Life As It Happens

Travel as training

Use it or Lose it

I think I first heard the expression “Use it or lose it” proximate to vacation accrual caps at a job. I remember that my dad had to take time off from his job at the Department of the Navy, or he would exceed the statutory 240 hours leave time cap.

As you age, you hear the phrase in a more important context. That which you want to have available to you in life, you must exercise. Want your heart to keep beating regularly? Push your heart rate to higher-than-normal levels so it stays in shape. If you want your muscles to continue working, you exercise them, remind them how to do their job.

And it’s no secret that mental activity prolongs mental acuity. Stop using your mind, and it will stop working.

We even have a phrase, “I’m rusty.” Just like a gate. If the gate doesn’t open and close occasionally, it rusts in one position.

Which brings me to travel. I love going places. It’s often the destination, but sometimes, as Stephen Stills put it, “It’s no matter, no distance – it’s the ride.” A few weeks ago, our granddaughter, Elena, asked if we could take her on another trip on the ferry across the bay to San Francisco. “Why do you want to go, sweetie?”

“Just to see somewhere different,” said a kid who has spent a full third of her life under the shadow of Covid.

I dig, Elena, I dig. I’m excited to get on a plane, or a train, or in the car, and go. To open the hotel curtains to a new vista, to land at a new airport, to taste cuisine that I’ve only gotten from expats. I’m pretty sure I get this from my mom, which is a bit of a sad story. She was born working poor in Charlotte, North Carolina at the beginning of the Depression. In most worlds, she would have never had the chance to travel at all. But thanks to a junior high school journalism teacher, she met my dad. They both got graduate educations, and went onto live a comfortable upper-middle class life that afforded plenty of opportunity and discretionary money for travel.

Thing is, my dad loved nothing more than to sleep in his own bed. Or a tent. So we did a fair amount of camping when I was a kid. We camped across the U.S. twice, and that in itself was extraordinary. But Mom, she would have loved the life of travel that I’ve known, and used to beg me to send her postcards so she could imagine (and look up on Google) the places I went. Hawaii and Alaska. India and Fiji. Australia and France and Russia. Puerto Rico and Costa Rica. The Netherlands, Italy (one place Mom did get to go, which she loved), England, and Mexico.

When I step outside a strange airport, my computer bag on my back, and a small suitcase pulled behind me, I feel alive.

Covid was not as hard on me as it was on many. I was already semi-retired when it hit, so I didn’t have the worries of doing a job remotely. I had the luxury to ask others to bring me groceries if I didn’t feel safe going in the grocery store. And I was fortunate to have my family around me, so I had a pod of loved ones to keep me sane.

But not traveling drove me nuts. After years of going when and where I wished, living overseas, and all those airports, waking up to the same horizon every day was tough.

So my trip to the Washington, D.C. area, and on to London and the north of England, was partially to see old friends, partially to “see another place,” and maybe, almost subconsciously, to exercise that muscle. To prevent rust from forming on my traveling shoes.

It started with Lisa, bless her heart, dropping me at the Coliseum BART station at 5:30am, on her way to Sacramento for her clinicals at UC Davis Medical Center. A person of my age and means doesn’t normally take BART from the East Bay to SFO, and definitely not catching the 5:40am train. No, they take a taxi, or somebody gives them a ride. If they’re tech-savvy, they grab a Lyft.

Where’s the challenge in that?

With my Clipper card loaded into G-pay, I tap my phone on the gate, board the train, and pull into a double seat with my suitcase and computer backpack. Change at Balboa Park and cruise into the International terminal at SFO. Money saved equals a nice dinner somewhere.

The plane is scheduled to leave at 8:30am, but it’s shortly after noon before we get away. If this sort of thing bothers you, then travel is not your bag. Drama-free flight across the country, though I am always blown away at the vistas you get of the United States from 35,000 feet.

Hello, Washington

We land at Dulles, I grab my suitcase and head to the area to catch the shuttle to the rental car center. Wait, no. I’ve leveled up on rental cars. I now use Turo, which is AirBnB for rental cars. So I message Razan, whom I’ve never met, and tell her that I’m headed out exit door #4. She replies that she’ll be there in ten minutes. She arrives, we shake hands, she looks at my driver’s license. I take pictures of the car, and ask her if she needs a ride somewhere. No, her husband is waiting in a car behind us. She wishes me a nice trip and I’m gone – total time elapsed, less than 5 minutes. Hasta la vista, Enterprise.

Bullet point plug for Turo:

  • It’s way faster than renting from the rental companies. Five minutes rather than 45-60 minutes. Multiplied by two for pick-up and drop-off.
  • It’s cheaper. These people are just trying to make a few bucks – not support a giant company’s staff and shareholders.
  • Your money is going to fellow humans, not a big company.

