Covid has played devilish games with our psyches.
For the past 18 months, it seems many of us have become mere figments of our former selves. We’ve suppressed our yearnings to be among friends and limited time spent with family. Sequestered within our homes, our social skills have atrophied and usual escape mechanisms disappeared.
In some ways, the pandemic has significantly altered the people who we believed we were. Yet beneath the surface lay the hidden vestiges of our pre-Covid selves … or so I thought.
When the virus seemed to be receding in the very early spring, my desire to resume traveling returned like an annoying itch needing a scratch. I had been forced to cancel planned trips to Cuba and Africa the previous year when Covid initially appeared. I’d even been prevented the usual escape to my Canadian home, the border closing in March 2020.
That’s why I jumped so quickly when an offer to travel by air to Alaska for a mere 8,000 frequent flyer miles appeared in my inbox. I knew that the virus could unexpectedly rear its head at any time effectively canceling my trip, but what the heck. It’s only 8,000 miles, I told myself, miles I could afford to lose if necessary. After all, it wasn’t like I had put down any cash to secure the tickets.
I’d been to Alaska before but hadn’t ventured into the southeast “panhandle” portion of the state. That trip had been enchanting and I wanted to once again feel that magic.
So I sprang online and booked my trip. I never even considered that the devil known as Covid could appear in other details.
At the core of my incessant itch to travel had always been an adventurous drive to meet new people and explore new cultures. I sought out the novel, was inspired by differences, and seldom met a stranger who didn’t fascinate.
That’s why I was surprised when the mere booking of an airline reservation begin to inspire such anxiety. The ticket sat in my inbox for weeks as I refused to consider other necessary details of my trip such as where I would stay. Every time I called up the itinerary my anxiety would return.
I finally concluded that it wasn’t the threat of Covid that was immobilizing me. Instead, it was the loss of confidence in my own ability to successfully step into a semi-normal world. The virus had undermined my sense of self as competent enough to negotiate 10 days spent outside what had become the safe bubble of my own home.
It wasn’t until the week before I was scheduled to leave that I finally decided I would actually go. And, it was less of a concrete decision than it was a now-or-never moment. I knew if I waited any longer, my anxiety would win, so I took a deep breath and laid down my first cash outlay on a two-night bed-and-breakfast in Sitka. And once money was committed, the other reservations followed.
There were short hops of flights from Sitka to Ketchikan and back that I needed to book. More accommodations in Ketchikan and a final night in Sitka.
But, even when the cash outlay had been completed I was still uneasy. The thought of travel seemed more risky than it had once been – and not because of the pandemic, but due to the viral spread of uneasiness and uncertainty that had unconsciously settled in during those 18 months of isolation.
Even with the bookings firmed, my anxiety didn’t abate. Every day leading up to my departure I wondered whether I had made the right decision. That may seem insignificant to many, but for me … a person who had planned to spend her retirement as a solo traveler … it felt like a loss.
A day before I was to leave, I told my son that I was dreading the trip. That doesn’t seem like me, does it, I asked.
No, it doesn’t, he replied.
I knew it wasn’t the “old” me. But maybe this was the “new” me that had been forever altered by global loss and necessitated isolation. I just wasn’t as sure of anything anymore.
The morning of departure I woke up with a cold knot in my stomach. It felt more like the upcoming trip was to be endured rather than enjoyed. Before Covid, I was always increasingly excited before an impending vacation. This time, I wished I could just stay home.
Three flight lay ahead of me: Denver to Salt Lake City, Salt Lake City to Seattle, then Seattle to Sitka. It would have been a daunting itinerary for an experienced traveler. For me, someone who was entirely unsure of her desire to travel at all, it was exhausting.
Yet, as the final plane skimmed above the emerald islands of this southeastern part of Alaska on the plane’s approach to Sitka, I began to feel some of the former excitement that had always enveloped me on the start of trips. The russet and gold horizon glimmered in front of us and lights on the sea and islands below twinkled.
My appreciation of wildness and never-before-encountered territory was still there, I marveled.
Upon disembarking, I fell in step with a salmon fisherman returning to Sitka to begin trawling for “pinks.” We chatted amiably and shared a taxi – he to the harbor to load up with ice for the upcoming fishing trip and me to my bed and breakfast.
I realized my ability to interact with strangers was intact and it gave me a warm feeling to connect in ways that I hadn’t been able to in so many months.
The next morning I awoke with a sense of … what was it? Anticipation?
After eight miles and nine hours, I had seen most of the small city of Sitka. I had met countless people, enjoyed a fabulous lunch of rockfish tacos, visited shops, toured a native American park of totem poles, visited a raptor center, explored a Russian cemetery, and discovered that the person who I thought had disappeared in the dreaded time of coronavirus, was still there.
I had meant to write this first post of my Covid-idled travel blog focusing on the beauty and history of Sitka. But when I started writing, I realized this was something I had to address first. Tomorrow I can write about the adventure I hope for on the wildlife tour I’ve booked, the history of the city of Sitka itself. Today, it was a different story I needed to tell.
What I’ve discovered instead of the joy of exploring a new place is that I’m still me. The isolation necessitated by Covid has indeed changed me – as it has all of us. It brought enormous stress and grief. It initiated changes within me and such transitions are never easy.
We’ve all lost.
But we can get to a place where we can trust ourselves again, trust our instincts. We can be anchored and yet still stray from the familiar. We can connect with others.
The joy that I had once found in travel was still there. After 18 months of isolation, I still wanted to make new memories. Our lives have changed profoundly. We may never be able to return to what we once perceived as normal. But we can’t give in to the toxicity of fear and hopelessness.
With perseverance and faith in who we still are, we can overcome the devilishness of this pandemic even as it extends into our future. We can once again learn to enjoy the beauty of a deep-blue sea.