Virtuoso Life, March/April 2019.
RAISED IN CALIFORNIA BY YOUNG, ADVENTUROUS PARENTS WITH AN EXTREME CASE OF WANDERLUST, I always knew the way I would travel: independently. I would not sign up for an organized tour of Brussels. I would never ride a bus through China with a name tag pinned to my chest. Set foot in India with 20 or, God forbid, 220 other people, disembarking from a river cruise? Not on your life. Yet as I grew older and less rigid in my ways, I began to see certain advantages in wandering with a group. I realized I’d sometimes missed the boat.
Eleven years ago I visited Antarctica.
To get there, you essentially fly to the end of the world and then keep going. I was traveling solo, but would meet up with 135 fellow passengers in Santiago, Chile, before catching a flight to Tierra del Fuego. There, we’d board our ship and plunge south for two queasy days across the Drake Passage. I was terrified.
This was the same month a Canadian-owned expedition cruise ship had hit sub- merged ice and sank. (Everyone on board was rescued.) Was I afraid of the cold, dark sea? Pitching through the Southern Ocean’s stormy latitudes? Wasting away on saltines and scopolamine? Maybe a little. But mostly – and I’m embarrassed to admit this – I was petrified of the prospect of traveling with 135 other people. Who would I sit with? What, in our matching red parkas, would we ever talk about?
Two days into the trip, I lay in my berth (as many did during the crossing), cruising past chunks of ice. The ship’s steel hull crunched steadily through frozen floes, making a satisfying sound; light from the crystalline air outside filtered in. There was something hypnotic about the aquamarine landscape as we moved through it. I shut my eyes. Icebergs sailed silent as cathedrals, then faded. A lone wandering albatross soared through my mind. I noticed things: the sway of the ship, the timeless feeling. My cabin was at the ship’s stern, with a single bed tucked beneath two windows. And I felt – hiding out there, my body a cloud drifting along – that floating in blissful solitude was perhaps the happiest I’d been in a long time.
Why do so many of us yearn to leave the shore? Somewhere in all those miles of water and sky and vastness, time feels different.
“Yes, as everyone knows, meditation and water are wedded, for ever,” Herman Melville wrote in his prophetic first chapter of Moby-Dick. I’d always been drawn to the sea. But it took being an introvert in Antarctica, a world where everything is reduced to the elements and thoughts have room to roam, to fully appreciate the power of deep-sea contemplation. Daydreaming, an effortless flight of mind, came easily as I slipped anonymously amid my fellow passengers. What a revelation! Mental space to muse, I realized, was a rare luxury – not a feature of my day-to-day life.
One of the great advantages of a group expedition cruise: I wasn’t in charge of the expedition. Which meant that the logistics that usually preoccupied me, whether I was traveling solo or shepherding loved ones, weren’t battling for my attention. What’s more, there was no television aboard the ship and limited connectivity. Freed from the tyranny of laptop and phone, I suddenly noticed the stack of books I’d brought.
While snowflakes swirled past my window in a mesmerizing squall, I read The Worst Journey in the World, the unforgettable tale of 24-year-old Apsley Cherry-Garrard, the youngest member of Scott’s doomed British Antarctic Expedition, and his 1911 trek over the ice in the midst of winter in total darkness to collect emperor penguin eggs. Devouring this vivid account of exploration, heroism, suffering, and disaster while ghosting past the Antarctic Peninsula was such a ridiculous privilege that, to this day, it’s one of my favorite books.
Before long, the seas calmed, and I emerged from my cabin feeling refreshed in a way I hadn’t for years. Clad in Wellington boots and waterproof pants, my fellow passengers and I chattered away, as gregarious as a penguin colony, waiting to board Zodiacs for shore landings. We ranged from 22 to 92, and almost no one was scary. Everyone had come because they’d dreamed of experiencing terra incognita, and there were lots of solo travelers like me.
My expedition cruise and the mindfulness it afforded made me more open as a traveler to, in the words of William Wordsworth, wandering “lonely as a cloud.” I’ve since tucked myself aboard all manner of ships and even amid a few tour groups. I’ve sailed the Aegean, river-boated up the Amazon twice, joined hundreds of others cruising up the Yangtze. I’ve spent nearly a month plying the Coral Sea, motored up the hazy Ganges, crossed the North Sea from Copenhagen to London, drifted about on Mexico’s Sea of Cortés, and spent ten days floating Japan’s Inland Sea. And every summer, my husband and I sail our 54-foot cutter-rigged sailboat up the long channels and remote coasts of British Columbia.
Why do so many of us yearn to leave the shore? Somewhere in all those miles of water and sky and vastness, time feels different. It’s easy, in these globalized days, to rush from one place to another. It’s harder to quell our passion for movement and contemplate that motion. At least it is for me. But slowing down to drift, if we’re lucky, we feel the healing immensity of the world.
On my Antarctic trip, “the great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open,” as Melville said. Icebergs floated. Pelagic birds soared. Once, I swear, I glanced out my cabin window just as a solitary humpback, big as a bus, surfaced.
Years later I can still see him, white as a snow cloud, swimming through my soul.
By Kim Brown Seely. All rights reserve