Drive over to Maryland, and get to my hotel in suburban Rockville. They want $20 per night to park. I don’t scoff at them out loud, because that would be rude. But the fact is that we are surrounded – surrounded, I tell you – by half-empty free parking lots for the retail and office establishments around us. I choose, instead, to park in the lot for the hotel’s restaurant (clearly labeled as for the restaurant only). You see, the restaurant was shuttered during the depths of the pandemic, so it’s Reserved Parking for a restaurant that doesn’t exist. Three nights at the hotel, that’s another $60 saved. Will the $60 make a difference in my life? Of course not, but part of the travel game is keeping score. I’m a cross-Bay Lyft, Enterprise-Turo savings, and three nights of hotel parking ahead, and it’s still my first day on the road. [1]

Three days spent in the D.C. area visiting friends and family. The big treat for me was fishing in Watts Branch, a couple of miles from the house where I grew up. I was driven over Watts Branch probably 3-4 times a day for most of my growing up years. As an avid fisherman, I always thought, “I wonder if there’s fish in there.” But it was a long hilly bike ride, and by the time I could drive, other priorities had taken over.

Now, I had a car and no higher priorities, so I drove out to Watts Branch and spent two hours not getting a single strike on a handful of different flies. The web says there’s fish in there, and I believe them. But what was important was that I fulfilled a childhood dream – to fish those waters nearly in my back yard.

There’s fish in there – I just didn’t catch ’em

Sunday evening was Lyle Lovett at the Birchmere with friend and poker buddy, Carrie. I missed live music more than I missed traveling, and I haven’t seen Lyle in far too long. “We missed you, Lyle!” a woman yelled from the crowd. “Ma’am, I reckon we missed you more than you missed us.”

Carrie and I had planned to play poker after the show, but it was 10:00pm by the time it got out, and we discovered that we were old. So we agreed to meet the next morning at the MGM National Harbor. We helped start a $1/3 game (my buy-in already secured), played for a couple of hours (both booking wins), then had brunch and caught up some more.

Then I was back to Dulles, dropped the car with Razan (two minutes total time together) and checked in for my overnight flight to London Heathrow.

Fishing a boyhood memory, then dinner, Lyle Lovett, and poker with a good friend, and get on a plane to cross the Pond. All in under 30 hours. This is how you work your travel muscles.

Goodnight, Washington

Transatlantic overnight flights are where we separate the “tourists” from the “road warriors.” The more of them you do, the more tricks you learn.

  • Wear comfortable, loose-fitting clothes. Be prepared to layer for both cold and warm.
  • Stay hydrated.
  • A hoodie with zippered pockets is invaluable. The hood allows you to keep the cold fan air off your head. The zippered pockets are where you reliably store phones and passports.
  • Conversely, putting a phone or passport in a seat-back pocket is a great way to destroy a trip.
  • Protein bars are your friend
  • Yes, I know you can choose from 50 different movies and 25 TV shows. Do not do this. Your job is to sleep if you possibly can. Whatever will help you to sleep (white noise, alcohol, medication), use it.
  • If your finance permit, paying for seat upgrades is often good value.

In my case, I’d stumbled onto a cheap fare that included business class travel eastbound from IAD-LHR. I must have reviewed that itinerary 15 times before I actually believed it.

Pro tip: the eastbound travel (U.S. East Coast to Europe) is five times harder and more grueling than the westbound leg. I’m sure it has something to do with flying overnight and time advancing. If you have to choose, upgrading the eastbound fare is far more important.

Another pro tip: if you’re sitting in business class, they’re going to offer you a fancy meal and expensive wine right after take-off. Say no thanks (beforehand) – put your eyeshades on, and go to sleep immediately. You don’t have that long to actually sleep so you need to make the most of it.

I’ve had the same eyeshade for longer than I can remember. It’s soft, comfortable, and produces pure darkness. I stretched the full-recline seat out (OMG, is this real life?) and said goodnight to the Atlantic Ocean.

Good morning, Heathrow

Landing in London at 6:00am is the poster child for testing travel muscles. If you’re in absolute top form, you might get 4-5 hours of sleep on the plane. Then you’re woken up when your body thinks it’s 10:00pm, and wants to settle down and do nothing. But instead, you’re marched off the plane half-asleep (why you never put a phone or passport in a seat back pocket). I think the walk to customs and immigration is on the order of half a mile.

T2 – the Queen’s Terminal. A lot nicer than baggage claim at other LHR terminals

Smooth sailing through customs, get my bag, and start walking toward the Heathrow Express. Another half mile away, and now I’m hauling my roller bag.

