Notes from a Sickly Sojourn

Advice on traveling with—and surviving!—biohazardous loved ones this summer. 

On the lookout for germs.

Photo courtesy Simon Doonan.

In the late swinging 1960s, a trendy boutique opened on London’s Kings Road named Granny Takes a Trip. In the last couple of weeks I thought a lot about that mythical granny and her far-out trip. Having reached the grannyish age when folks elect to blow their wads on a buffet-laden round-the-world cruise, my sister Shelagh and I decided the time had come to take a trip, a big, fat, gay, Wild West, hippie-dippie trip of a lifetime. The participants? Moi, my husband Jonny, Shelagh, and her wife Anna.

Shelagh and Anna are crunchy, dark-green, rustic, energy-conserving, worm-composting, cruelty-free, farm-to-table South London lesbians. As a result, persuading them that Las Vegas, Nevada, provided the most convenient rendezvous point—they were journeying from the U.K., we were flying from NYC—was not without its challenges. “Try not to focus on the unbridled self-indulgence, the craven materialism, and the gratuitous waste of energy. Just think about all the wonderful job creation,” I warbled as I squired them through a gaggle of pole-dancers and toward a group of faux-gondoliers who were lolling next to the H20-guzzling chlorinated Venetian Grand Canal. Watching our traveling companions mincing their way through a Sin City casino—they resembled a couple of anxious Jainists—provided many chuckles, especially for Jonny, who loves to refer to my sister and her life partner as “ascetic proselytizers.” But the laughs were on us, or rather on Jonny. He woke up the following morning, the official kickoff of the granny road trip, with a horrid cold.

When Jonny started snuffling, I did what I always do: I began to treat him like a leper. Fear of contamination is my middle name. Cold avoidance is my comfort zone. Lysol and hazmat suits have always seem like great holiday gift ideas to me. Speaking of gifts: As we barreled out of Las Vegas and headed toward our first stop in Utah, I thoughtfully distributed personalized bottles of water, hand sanitizer, and individual sachets of tissues to all assembled.

The first leg of our trip consisted of four days of hiking and bird-watching in the Lake Powell area. Buoyed up by the utter gorgeousness of the environs, Jonny did a heroic job of rising above his condition. He was also helped by the kind words and shoulder rubs from Shelagh, thereby proving that ascetic proselytizing and sympathy are not mutually exclusive. As a result of this reckless, touchy-feely caring, on day two in Utah my caring sister announced that she had caught what quickly became known as “Jonny’s Cold.” Two down. Two to go.

Despite the burgeoning horror of Jonny’s Cold, our daily enjoyments remained undimmed. This I attribute to Shelagh and Anna and their knowledge and enthusiasm for the natural world. Here’s a tip: If you plan to take an outdoorsy Wild West vacation, make sure you take along two lesbians. They are much more attuned to nature than nonlesbians. Thanks to Anna and Sheel we spotted snakes and hummingbirds and bobcats. No cactus or wildflower went unclocked. Watching my kindly sister and her adorable life partner holding hands—and exchanging germs—whilst identifying fluorescent green lichens warmed the cockles of my black old heart.

Westward ho! The next leg of our trip of a lifetime necessitated a day of trains and boats and plains, during which Shelagh and Anna continued to hold hands, with dire consequences. By the time we reached Big Sur, California, all three of my companions had caught Jonny’s Cold. Anna had the prelim snuffles, my sister had entered a dreadful coughing phase where she sounded like an fag-smoking English pub slag, and Jonny was “feeling grody but less like total shite.” As the last man standing, I smugly made a mental note of the tactics that had enabled me to keep out of germ’s way:

