Illustration by Stuart Kolakovic


Need some rest and relaxation? Sometimes you don’t have to journey any further than INTO YOUR MEMORY.

 
Last night’s pile of dishes and pans in the kitchen was big. As I put on purple rubber gloves and filled the sink, my mind raced back 32 years to a farmhouse kitchen with an even larger after-dinner stack. Happily, the window above that sink afforded superb views of rolling hills in southern Queensland, Australia, at dusk, and I watched them turn dark green. My hosts had asked if I needed help, but I was happy to scrub and gaze. Last night, I smiled and reached for the baking dish.

Chances are, you’re reading this aboard an American Airlines jet and may wonder why I’m waxing enthusiastic about virtual travel. Of course, I understand that real travel is more fun than the vicarious kind. But there are and will be times when you and I just can’t be mobile. Maybe you’ve just bought a house and it was a financial stretch that will — temporarily, I hope — keep you out of the skies. Or you’ve just become a parent and, however much you’d like a vacation from midnight feedings and smelly diapers, even the prospect of a trip seems remote. Or you’re caring for aging parents, and there’s no way to get away. There are all sorts of reasons to make the journey back in time and through your mind worthwhile — perhaps even essential. For me, now traveling much less than in the past, the vicarious trip builds anticipation of forthcoming journeys.

Although trip recall is often spontaneous, our senses usually are our boarding passes. When we see an article or a scene from a movie, or even a photo of a place from our past, we can be propelled back. A newspaper photo of a crowded train in India instantly sent me to Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus station, 2008. My Indian friends advised against riding the train back to their suburban apartment, but I couldn’t resist. (The coach was so crowded that I couldn’t get to the door at my stop and had to backtrack.)

The photographs and videos we take while traveling naturally enable us to return; that was the whole point of framing that perfect shot of friends at the 1973 Oktoberfest in Munich. But some of us know too well the ­transience of photos when our home computer crashes or we mistakenly delete folders. Decades ago, two summers’ worth of Kodak slides vanished when my wife’s car was stolen. Luckily, scores of those images are still in my brain, and I can retrieve them at will: the wizened old lady on the park bench in Prague, 1971, or the leopard sleeping in the tree on Tanzania’s Serengeti Plain the following summer. Too often, visitors spend so much time capturing some foreign scene on their camera’s memory card that they forget to embed the scene in their own memory.

For me, the visual is almost too easy a trigger. Our senses of sound, smell, taste and feel can serve as similar tickets to another time and place. Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” puts me in the Safeway super­market parking lot west of Calgary, Alberta, in June 2003. That memory prompts a ­fast-forward by a few hours, when I scrambled down a snowfield, just above tree line. I knew Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 6” long before I listened to it at the start of a long jog outside Armidale, New South Wales, in March 1987. Every time I’ve heard the opening since, I’ve headed back to Castledoyle Road; it’s ­fitting that the first movement is titled “Awakening of Cheerful Feelings.” And just about any Grateful Dead tune sends me to Gryon, a small mountain village in Canton Valais, Switzerland, where, in 1972, we played Dead tunes without pause one rainy weekend.

No nose likes a big whiff of diesel exhaust, but if a truck belches past me in traffic, I fly back to my first overseas trip: I’m walking down the street in La Boca, the colorful barrio in Buenos Aires, Argentina. It’s a cool, sunny winter morning, and I’m excited to be conversing with students my age in their language. Of course, good smells work better: How many times has a kitchen aroma prompted a happy recall? The scent of garlic in olive oil almost always carries me back to Logan Boulevard in Chicago. I’m a little kid, standing below the stove in my grandmother’s apartment. No wonder that smell conjures comfort; it’s tightly tied not just to her Italian cooking but also to her big hugs.