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Stumbling upon Shangri La

We returned from Mexico and nursed dad back to health. It was a long haul but he fully recovered.  I remember a list of prohibited foods he was not allowed to consume, I am not sure if chocolate was on that list, but I distinctly remember making chocolate chip cookies sans the chips which I ate out of the dough to spare dad any ill effects. I am sure this simple act of kindness on my part was the turning point in his recovery. By summer he we were ready to hit the road again.

There are definite benefits to having parents that work in the education system. It may not be the most financially lucrative field but that drawback is far outweighed  by the delight as a child to having ones parents available to play when you are. I was quite old when I realized most families did not get to spend months on end traveling like vagabonds but are instead allotted a week or two in the year to stag a trip to Disney.  We spent the early 60’s exploring the east coast from the cold wind-swept northern beaches of Nantucket and Provincetown down to the moss draped plantations of South Carolina. Not having obsessive/compulsive parents who dutifully logged  the miles, route taken and stops taken in the trusty station wagon chronicling each local with photographs I am once again left with just scattered memories of Boston, NYC, the Great Smokey Mountains and the magical sand dollar beach on the shore of South Carolina.

Some of my favorite travel memories are of those stumbled upon quite by accident; often en route to a final destination with no real agenda or schedule in mind.  That was the case with the Sand Dollar beach. We mostly camped in those days and were looking for a place we could pitch a tent. I believe it was mom that suggested we check out this campground. Not being campers of the trailer-variety nor keen on the KOA scene it was often hard to find our version of Shangri La but this came close. Miles of white sandy beach lay beyond the tree-shaded camp area. Gently rolling waves and shallow warm water going out for what felt like miles where we would spend the day diving for sand dollars, paradise. It was kid heaven and probably pretty close to perfect for parents as we were entertained for hours and worn out by all the activity. I also remember the fogger truck that ambling through the campsite as dusk descended spewing clouds of DDT to keep misquotes at bay. While a common practice in the 50’s and 60’s my only memory of playing in the DDT fog is at the Sand Dollar Campground.

It was supposed to be a one night stand  but instead we ended up staying a week. I have done many google searches hoping to find pictures other than the grainy home movies we have of this bit of heaven on earth. This vintage postcard The Sand Dollar Camp Ground Isle of Palmsas well as someones home videos posted on YouTube from ’73 are the only remnants I have found of the Sand Dollar Campground on the Isle of Palms outside of Charleston, South Carolina. After a few emails with the gentleman who posted his memories on YouTube I have learned the sad truth I suspected all along, the place no longer exists. Part of me wants to know what type of development could engulfed my Shangri La while the other part is happy to learn there are others out there that have equally happy memories of paradise. Our own Shangir La can not be so easily erased from our hearts.

Pictures, movies and memories

Each time I sit down to transfer a memory from the past, committing to paper my travels through life, I also reach to the top shelf in the spare  bedroom closet to riffle through the boxes of memories looking for proof of the past in the form of old photographs. Amongst the boxes on the top shelf also sits a small brown suitcase (vintage ’70’s and once belonging to a much larger set) stuffed with ancient fading dog-eared photos, some so old that even the few remaining people who might possible recall names, places and dates have long forgotten the faces staring out. Pawing through literally thousands of photos one would come to believe we hardly ever left the confines of our home let alone traveled to far-flung corners of the globe. Instead I find snap shots of birthday parties, first communions, an array of Halloween costumes as well as the requisite bare-naked-baby-on-the-bearskin-rug shots but not one shot of us standing before the ancient Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan or skipping down the Avenue of the Dead. 

It gradually dawns on me why there are so few still photos of  our travels. Sometime in the mid 60’s my father abandoned his bulky Rolleiflex (oh how I wish we still had that one!) so that he could capture our every movement on Super 8. In fact, on the floor of the very closet that houses the small brown suitcase sits a battered cardboard box which at one time held 1/2 gallon jugs of Almaden Mt. White Chablis now straining to contain an overflow of home movies. Never mind that it has been literally decades since we have owned a  functioning movie projector this box has crisscrossed the county in overheated moving vans, spent years gathering dust in garages far from climate controlled, finally landing in my closet. Mom had become the chronicler of everyday moments with her Brownie Instamatic, dad the movie maker while I became the journalist committing our travels to paper.

We returned from Europe the summer of ’63, adding the third and last child to the mix in 1964 (from the math it doesn’t appear mother smuggled another child into the country). Our family was now complete and the adventures would resume. I can say from a child’s perspective having a parent in  academia was pretty ideal, not sure how it is from the adult perspective but we thought it was a great deal. Christmas and spring vacations off not to mention long summer breaks beckoning travel and adventure. Living just a few block from the university campus most of our friends enjoyed the same parental perks. No one thought it the least bit odd that families would often disappear for months at a time.

We spent the next few years learning to camp, exploring the east coast from Martha’s Vineyard to the Great Smokey Mountains. During this time we also learned our mild-mannered professor dad could cuss like a sailor who’s been out to sea too long. Trying to get the pop-tent set up was to say the least, trying. It is my understanding this new fangled self-erecting pop-up tent was supposed to make camping hassle free. Simply get yourself inside this deflated tent and either push or pull the lever situated in the top center of the dome until the tent magically erected itself. I can’t say for sure whether the lever was pushed or pulled as we were kept far off to the sides with our little hands over our ears so as not to hear the offending language coming from the deflated tent with dad trapped inside. Large swaths of my childhood was spent traveling from coast to coast camping but in 1968 my parents got the wild hair to hop a train with  tow-headed children in tow and head to Mexico City for Christmas…

Smuggled into the USA

What makes some people want to hit the road while others are content venturing no further than their own backyard? What would compel a perfectly normal woman to put a pack on her back and head off to the other side of the world where she neither understands nor reads the language? What would make an otherwise average 50-something-year-old woman do such a thing? Sure I know people are out there doing far crazier things than I but it is not these people I seem to have difficulty understanding, but rather the ones content staying home or repeating the same vacation again and again. What is it that leads one to wanderlust?

I guess I would have to go back to the beginning; back to when I was smuggled into the US by my mother. I wish she was still around to ask if she knew she was bringing an undocumented citizen back into the homeland. I came across the three passports issued during her lifetime tucked safely away in a firebox where she kept her ‘important’ documents. The first issued just a month before her marriage bearing her maiden name and a studio portrait. It is my opinion a passport is the most important document a person can possess; these are the papers that expand life’s possibilities and deepen our understanding of humanity.  I simply cannot imagine tossing an expired passport in the trash. Our passports holds the record of the places we have seem, lives that have touched ours and the dreams we have realized. Memories of what happened between the birth and death certificates.

Sure I knew my parents had spent the summer of ’59 traveling Europe on their honeymoon but I guess I hadn’t give much thought to my beginning forming on another continent. There is the eew factor when one thinks about your parents and conception…eew…but I was curious so I pulled out a calculator and looked for the closest possible visa stamp date that would correspond with my eew date. Calculations completed and the answer is Brussels (Bruxelles).

OK, so I was barely a bean in my mama’s belly but shouldn’t I still be granted dual citizenship? Some reward for starting life in another country? I didn’t leave the US with my parents on that prop plane but I most certainly was there for the return trip. Perhaps this fact simply explains the fact I like the sprouts named after this town or that I have an insatiable appetite for chocolate. Or, perhaps it was the seed that started my desire to travel.

Mom and Dad somewhere on their honeymoon – perhaps Paris?