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Traveling is Like a Terminal Illness

December 17th, 2018 by dk

Preparing for travel is like being diagnosed with a terminal illness, except without the imminent dying part. (That must be the worst part.) If I ever receive such news, my traveling experiences have prepared me well for the other parts.

Modern air travel experience is often compared with death, and not the kind with any dignity. We could have seen this coming when the airports installed “terminals,” but that is neither here nor there. I’m thinking more about when you’re planning for being here, then there.

It takes forethought to be gone well. Who will water the plants and take in the mail? What’s left in the fridge? How low can you set the thermostat without risking a pipe rupture? You don’t want to cause an undue burden, so you write out instructions.

It’s not quite a last will and testament, but it has many similarities. You want the values you hold to be continued, equitably distributed. Lessons learned needn’t be learned again. The cat will eat only a certain brand of wet food, and then only if it’s in that brightly colored dish, which must be washed thoroughly but without scented dish soap.

Truth is, we manage to endings better than to middles, no matter how much more common the middles may be. Every deadline is a killing. If all we had were “middlelines,” we’d never get much done. So it energizes us when we know we have only three days left … before we are leaving.

You want to leave your affairs in order, just in case you don’t return. But even when we’re certain that we will return, we still feel compelled to organize things before we go. My mother never wanted to return to a messy house, so our vacations always began with all of us needing a vacation. It’s the order of the universe.

We tidy up before company arrives, especially for strangers. And so our compulsion to clean honors our post-trip selves — because there’s always the chance that the trip will change us. The person returning may not be someone we already know well. Tidiness is a gift to your future self.

Or we may not return at all. There’s always that chance. In either case, we want to leave with the assurance that we’ll soon be in a better place. After all, why would we leave if we didn’t hope going would somehow be better than staying? Better weather, better company, better mindset — we always hope that something over there will be better.

I know I always travel with a stack of unread magazines and a couple of books that have gathered dust on my nightstand. Because my definition of a better place is where I read more often and more quickly. I lug the extra weight when I leave, promising my future self I will not bring it all back. Similar burdens will await my future self.

And there’s always a time, just before you leave, when you’d rather not go. The tickets are not refundable. The reservations cannot be canceled. The people expecting you will be disappointed. But they’ll survive. We all do. Until we don’t.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at

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