En route, I get a text from the Heathrow Express people. They warn me that there’s a transit strike, and the London Underground (aka “The Tube”) is pretty much non-operational. But they are running normally.

Jump on the Heathrow Express and it’s a quick 15 minutes to Paddington Station. Sure enough, signs outside the Paddington Tube station warn of “longer journey times.” Oh, the British are so very understated.

Traveler pro tip: before you leave, see if your mobile phone plan has an international option. If not, they’ll probably sell you a two-week package or similar at a reasonable price. Buy it. Lisa and I somehow stumbled into a T-Mobile plan (for old people) that is all you can eat phone, data, text, and hotspot for $90/month for two lines. And it includes 2G coverage in 40-odd countries. I cannot overstate the joy and relief of taking my phone out of airplane mode at Heathrow, waiting 30 seconds, and getting a text from T-Mobile that says, “Welcome to the UK,” with a bunch of information about data rate limits, and such.

Why did I just bring this up? Because when I see that the Tube isn’t running, I just fire up Google Maps. It’s 2.4 miles to my hotel near King’s Cross. And it’s hardly raining at all.

Visualize your trainer at the gym walking up and increasing the slope on your treadmill, just for giggles. This is what the Universe did for my travel training. Fortunately, I’d been doing my walking training too, and 2.4 miles didn’t seem like a big deal at all.

So I set a course on my phone for my hotel, and walk out of Paddington Station into a drizzly, grey London morning, feeling alive, alert, and grateful.

By Ed g2s - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
The walk along Marylebone Road looked like this, only grey and drizzly.

Hello London

I spend the next two days bombing around London and seeing a couple of friends who live there. But mostly just enjoying the town, which has always been one of my favorites. I eat curry and scones because London, and Lebanese food in Edgware Road, because to miss that would be awful.

Mostly, it’s an opportunity to visit a city that I love, and I revel in the fact that I know my way around London. This isn’t because I’m cool, or important. It’s because I’m lucky. So wandering the streets of London, going significant distances without looking at Google Maps, is a way to experience gratitude. And to keep my travel muscles in shape.

Going North

I had a date with an old PokerStars buddy to go fly fishing with him near his home in Ilkley, in North Yorkshire. I’d never been to North Yorkshire, so this was an awesome opportunity to see an old friend and see somewhere different.

Everybody in England travels on the train, and, in small enough doses, it’s kinda fun. The train to Ilkley, via Leeds, leaves out of King’s Cross Station, [2] so me and my two bags rocked up there. There is something iconic about a London train station, and King’s Cross, being one of the biggest, doesn’t disappoint. Get my breakfast at Pret a Manger (doesn’t everybody get breakfast at Pret?) and am on my way northward.

The difference between London and the north of England is like that between New York City and the rural South of the U.S. In fact, the parallels run close in many ways. It’s nearly a different language, and a different way of life – a different world.

This is provably not a London hotel.
This, however, is provably a cheese shop. If you think this is funny, it is.

Colin and I caught zero fish, and had to get out of the River Nidd earlier than we wanted because, well, it’s like this… when you’ve gone to the trouble to drive to a river, get all your gear on, and wade in, it can be tempting to just stay there and fish. Even if conditions aren’t optimal. Now, if that means “not catching any fish,” don’t make me laugh – fishing can be great even if you’re not catching anything, and Colin and I both dig that.

However, there comes a time when you think, “This could end poorly.” Very specifically, when the water level is 18″ higher than normal, the river is really ripping around you, and you think, “If I fall at this point, the best case outcome is that I come up very wet and very cold. The worst case outcome, I don’t even want to think about.” That’s when wise fishermen get out of the water. Colin and I knew when to climb out of the River Nidd.

And yet, we had a blast. He drove me past the super-secret NSA installation (yes, I said “NSA”) in the middle of nowhere in North Yorkshire. Giant golf-ball antennas dotting the countryside, side by side with the cows and the sheep.

Travel is so cool.

Hello London, again

Another train journey, and back to London. This time I stayed hard on the shores of Leicester Square, not least because it put me close to London poker, and was an easy Tube shot to Paddington Station when I was going to fly out of Heathrow.

I spent my time wandering around, visiting old haunts…

If this means something to you, you’re a PokerStars O.G.

Looking for a place called Lee Ho Fuks – gonna get a big dish of beef chow mein

Somewhere in Covent Garden, I had an afternoon snack of a fresh baked scone, because London, and a coffee drink, which was their house-prepared hot chocolate from scratch, with two shots of house-roasted espresso poured in, because OMG. Warren Zevon can keep the beef chow mein.

Then I got the covid test that was required to get back into the U.S. That involved two two-mile round trips on foot to get to Boots in Oxford Street, but I didn’t begrudge a single step of it. What was it Samuel Johnson said – “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.”

