Travels With My Best Friend
Sunset in St. Thomas
Who’s your best friend?
For me, that’s an easy one – my wife Lydia. There’s no one I’d rather be alone with.
The trouble is that time alone is hard to come by. I work relentlessly. (I’m writing this at midnight from a hotel in New York City.) She works even harder teaching our four children and running our organic farm in Virginia.
We live in the fast lane. I like it there. But speed and ambition pose hidden dangers to relationships. When we married 22 years ago, I wondered why couples divorce after twenty years together. Now I see that there are lots of reasons. But you can boil them all down to one word: drift.
This happens gradually when the most important relationship consistently takes a back seat to profession, child rearing, volunteer assignments, and even Monday Night Football. Then one day you wake up and realize there’s a stranger living in your home.
I’m as vulnerable to this danger as the next guy. So I work hard to keep my best friend close. One thing we do is leave the world behind once a year and stamp our passports. Travel criteria are simple: go in the dead of winter; go someplace hot; and go alone. This year we chose St. Thomas. Yeah, I know …entry into the U.S. Virgin Islands doesn’t require a passport. But we got a stamp. You’ll see.
With our kids at home in the hands of a trusty couple, Lydia and I packed our bags with beach gear, books and organic food. Mango, coconut and papaya are the only locally grown crops on the island. So you pay big for food that’s processed and shipped. We opted for good stuff from home.
As soon as we boarded the plane, Lydia delved into Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I began reading my Christmas present from Lydia: John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. Published in 1962, it’s a first-hand account of Steinbeck’s journey across America with his dog. Along the way Steinbeck interviewed people he met. Here’s how the book begins:
When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch …. Nothing has worked. Four hoarse blasts of a ship’s whistle still raise the hair on my neck and set my feet to tapping.
Lydia knows me well. I instantly fell in love with this book, so much so that I finished it during our first day on the beach. Then I started Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Meantime, Lydia began working her way through To Kill a Mockingbird. Few pleasures can top sitting beside a beautifully tanned woman on a Caribbean beach, reading and discussing characters like Sydney Carton and Atticus Finch.
To maximize beach time, we packed a lunch each day: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. We bought the bread on the island – $9 a loaf. News is costly, too. The Sunday Times was $15.50. But we only spent about $3 a day ($21 for the week) on breakfast and lunch, thanks to Lydia’s thrift.
At night we broke out clothes we seldom have time or occasion to wear at home – linen pants and summer dresses – and headed for out-of-the-way restaurants offering freshly caught seafood. The best place we found was Herve, a French restaurant set atop a hill that overlooks the city. Our waiter was a former criminal defense attorney from St. Louis who walked away from law and moved to the Caribbean. He’s been waiting tables for eight years and never been happier.
We met lots of interesting people on our journey – a West Virginia garlic farmer who moved to the islands and opened a restaurant; a woman from Philly who wanted a change and now works at a seaside bar and grill; and a college student from Queens who decided to take courses on-line and live where the sun shines year round. They all had the virus that Steinbeck calls restlessness.
Then there’s Garth, a fisherman from Maine who moved to St. Thomas. Hemingway would have loved this guy. He’s single, rugged, and spends his days on the open sea aboard his 30-foot boat. Acting on a tip from a local, we tracked down Garth and negotiated with him to serve as our private sea captain for a day. We said take us where cruise ships never venture.
Speeding over waves that took the bow of the boat airborne, we entered the British Virgin Islands. From a dock, we got our passports stamped. Then it was on to some uninhabited islands. There are many of them in the Caribbean. We found one that had nothing on it but white sand, some coconut trees and breathtaking views.
As we approached, Garth turned off the engine, dropped anchor and informed us that we’d have to swim to shore. This was a surprise. We were out a ways and the water was 20 feet deep with the current running out. So we’d be going against it and neither of us is a particularly strong swimmer.
I’m fortunate to have a fearless wife. We jumped in. So much of our marriage has been about swimming in deep water and going against the current. It makes for rich love. Together we reached the shore, a little out of breath and the taste of salt coating our lips. Amazingly, we were the only two people in the world on this tiny island.
That’s where I was a couple days ago. Now I’m looking out the window of my midtown Manhattan hotel room. It’s cold, dark and snowy outside. Although alone, my mind is on my journey with my best friend. We are separated tonight. But there’s no distance between us.