What I’ve Learned from Traveling (Or: What Disney World, South Dakota, and Ancient Dwellings Have in Common)

Raise your hand if the quarantine/pandemic has you stir crazy.

I’m just going to assume there are a lot of hands, because surely I’m not the only one who’s been daydreaming about vacations and day trips. Recently, my husband and I went to an antique mall (while wearing our masks the whole time and sanitizing regularly), and that short little outing felt like the Bahamas. Leaving my house for something that isn’t work? Cue the Jimmy Buffet: “Changes in latitudes, changes in attitudes...”

I’ve been checking out book after book from the library on road trips and travel, living vicariously through the photos and anecdotes.

And all this unfulfilled wanderlust has gotten me thinking back on some of my favorite trips. Growing up, my family always placed a lot of value in travel: In seeing places and learning new things, in reading as many pages as possible in the book that is our world.

I could spend a lot of time talking about our travels, and I know how deeply blessed I am to have been able to go on so many adventures. I’ve held Rocky Mountain snow in the middle of June. I’ve walked the same path that so many soldiers trekked before losing their lives in the Battle of Gettysburg. I’ve felt the ocean lap at my ankles as the sun began its descent and stars peeked through the darkening sky.

But in all of this reminiscing, I’d like to talk about my top three travel experiences: Those moments that taught me something about myself and the world.

A serendipitous rainbow at Magic Kingdom (2013)

(3) Disney World

I know what you’re saying: Disney World? Sarah, I thought you were going to write about places that were more than just touristy commercial black holes? And I am, but with this one, hear me out. First, what’s wrong with being a tourist? I’m serious at work; I’m serious with my hobbies, hopes, and dreams. In short: I work seriously hard. What’s so terrible about enjoying a place where everything is taken care of for you and you can get excited over a photo with your favorite princess. (Tiana, by the way!) I don’t see anything wrong with it, especially when it means a relaxing vacation and a trip back to your childhood. For one week, you don’t have to worry about bills or politics or any other “grown-up” stuff. You just have to get in line and give Tigger a big hug. And yes… I’m also not opposed to rides. (Haunted Mansion is the best!)

Second, Disney World has been a part of my family’s vacation rotation since I was 9. We’ve been eight times, and a lot has changed since then. Not just the park itself (though that’s true, too). New rides and shows have been added, and some favorites have disappeared. But more than that, some family members who shared the laughter and fun at Disney World years ago are also no longer here. The couch at Minnie’s house, where we took a picture during every trip, is now gone. New Fantasyland is there now. But the memories remain. And every time I go back to Disney World, those old memories come back, feeling fresh and real in ways that they don’t feel at home. And new memories are made, too. And if that doesn’t mean something larger than just a theme park, then I don’t know what does.

Crazy Horse Memorial, still under construction (2014)

(2) Crazy Horse Memorial

When most people visit South Dakota, they head straight for Mount Rushmore. And, yeah, Mount Rushmore is impressive. The fact that they managed to carve those giant faces into the mountain at a time with considerably less technology than we have today is a testament to human vigilance. However, the monument becomes clouded once you learn that it was built on sacred Native American ground. Plus, once you get there, it’s a pretty quick visit. You see the mountain, go through a little museum, and maybe take a hike (if you enjoy that, which not everyone does).

If you want to visit a monument that not only offers more to do but also gives you the chance to be a part of history yourself, then the Crazy Horse Memorial is a must-see. Started in 1948, the memorial is still a work-in-progress and may take yet another century before it’s finished. It’s a massive undertaking that is 100-percent funded through admissions and donations. This is an project of passion to preserve a part of history that is tragically overlooked. Add into that an extensive Native American museum and even demonstrations of native dances, plus you can also watch the memorial’s progress (through binoculars) and, for a donation, take a piece of the Black Hills home with you (a result of the rubble that is left behind after detonations). It’s truly one of the most enlightening and engaging places I’ve every visited: Not only do you learn about history, but you participate in it too. One-hundred years from now, when the memorial is finally complete, YOU will be one of the people who, with your visit to the site, helped to fund the massive, centuries-spanning monument.

Walking alongside the dwellings (2017)

(1) Mesa Verde

My all-time favorite spot. Not only is it a beautiful area, with an elevation of up to 8,000 feet, but it’s also the one place I’ve visited where I felt the most connected to the past. For ages, my dad had wanted to take us out west specifically to see these ancient dwellings in Colorado, and a few years back, we were finally able to go. I can’t begin to describe the feeling that comes from seeing something that has stood for hundreds of years. It makes you feel, not just connected to the past, but to the future, too. There’s a sense of being so much smaller than you ever thought you were. And yet also you can’t help but feel as if you’re a part of something larger, too: You might be only one thread in the tapestry of humanity, but that tapestry would also not be complete without you.

The dwellings are a testament to the perseverance that comes with being human: Mesa Verde has stood for 700 years, and we can still see how people lived. These are homes, and while you’re walking alongside them, you can’t help but be reminded that, whatever may separate you from someone else–in this case, centuries–people are still people who don’t just exist, but thrive. They laugh and love and form connections… sometimes with people they will never even meet, generations upon generations after they’ve gone. You can’t help but ask: What legacy are we leaving? Add into that the fact that you are walking right beside these ruins–there is no velvet rope separating you from history–and you get a truly unique encounter with the past. It is one of the best experiences I’ve ever had–in life and in travel–period.

I hope that those stories helped to whet any travel bug you might be feeling, or maybe gave you some ideas for where you’d like to visit. After all, nothing stays the same forever–theme parks renovate; mountains gradually become memorials; civilizations leave behind ruins–and the same is true of this pandemic. It will end. After all, it’s easy to see–whether you’re looking at historical sites and theme parks, or simply at neighbors wearing masks and staying 6-feet a part–that we are all truly in this together.

2 thoughts on “What I’ve Learned from Traveling (Or: What Disney World, South Dakota, and Ancient Dwellings Have in Common)

  1. We go to Disney as often as we can, no shame at all. Happy is happy. Like you, it isn’t the only place we go.


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