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Musings of a Travel Writer in Quarantine

By Kelsey Ogletree

I learned more than I thought I could about travel—without traveling.

Moleskine. Tennis shoes. Laptop. Snacks. Travel-size dry shampoo. At one point, I got so good at packing my carry-on, I could nearly do it in my sleep—and often did. As a travel writer and a morning person, I was always booking the earliest flight out, eager to get where I was going and have as much time as possible to explore my new destination.

Last year, I visited more than a dozen new places, including five new countries. I ate cheese sausages in Vienna, watched the sunset from Munich’s newest rooftop bar, helped a lone baby turtle get to the ocean in Antigua, and sipped champagne in ritzy digs in Las Vegas. I window-shopped in Charleston and snapped selfies under the Saint Louis Arch. I spent the most money I’ve ever dropped on clothes in Cannes and fell in love with rainy days in Paris. This was living, I thought, and I couldn’t wait for 2020 and all the fantastic new travel memories—and plushy hotel stays—it would bring.

In January, my husband and I took an early anniversary trip to Cancun. It was chilly at times, and we said we wished we’d waited until March to go. Little did we know that all travel plans would be foiled for the foreseeable future—exalting that getaway in our minds as the perfect vacation after all.

It’s a weird time to identify as a travel writer. Since the pandemic began, I’ve shifted my focus to writing about other topics—as many others have done. Food stories have been my bread and butter (think: therapeutic effects of baking, spa recipes you can make with kitchen ingredients, best grocery delivery services, barbecue tips from Southern pitmasters), and editors have been assigning health stories left and right, which I’ve gladly taken. I haven’t been able to relate to the flurry of articles about how to fill quarantine downtime, as I’ve been fortunate to remain very busy. For months, it still felt like something was missing, though—like a piece of my energy and creativity had been carved out, leaving a giant hole I couldn’t fill with anything else.

The thrill of seeing something for the first time is not often part of our lives as adults unless we venture to new places. Travel helps us feel like kids again—to view the world as an opportunity that’s ours to discover.

For those of you who travel, you know. The excitement of opening airline apps on your phone in anticipation of your next journey, to adventures still unknown, is impossible to replicate. The thrill of seeing something for the first time is not often part of our lives as adults unless we venture to new places. Travel helps us feel like kids again—to view the world as an opportunity that’s ours to discover.

A fellow travel writer friend and airplane junkie revealed to me recently that he’s been sipping his coffee from cups he confiscated from past flights. Monday, Qantas; Tuesday, United; Wednesday, Austrian Airlines. Another writer I know is writing about pre-COVID travels translated to now, like how she’s practicing a mindfulness trick she learned in Japan to cope with anxiety. I’ve been digging through boxes of tchotchkes that made it into my suitcase, such as a stuffed bear I earned from climbing to the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and liberally using room spray from a hotel in Paris around my home office. (By the way, it’s incredible how much scents can bring back travel memories.) I’m also starting to think about travel writing differently.

There’s no denying the allure that faraway places hold. Yet what about all the places around us that we see every day without really seeing them? What do the people we love have to share with us about the places they’ve visited—and how have they changed? What are we missing by looking down at our phones, at our to-do lists, or at people who are different from us instead of looking up?

Writer Kelsey Ogletree sightseeing on the island of Antigua
Writer Kelsey Ogletree sightseeing on the island of Antigua

The inherent shared characteristic of travel writers is curiosity after all. A photographic memory, a keen eye for detail, and an ability to interview on the fly all help too. But is it wonder that causes us to wander—or our wandering that inhibits our sense of wonder in our everyday lives?

Something I’ve come to understand over the last few months is that losing our ability to venture beyond our homes and see things that we perceive as new can stifle our creativity—or fuel it. I could lament about my trips to Sweden and Australia that are now indefinitely postponed, or I could look to what’s right in front of me—a single hydrangea bush bearing pink, blue, and white flowers; the country’s only Coon Dog Cemetery, a few miles from where I live; my husband’s grandparents, who’ve become like my own, reminiscing about their secret wedding over cups of sweet tea; my purring kitty who waits all day for me to finally turn off my laptop and be still with him—and realize what little I actually pay attention to.

My learning from lockdown: the journey of my life is not about the miles I log, the points I earn, or the hotel stays I book. “Don’t get so busy making a living,” Dolly Parton once said, “that you forget to make a life.” I’m taking that thought to heart in quarantine and beyond, reminding myself that inspiration is all around—and relying on my travel writer’s intuition to find it.

— V —

Kelsey Ogletree is a freelance journalist covering travel and wellness for national publications, including the Wall Street Journal, AARP, Shape, and Condé Nast Traveler. She’s also the founder of KO Copy, providing resources and workshops to empower publicists and freelance writers to work smarter and better together.

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