On Not Climbing Every Mountain

Ellie — I don’t want to insult you, but flying with a 10-week-old is always a dicey proposition. New parents live in fear their little pride and joy — normally, so adorable! so sweet! — is going to stage a full-blown, operatic meltdown 30,000 feet in the air. Nobody blames the kid, of course. It’s always the hapless parent who gets the dirty looks.

Which is why your mother posted this photo before you two took off to go see your Uncle Nick in Chicago.


Fortunately, all went well. You’re a good traveler, she reports. Looks like you’ll be flying again soon, since your parents travel a fair amount.

The world was so different when I was growing up 60-some years ago. Maybe some people — the very rich and adventurous — traveled often, but my family didn’t. Once or twice a year, we loaded the family car and left the flat, barren Texas plains to cross the Red River to go to Oklahoma to see our grandparents.

These annual trips made everybody nervous. Daddy would clench his pipe in his teeth and stare straight ahead, trying to ignore the mayhem around him. He drove, of course. Men were always the ones who drove then. My mother’s generation was the first to get their driver’s licenses — but they almost never drove when a man was in the car. God forbid.

Besides, Mother was highly neurotic. Travel — even to her native state of Oklahoma — sent her into nervous spasms. Just as we left the city limits of our town, she would often announce she thought she had left the iron on. A few miles later, she had worked herself into high dudgeon and we had to turn around and go back. Scanning the horizon for black smoke and fire trucks, we’d finally pull into our driveway and she’d race inside. The iron had always been turned off.

(Do you see a lesson here? Yeah, me, too. I don’t even own an iron.)

In my adult years, I’ve traveled a fair amount — mostly with your grandfather. After four decades of marriage, he and I travel well together. But we’re oddball tourists. We’re not big sightseers or shoppers. We’re flaneurs, I finally realized. We try to melt into the background, walking, drinking coffee and local drinks, watching everything and everybody as carefully as we can, trying to understand how people live in the places we visit.

Most recently, we spent almost a few days in Lima, Peru, which we’d never been to before. If you’re going to Lima, we quickly learned, it’s practically mandatory you go to Machu Picchu, the spectacular Incan ruins a few hours away.

We decided not to go, since we wouldn’t have enough time to adjust to the altitude. That started a deluge of outrage and huffiness from everybody we spoke to. They told us, over and over, we had to go to Machu Picchu. The more they insisted, the more stubborn I got. I started telling them I’d heard the place was overrated and touristy. Those truly in the know, I hinted, wouldn’t be caught dead there.

Warning: This is from Lima, not Machu Picchu

Warning: This is from Lima, not Machu Picchu


So, we spent those days wandering around Lima, a city alternately beautiful, then ugly with pollution and poverty, straining to be modern, but choked with traffic and inefficiency. Around us, we could see the people, almost all of Indian descent, with dark hair and eyes. On storefronts and billboards, though, the models were all blond and blue-eyed and pale, taller and thinner than the people around us.

All of which leads to my point (and I know I’m way too slow at getting to the point, but bear with me). Travel is famously described as broadening the mind. And it can do that, wonderfully.

But it can also give you a false confidence that you understand another country simply because you’ve stayed there a few days, seen a few museums, bought some souvenirs, gotten your passport stamped.

Or, on the other hand, you can walk around a single block in your own overly familiar town and try to look in people’s faces and watch glimpses of their lives and maybe understand, just a little, that there are mysteries and untold stories all around you.

All you have to do is take the time to notice, wherever you are.

Love, Coco xo

P.S. I’m sure you’ll probably go to Machu Picchu one day. Enjoy it, darlin’. I’ve heard it’s just great.

(Copyright 2015 by Ruth Pennebaker)


  1. Brette · November 3, 2015

    Ellie is off to a good start – best to get that wanderlust going early I believe.

  2. Sheryl · November 3, 2015

    I know that Ellie will one day enjoy reading about you as much as I do. I love your stories and adventures, Ruth! I, too, love to walk around foreign cities and observe the locals. What a unique perspective it allows.

  3. Alexandra · November 3, 2015

    I loved your description of travel in the olden days. I can remember the stress, too. We lived in DC and traveled to Rehoboth Beach each summer for a week. Once the old Dodge broke down in the middle of Baltimore. Yikes! (There was no tunnel or beltway or whatever modern life has created since the Fifties.)

  4. Jane Boursaw · November 3, 2015

    I love just hanging around my own town. Plenty to see and do there, Ellie. I’m funny that way. Travel is too stressful.

  5. We usually traveled by car as well. However, about once a year, my mom and I would get into our Sunday best clothes, as that’s the way people flew back then, and board a plane bound for Cincinnati, where I got to visit my great aunt, who was my grandmother figure in my life. I loved those trips and I love your stories to Ellie. What a treasure!