LETTER: A 50th birthday bucket list with Earth in the balance

Letter to the editor from Janet Stone McGuigan

If we were living in normal times, I would note that we are already into April and feel it a matter of urgency that I figure out where my family should go on summer break.  April?  I felt this way in September.  Even before September.  And truly, I am appreciative of this fortunate position, and window in my life, where I can travel to places that need a year of advance planning.  I love to travel, and it is an indulgence to which I give free reign.

I can’t say this is a reaction to not having traveled in my childhood.  My parents took me places.  But growing up in the 70s and 80s, travel was expensive and arguably more effort than it is today.  Our travel horizons were not so distant.  According to the BBC, even in 1990 only four percent of Americans held valid passports, although in those days it was still possible to travel to destinations in the Western Hemisphere without one.  I think my parents were justly proud that they took me from our home in Upstate New York as far as Florida, Mexico and Canada and let me go to Europe with my high school German class.  My dad made me the offer after I left home for college that, if I had an opportunity to travel and didn’t have the funds, he would help me out.  This, coming from a child of the Depression who didn’t spend a dollar he didn’t have to.  I traveled as much as my vacation time allowed and as far as my own dime would stretch.  I did take him up on this offer a few times.  But most importantly his generosity signaled that travel was worth the expense so long as it didn’t break the bank.

After working for several years in Washington, DC, I met my husband when he was about to be transferred to Europe and I joined him there, adding to the adventures of young married life by exploring our new home together.  After a second expat posting in Europe, we have permanently settled in the United States, but travel has become a luxurious habit.  Places we could drive to when our boys were small.  And then “places in our own backyard,” meaning our own continent and hemisphere, when we thought the boys were ready to venture farther afield.

In the last few years, as I approached my fiftieth birthday, I prioritized travel to places I considered “bucket list” destinations.  Alaska, Peru, Botswana, those sorts of places.  The problem with the bucket, however, is that it is bottomless.  My family would no sooner have returned from an incredible trip, then a new destination would take its place on the list.  I researched Madagascar, wanting to see a lemur in its native habitat. And the words BUBONIC PLAGUE popped up on my computer screen.

Oh my, I had no idea that there were still cases of plague in the world!  Not that I thought there was a real possibility that anyone in my family would contract the plague if we visited Madagascar.  But if the State Department felt it warranted a warning post, then there were other places on my list.  Let’s avoid the plague, I thought.

So, in 2018 we went to China.  It was an incredible trip.  The language and politics rather intimidated me, so I signed my family up with a small tour group.  The itinerary was fantastic – we toured Beijing, visited the Great Wall, saw the terra cotta warriors, biked through rice paddies with sharp mountain peaks as our backdrop, and finished the tour in Shanghai.  The company was fantastic, too – there was a newly retired couple from the United Kingdom who were spending the year traveling the world, a solo Canadian originally from London, a woman from Northern Italy also traveling solo, a family of three from Bergamo, Italy, and our Chinese tour guide.  The only downside to the trip was a painful episode of indigestion, most likely the consequence of enthusiastically trying too many new foods in the first days of our tour.  For most of the trip I could only visually enjoy the food put in front of me.  Without intending to I lost several pounds, a goal I had been unsuccessfully trying to achieve for longer than I’d like to admit.

Fully recovered once we returned home, my hunger for travel was hardly satisfied.  September 2019 rolled around.  I considered booking a tour of Greenland, wanting to see its ice shelf before it melted.  I asked my family, who asked me to wait a bit because they didn’t know their summer plans.  Then President Trump Tweeted that the United States should purchase Greenland.  My first reaction was, “Huh?”  followed by, “Rats!” I feared the Tweet’s unintended consequence of driving up demand and filling tours.  But we couldn’t commit.   Then in January the New York Times Sunday travel section included Greenland on its list of 52 Places to Visit.  Another “Rats!” from me, because we still couldn’t commit.  I thought, surely by March we will know our plans.  And then the corona virus made its appearance, and all visions of travel were blacked out.

At the moment, in deference to the current plague, my travel diet has been restricted.  Clearly no one is going anywhere this summer, and it seems selfish and foolhardy to even contemplate travel. When I started traveling to the far reaches of the planet, my appreciation for zoos and natural history museums went up.  Far from looking at these as poor substitutes for travel, I better understand what their creators are trying to achieve.  Now, confined to home, I am a voracious and appreciative consumer of nature and travel shows.  For my travels I am a much more receptive audience. In addition to savoring public broadcasting, I am enjoying the time with family that the quarantine compels.  If I can’t travel with my family, at least we can enjoy meals together and the conversations that a change of circumstance sparks.  Some of the same benefits of family travel, even if the food is a little less exotic and the views less breath taking.  And in the comfort of our own home rather than a cramped hotel room and crowded minibus.

Devouring the news, I am acutely aware how much the environment has also benefited from this pause on travel.  Who knew the best souvenir from any of our travels EVER would be the small box of N95 masks we didn’t use on our China trip?  We were probably foolish not to use those masks.  The air quality when we were there was dangerously poor, and my son’s asthma flared.  Thanks to the corona virus crisis, air quality has dramatically improved.  Carbon emissions have plunged.  Maybe Greenland won’t melt after all.  I intellectually know we are loving the world to death by indulging in the desire to see it for ourselves.  The current slowdown, while of great economic concern, is making us reduce our carbon footprint despite ourselves.  It demonstrates what could be achieved if world leaders could come up with a more deliberate and balanced vision to reduce our carbon footprint.   I hope these thoughts guide me the next time I plan a family trip.  We might not be breaking the family piggy bank with our travel plans, but the world’s carbon output is about to burst its banks.  As we celebrate the fiftieth birthday of Earth Day, I will create a bucket list of goals for our planet. In the Chinese Year of the Rat, I’m trying to make peace with not seeing Greenland in the hope of saving it.

And yet.  If we hadn’t visited China, I might not have made as much sense of the news coming from Wuhan and Bergamo.  Or cared as much as I do.

Janet Stone McGuigan