I ended the day and trip with a ten-hour poker session, which I document in full here. Don’t read it unless you like long poker tales.

Final exam

A story that includes an all-night poker session should probably end there. But the Universe wasn’t done with shenanigans.

I boarded the United Airlines 787 at Heathrow, mentally and physically prepared for the ten-hour flight to SFO. I’d even found a cheap upgrade into Premium Economy, which seemed well worth it. Locked in an aisle seat and was ready to roll.

Get to my seat, 22D, and there’s a guy sitting in it. White male, 24 years old.

“Excuse me, I think this is my seat.”

“Oh, my bad, I’m on the wrong side of the [three-seat] row.”

He switches over, and now his buddy, white male, 24 years old, returns. And he is vibrating with discomfort and angst. Come to find out he’s in the center seat between us. He had poached another random seat in Premium Economy, but had been sent back to his official seat.

It turns out this fellow has claustrophobia. I knew this trip was going too well. He is sitting in the center seat, all but crawling out of his skin. And he’s going to be sitting next to me for the next 10-11 hours.

I’m sitting there, trying to figure out what my options are (the plane is jam packed), when Mindy, the flight attendant, approaches me, and beckons me out of my seat.

“This gentleman is extremely uncomfortable in a center seat.”

“So I gathered.”

“I am not asking you to do this, but would you consider swapping seats with him?”

I pause. I try to show grace where I can, but this is a big ask.

“Tell you what, see what else you can work out, and if you have no other options, yes, I’ll swap.”

She was extremely appreciative, and went back to furious texting on her phone. In the meantime, the guy next to me is vibrating with discomfort. It is clear that we’ll all be better off if I swap with him.

Ten minutes later, Mindy is back, and addresses Vibrating Guy.

“Sir, I have three seats together – 35 J, K, L for you, in economy, if you’d like those.”

“But, I paid 325 bucks for this upgrade.”

The road warriors among you will know what happened, and how quickly it happened.

Me: “Three-seat row in economy?”

Mindy [brightening visibly]: “Yes sir.”

“I’ll take it.”

“You won’t get a rebate on your upgrade, sir.”

“That’s not a problem.”

The road warriors here are laughing. Getting a three-seat row to yourself is 80% as good as being in a lay-flat seat in business/first. No, you don’t get the fancy china and warmed mixed nuts before dinner. But what you do get is space and privacy, which is really what you’re paying for up front. At least it’s what I’m paying for. Given a choice between one Premium Economy seat and three Economy seats, the latter is a snap no-brainer choice.

I grab my bag from the overhead compartment and follow Mindy back to 35 J, K, L before somebody comes to their senses. Her relief and gratitude is palpable.

“Can I bring you champagne?”

“Thank you no, I’m in good shape here.”

“Well, I so appreciate it. Let me know if there’s anything we can get you.”

Mindy, seen from my new seats, plural

Before we took off, the purser (chief of the flight attendant staff) came by to personally thank me as well, and to offer me anything I needed. There’s times when it’s too bad I don’t have a taste for champagne.

But the Universe had an extra twist coming…

Right before the doors closed, the kid who had created all the drama shows up at my seat. He was pale, and you could see he was in the after-shock of a serious claustrophobic episode.

“Man, you saved my life. If you have PayPal, I can send you money to cover the cost of the upgrade.”

“Thank you, but that’s not at all necessary. I’m perfectly fine here, and I’m glad it worked out. You have a good flight.”

“Well thank you. Now I will.”

On the heels of my all-night poker session, I lay down across my three seats, put white noise on the ear buds, and pulled my eye shade down. We were more than halfway to San Francisco when I woke up.

It’s no matter, no distance…

I had forgotten how much I love travel, and forgotten how much I missed it. This trip reminded me of that, and let me get my travel muscle back into shape. It was grand to be in London again, and a joy to see North Yorkshire for the first time.

But the best part was waking to a different horizon, hearing a London or Yorkshire accent in the voices, and seeing somewhere different.

It’s the ride.

[1] Carrie denominates such wins in “buy-ins.” Usage:
Me: “I just saved $40 on a cross-Bay Lyft, $200 on a rental car, and $60 on parking.”
Carrie: “That’s a full $1/3 buy-in. Well played.”

[2] We were at the King’s Cross train station for the family’s first UK visit (2002?). It was when the Harry Potter books had just come out. I made the boys stand at a point where I could take a picture with tracks 9 and 10 in the frame behind them. They thought it was lame beyond words. Fast forward 20 years – there is an entire Harry Potter store immediately adjacent to those two tracks, and a giant sign indicating track 9 3/4.