My parents have a photo of me in a rowing boat aged six. Blond hair and chubby knees. A panicked expression as the river tugs the boat downstream. How was I to understand it was attached by a rope? As far as I knew I was drifting to God-knows-where. That seems quite the luxury now. Coronavirus has ended the default mode for many of us: the freedom to travel without plans.
I caught the bug early. Aged 15 I hiked through the Peak District with a pal, walking wherever looked appealing on our OS map rather than following the itinerary diligently plotted at a kitchen table. A decade later, drunk on Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, I hitchhiked in New Zealand’s South Island. After a week something interesting happened. The destinations I’d underlined in my guidebook became secondary to directions. If a ride was roughly going my way I tagged along.
There was the drive down the west coast with a goldminer, another over two days in a rickety pick-up with a farmer inspecting horses. Some fishermen dropped me at a remote bushcamp in the fjord where their boat was moored. The walking’s terrific, they said. It was, as was the freshly landed crayfish they gave me on the ride out several days later.
I left having not “done” New Zealand in any holiday sense. What a trip, though. “There was nowhere to go but everywhere, so just keep rolling under the stars,” Kerouac wrote. That was it exactly.
I mention this because we are – or were pre-lockdown – in a golden age of travel freedom. We can book a holiday 24/7; find a last-minute flight and apartment online to experience the thrill of exploring somewhere new that evening. Aren’t we lucky? That used to require weeks of planning. But, cloistered at home with books like Laurie Lee’s euphoric As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, I’ve started to wonder whether we haven’t forgotten something important along the way.
What appealed about New Zealand wasn’t the wild adventure of it all. Or not entirely. It was the vertiginous sense of possibility from touring with no goal. The changing destinations on a coin’s flip, the chance encounters, the taking roads just to see where they went. Can you imagine Kerouac or Lee using Google Maps or Airbnb?
Their brand of footloose travel is more accessible than you might expect. Money aside, the only essential for travel freedom is a guarantee of somewhere to sleep – a tent or camper van, or a destination with a surfeit of affordable accommodation. Everything else is preference. Food? There’s usually something somewhere to eat, if you’re not fussy. Usually transport too, either your own – on wheels, afloat, on foot – or public. Beyond that all you need is the right state of mind.
A few years ago in a bar in Korcula, Croatia, a fisherman invited me to join him hauling up his nets. I hesitated, then thought, “Why not?”. Which is how I came to be in a wooden boat shortly after dawn the next day, bobbing before a medieval town burnished by raking sunlight. The water dripping from our nets turned to gold. Quite the experience for a jolly holiday.
Another holiday, this to the west Highlands in a camper van: bottle-green waves to surf, long chats in wee shops as my pace slowed, wild camps at night. Magic. Yet my abiding memories are of those nights I slept outdoors.
On a clifftop on Skye I woke early. Sea like beaten silver stretched to the Western Isles. The world seemed to be holding its breath. I wouldn’t have traded that breakfast of porridge and fresh coffee for any five-star buffet.
Such moments still thrill. It’s travel as “the gorgeous feeling of teetering on the unknown”, as the late chef Anthony Bourdain said.
My guess is people will crave a holiday after this is over. There will be pressure for it to be perfect. The travel industry fetishises perfection. No wonder: it is selling us our dreams.
Yet freedom – to explore by instinct, to make spontaneous plans – can be travel’s greatest luxury. It permits us to cast off routines and live, briefly, in the moment. To drift. Don’t get me wrong, a posh hotel is lovely. But I bet it’s the encounters, discoveries and incidents that you talk about afterwards.
So perhaps this crisis is a wake-up call. Perhaps it’s time we demanded less from our holidays. Who knows, we may end up getting more. See you on the road.