  1. Green tea. There is much conflicting data on the anti-viral properties of green tea, but this much I can tell you: I drank so much of it on this trip that my teeth started to resemble those Utah fluorescent lichens.
  2. Kleenex disposal. Whether driven by a desire to save money or save trees, my tree-hugging sistas were reluctant to dispose of any Kleenex unless it had been used about 17 times. Every pocket on every lesbian garment seemed to explode with balls of vintage paper snotties. At some moments my sister and sister-in-law resembled cute folkloric dolls whose stuffing was escaping. Call me cavalier, but I believe in blowing (once) and throwing.
  3. Breakfast-buffet etiquette. All three of my beloved travelling companions developed the appalling habit of coughing into their hands before grabbing the buffet serving utensils. As a result I Purell’d my paws after touching those communal ladles and spoons.
  4. Pillow politesse. As soon as Jonny got sick I designated a pillow—Simon’s pillow!—and jammed it into the hotel-room closet.

One of the many advantages of being worried-well in a sea of snot is that you can easily tyrannize those around you. Sick people are limp and malleable and just glad somebody—a superior being with leadership qualities—can make quick decisions about the day’s itinerary. On the final leg of our trip I successfully introduced my mucus-enrobed co-travelers to various local delights including the Big Sur Bakery, whale-watching, and a ping-pong game at the Henry Miller Memorial Library. There was, however, one glaring omission from the itinerary.

Given Shelagh and Anna’s affinity for all things alternative and groovy, it seemed insane that they might leave Big Sure without undertaking a little old-fashioned consciousness-raising. Yes, I am talking about a trip to the storied Esalen Institute.

Five years previously Jonny and I had made the pilgrimage to Esalen, availing ourselves of a nifty day pass. Though neither enlightened nor very spiritual, Jonny and I are suckers for all things culty and countercultural—the Source Family, the Symbionese Liberation Army, the Weathermen—and once even spent the day at Arcosanti, Paolo Soleri’s truly strange utopian community outside Phoenix. Anyhoo, our day at Esalen was magical and hallucinatory, thanks largely to the beauty of the natural setting and the fact that, at the time of our visit, the giant redwoods were filled with migrating monarch butterflies. We wandered about the cliff-top campus for hours and then ate a hearty organic lunch in the communal dining hall where we had deep and often incomprehensible discussions with many glassy-eyed seekers. I was determined that my activist/feminist/Starbucks-boycotting sister and her equally rad partner should experience this fabulously freaky mind-expanding vestige. This was the perfect time of year, by which I mean that it was still too cold for anyone to take advantage of the clothing-optional policy.

Determined to secure a day pass for the four of us, I barraged the Esalen switchboard and website with imploring requests. No response. Reluctantly, I threw in the towel and we drove north to San Francisco for the denoument of our granny trip. I suggested that we make up for the Esalen shortfall by staging our own Golden Gate Park be-in, à quatre.

The gorgeous drive through Carmel and Monterey was slightly marred by conflicts over ventilation. I kept opening the windows—“Let’s blow all those nasty sneeze clouds out of the vehicle!”—whereupon my snuffling, shivering companions would close them again. Foolishly, I capitulated. By the time we checked into the Clift Hotel, I was starting to feel achy.

I took some smug consolation from the fact that I had managed to dodge the bullet until the last day of the trip. While Jonny caught up on his emails and reconnected with the outside world, I crawled onto the bed, grabbed a down pillow—Simon’s pillow!—and attempted to calculate, based on the sufferings of my travel companions, how long Jonny’s Cold might last.

Suddenly, from the opposite side of the Philippe Starck­designed suite, Jonny ejaculated. “No wonder we couldn’t get into Esalen,” he shrieked whilst frantically scrolling through the blogosphere. Breathlessly, Jonny explained that, unbeknownst to us, the Mad Men finale had aired smack dab in the middle of our Big Sur sojourn. The drama concluded with Don Draper experiencing an emotional breakthrough at … drumroll … the Esalen Institute, or a thinly disguised version thereof. Clearly, hordes of Mad Men devotees had immediately begun clogging the phone lines attempting in order to gain entry, and I was just one more blink on the switchboard, looking for a Don Draper moment.

Peace, love … and Purell.