to the Southwest canyons several times. And on each trip, I wait for a raven’s first greeting. In fact, I don’t think of myself as truly having arrived in the West until I hear from this corvid.
Ravens are capable of a wide range of vocalizations, but they are best known for a loud, low, gurgling croak that’s much deeper and more musical than a crow’s scratchy caw. A raven’s croak is audible for more than a mile, and the birds often give it in response to other ravens they hear in the distance.
Scientists have placed raven vocalizations into as many as 33 different categories based on context and sound. Other communications include short, repeated, shrill calls when chasing predators or trespassers and deep, rasping calls when their nests are disturbed.
It’s the knocking noises, though, that really speak to me. Dominant females sometimes make a series of 12 or so rapid, loud, knocking sounds that last a second or two. When I hear that sound—and I always do in the canyons—it’s as if a raven has said to me, “You’ve knocked on the door of my world, and you’re now welcome to come in.”
5. Sense of touch: gray-whale-breath bath
In March 2020, I traveled to Baja California, Mexico, to see gray whales. But it wasn’t the sight of them so much that sticks with me, but the feeling of being bathed by a whale.
Every fall, gray whales migrate more than 5,000 miles from their summer feeding grounds in the Arctic to their winter grounds, the coastal lagoons of the southern Baja Peninsula. In the protected waters of Baja’s lagoons—especially Laguna Ojo de Liebre (or Scammon’s Lagoon), Magdalena Bay and San Ignacio Lagoon—the gray whales mate, give birth and nurse without fear of predators.
Each spring, mother whales and their calves prepare to make the return trip to the Arctic together, where cool ocean currents push oxygen and nutrients up toward the surface. There, the oxygen and nutrients blend with the warm sunlight and bloom in a wealth of food for marine animals.
In early spring in Baja, you can watch the mothers and their calves before they undertake their long journey north. Recently, on my trip to see the gray whales of Baja, a small group of fellow travelers and I went out on an afternoon Zodiac excursion. We encountered a very curious gray whale mom and her calf. She and her baby swam under our boat several times. At one point, she surfaced next to us and rolled over to look at us from her watery, gray eye. I looked back at her and immediately felt as if she was looking right into my soul. Then, she exhaled a big, watery breath from her blowhole, and I was drenched in a cool-to-the-touch whale shower.
Often, now, when I’m washing my hands for the 20th time per day, I remember the feel of those other, special and unique waters.
Sixth sense: instinctive and inward understanding
It’s a function of travel that going out into the world can become the catalyst for an interior journey. Typically, travel makes us look outward, broadening our horizons. But it can also make us look inward, and that’s the aspect of travel that we can focus on, now.
You and I might not step on a plane this month or next. But we can indulge in armchair adventures—and the storytelling humans have always done to keep connected. After all, some of the world’s most engaging and exciting stories emanate from our travels.
For now, let’s tell them. And, I’ll see you out there again, soon.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,