The other day, anxious in my desk chair, I became a virtual traveler, staring at photos of public spaces abandoned in the wake of the coronavirus global pandemic: a soccer game in Germany, played in front of thousands of empty seats, the Piazza San Marco in Venice, vacant save for a few confused pigeons, the huge empty courtyard at the Great Mosque of Mecca, usually filled to the brim with worshipers circumnavigating the Ka’bah.
These are places built for humans, but there were no humans. It was like peering into what a future might look like after we are gone, a disaster movie without the movie part.
Our country is wrapping its head around this disaster in slow motion. It is clear that life cannot go on as normal, at least for the foreseeable future. We are entering a wartime of solitude. All must do their part. A friend canceled a lunch meeting with me a few days ago, writing, “I am practicing active social distancing at this time. No offense.”
None taken. We are all learning a new vocabulary of inoculation: self-quarantine, flattening the curve, inflection point. We are learning the exact dimensions of close contact. We are singing “Happy Birthday” twice while washing our hands; we are working remotely; we are awkwardly conducting our classes online; we are (for reasons I still don’t quite understand) buying ridiculous amounts of toilet paper. By the time you read this, a whole new reality may have set in.
We are also canceling our travel plans, at rates not seen since the Sept. 11 attacks.
Our family was supposed to travel to Charleston, S.C., in mid-March, but we made the decision not to go. Like many U.S. families with young children, we are hunkering down in our cocoon, with a pantry full of beans, a shelf full of Roald Dahl, the Hungry Hungry Hippos board game and a whole bunch of uncertainty.
Over the past year, as the climate crisis has consumed most of my writing projects, I’ve been traveling less and less. I’ve been forced to wrestle with the question of whether flying for pleasure can really be ethically justified anymore. As you can imagine, this is deep existential territory for a travel writer.
After much fretting, weighing the culpability of the fossil fuel industry vs. that of the individual, I’ve ended up at a tenuous philosophical point where I will minimize my air travel, choosing my trips carefully, but I won’t categorically say no to all travel. I will try to plan more trips locally, and I will look for alternate ways to find the magic.
Such a mind-set, it turns out, is also useful in the time of pandemics and self-quarantines.
New way to wander
After we canceled our South Caroline trip, Max, my 3-year-old, and I took a break from Hungry Hungry Hippos and tried to re-create the trip virtually, using one of my favorite tools: Google Street View.
On my computer screen, we pretended to land at the Charleston airport. I provided the narration. We rented our car, which smelled like Twizzlers and a damp pack of cigarettes. On our way out of the airport, Max spotted a TSA agent dangerously reading and walking by the side of the road.
We grabbed some fresh grouper at Crosby’s Fish & Shrimp Co., to be grilled later. Max threw stones into the water. After a bit of wandering, we stumbled across a crazy dance party on the beach. We gazed at Morris Island Lighthouse from the shores of Rat Island. Then we got sidetracked looking at people’s weirdly long walkways to their personal piers and wondered: How long was too long? Soon Max got bored and left the room. I hung out with a beach bum for a while, and though we may have disagreed on more than a few things politically, we bonded on being fathers, the riches-to-rags fate of the Red Sox and our childhood love of the movie “Adventures in Babysitting.”
In short, I was traveling, discovering. Maybe not in the flesh, but I was an explorer, nonetheless.
I’ve been fascinated with the beguiling world of Google Street View for a decade now. I often turn to it as a research tool when I’m writing a novel, but more often than not, I simply use it to practice being a curious human. What an unbelievable resource! An endless fountain for little details. You can traipse down almost any street in the world, unbothered by snow or rain or gloom of night, completely safe, eating your Cheetos, and if you grow weary of your traipsing you can teleport to a completely new place on a new continent.
Try it with your own block. Street View has an uncanny way of making the familiar unfamiliar. How many times have I gone and viewed my childhood home from various angles? Or my old school? Or the site of my first kiss, now obliterated into a new shopping mall?
There is something tantalizing about being there but not being there, about being everywhere and nowhere at once. The geospatial distance leaves us wanting, hungry for more. I’m enamored of the glitchiness of these human landscapes, the way people’s legs are sometimes separated from their bodies, the way everyone’s faces are blurred out, as if they no longer exist. This is our world, but it is not our world.
Key to the world
In 2015, London-based publisher Visual Editions approached me to make a digital book for its series “Editions at Play.” The idea was to make a “book” that could be read only on a smartphone. With coding assistance from Google Creative Lab in Australia, I composed “Entrances and Exits,” a short story told through Google Street View, about a lovesick man who possesses a key that could open any door in the world. The story, like Street View itself, has no end.
But I will also be the first to tell you that Google Street View is no replacement for the real thing. Traveling in the real world is about contact: body contact, surface contact, contact with new foods, with new waters, new smells, new light, new languages. Strange that at this moment in time, surrounded by the invisible threat of infection, we are supposed to be denying all contact, to retreat, to barricade our bodies from the world.
So then what to do? When we cannot travel ourselves, when we cannot lay our hands upon the there, how can we virtually re-create that sense of wonder and discovery?
Recently, with the advent of virtual reality headsets that don’t make you throw up everywhere, there has been an explosion in VR travel apps. Google Earth VR has its own version, while others claim to take you to the Grand Canyon or swim with sharks. Not to diminish the educational value of some of these experiences, but strapping a contraption to your head still seems like a form of retreat, not a form of contact. I still prefer meditative videos of people simply walking through cities. As this field grows, maybe we will see more examples of beautiful curation that still leave us room to wander off the path.
In the meantime, maybe the answer is simply to read more books, still the most beautifully curated art form and an activity that is perfectly suited for small group quarantines. I just read C.S. Lewis’ “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” to my 6-year-old son, Holt. Reading such books aloud and sharing in the story-contact seems important in a time like this.
“The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” is a bonkers sea expedition in the tradition of the Old Norse sagas, following the good ship Dawn Treader as it navigates magical archipelagoes filled with slave traders and dragons and merpeople on the way to the edge of the world.