The Wanderlust Box

Where does wanderlust come from? Is the insatiable desire to keep seeing and doing written into our genes? Does the need to keep exploring spring from a constant barrage of media telling us to keep traveling? Or is it sprouted from the seeds planted by individuals and events before we were born? Can wanderlust sit dormant in a shoe-box and then take root when revealed to the light of day by a curious child?

There was little I could do in my room above my parents that the creaky floors would not tattle on me. I thought I was being sneaky, but they could hear the glass door knob to the closet turn and my steps into the creepy dark void filled with mysterious objects like my mother’s dollhouse and afghans that smelled like grandma’s house. As intriguing as my mother’s old clothes—I loved to play dress up—and dolls were, it is the shoe-box of travel trinkets that I remember most. I would climb the shelves to snatch it out of its hiding spot and clutch it carefully for the short trip back to my bedroom.

My parents met in church as teenagers, saw as much of each other as they could, but were made to wait through my mother’s education before marrying in 1968. They endured farm accidents, family struggles, and starting a nursing career. They were a couple for many years and experiences before finally becoming expectant parents. August of 1971 they were posing beside their Southern Minnesota home before driving to the airport for a long flight to Hawaii and a radical change of pace. If there was a baby bump, it is not evident. But then it was another five months before I would make my appearance.

I remember a curated trip through the shoe-box, mom pointing out the significance of the contents. It was the only box of its kind. There was something powerful about that trip that warranted gathering memories for home, perhaps the discomfort of impending parenthood. There was a vial of black sand. The story was that it was the most beautiful beach they saw, but “Missy” was pushing on mom’s bladder and distracting them from the experience. There were napkins and toiletry bottles from the fancy resort hotels they stayed in on the islands, a departure from their usual camping travels. They giggled together about the amphibians climbing their walls and discussed my father’s inability to keep the grass skirt on his hips at the luau. Pressed and dried flowers from welcoming leis were in the bottom of the box, still beautiful. Postcards showed scenes of paradise. A jar of shells revealed intriguing shapes that were unlike things I could find at Minnesota lakeshores. I was enthralled with the collection and puzzled by an exotic version of my parents not exhibited in our normal life. I could not picture Hawaii beaches but wanted to play with the shells.

I think that’s where it came from. Wanderlust was a seed in that vial of black Hawaiian sand. It was fertilized by a mixture of intrigue and guilt. While they would joke about how I was “along” on the trip to Hawaii, it felt negative, that I was third wheel. But I was also rooted in travel in utero and have always enjoyed anticipating the next trip. I would wander off and make threats to run away on my own adventures in grade school. I liked excursions on my own and adored seeing new things on our family trips, which were plentiful but simple. I made my own shoe-boxes of travel collections.

I could not find the box in the house when my mother died. The wanderlust box was gone. I have no idea when it became trash instead of treasure. I might have liked to see it one more time. I am sure it never occurred to either of my parents that their box of stuff was meaningful to me. This spring as we planned our own Hawaiian adventures, I found myself sitting with the now imaginary box in my lap wondering where our story would overlap.mPhone_05132018-352

There are a handful of images in the scanned family slides that show my young parents on the trip of their lives. From cautiously happy faces on the plane to exhausted travelers in one of their rooms, the pictures add detail to the stories within the box. As we departed for a week on Kauai, I had those moments from that island stored on my phone. I was tracking my parents around paradise forty-six years after “our” first time. The most amazing thing was that I could stand in the exact same places, easily recognizable from 1971. There were moments I truly sensed I was revisiting, not there for the first time.

The strongest of these came at the Kilauea Lighthouse and Wildlife Refuge. I had heard about this day as a child and the picture of my would-be mother standing there in her yellow pants in front of the lighthouse was a powerful image for me. The lighthouse was still operational in 1971 but it had gone dark in the intervening decades. I stood as close to the spot where mom posed as possible given new configurations of road, visitor center, and modern crowds. It gave me shivers, a moment of self-awareness that maybe I did not ruin their day at the lighthouse but added colorful details of dashing to restrooms between sightseeing. Maybe it was the time they realized it was the birth of me that would be the real adventure. Perhaps I had it backwards all this time. I realized my insatiable need to see things could have started right there.

We visited Waimea Canyon State Park and found the sign my father, skinny and joyfully young, posed behind pre-Missy. The ground was worn down beneath it and I had to stand on tiptoes to match his spot. Others were focused on the exotic beauty of the canyon, but I was reflecting how grand of an adventure they had that day. He would have been the one taunting my mother by approaching the edge with a little less caution that she deemed necessary. I was the one judging the fools doing the same thing.

I paused in the bathroom at the St. Regis just long enough to smile at the memory of my mother’s napkin collection in the box. We were not staying in this opulent location, but our villa down the road came with access privileges to its beach and sunset views of Hanalei Bay. The embossed paper towel in the facilities momentarily remained uncrumpled in my hand as I stared in the mirror and saw faint reminders in my face of a mother that had hoarded Hawaii in a box. I realized in that bizarre location that we were more alike that I had ever given credit. We were not just shared DNA, we had the same curiosity to see new things and build up our stories.

My view of Hawaii in 1971 was nonexistent, and my 1980s interpretation of the events that transpired there may have been off-base, as illuminated by following their trail around Kauai in 2018. The box delivered the right motivation to be a traveler, a collector of experiences occasionally marked by acquisition of little things for future sparks of memory. That’s an awful lot to expect of a shoe-box in a creaky old closet, but I’m glad it was there for my sneaky self. I cherish the fact I could walk in the places that made my parents happy enough to create the box in the first instance. To the same degree I was along on their trip, they truly were along on ours and it was a good thing.


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