I have, on the mantle of my fireplace at home, a Matryoshka doll that my grandmother gave me when I was only four years old. She had bought it during her travels, wrapped it in her clothes, and brought it home to me.
As a child those nesting dolls were a source of endless fascination. I would pull them apart and put them back together so often my mother began to scold that I was going to break grandma’s gift. I couldn’t help but continue playing with them because that little doll was my link to a bigger world. How intriguing, I thought, that these could be common dolls for children in other countries. I imagined some little girl on the other side of the globe playing with a doll just like mine. What was her family like? Did she have to go to school? What did she eat for dinner?
I still believe that gift piqued my curiosity and sparked my desire to travel more than anything else. But my desire seemed to stay that way, just a desire. A hope. A plan.
I married my high school sweetheart, Isaac, shortly after we graduated. It was a small wedding ceremony, and we decided to postpone the honeymoon until we were both a bit more settled.
Then our first daughter, Naomi was born. A year later Stephanie entered the world, and a few years after that Grayson joined our family. We moved to a new city, into a bigger house, bought a dog, and loved every day of raising three beautiful children.
The kids are grown now, and two years ago we celebrated my granddaughter Allison’s third birthday. I went home that evening, and thought back to my childhood, and looked at the Matryoshka dolls sitting on that mantle where they gathered dust.
Suddenly, I felt very old, and tears began to well in my eyes. Isaac had fallen asleep in his chair, but I woke him up. What’s wrong, he asked. We need to book a trip, I told him. Now. No more planning, no more waiting. I wanted to travel. I wanted adventure. I wanted to see fantastic country, to hear new languages, to eat new food, and meet new people.
That night, we booked a cruise to Alaska.
I sat on the balcony of the cruise ship last summer as we pushed north through the inside passage. It was cloudy and cold and little windy, but I didn’t care. Those winds weren’t a biting summer breeze in my mind, they were Don Quixote’s wild winds of fortune, carrying me forward to glory. I closed my eyes for just a moment and smelled the sea, and when I opened them, I gazed up at the magnificent mountains, still harboring pockets of snow and blanketed in spruce trees. I looked out, eyes peeled for eagles, and looked down, scanning the water for a whale’s spout.
Our first stop was Ketchikan, a little seaside town near the southern end of Alaska’s panhandle. Isaac and I had planned a flightseeing tour, and I was as giddy as a child, eager to step into a little seaplane and soar above glaciers and over fjords. These must have been the kinds of adventures my grandmother took, and as I thought of her, I thought of Allison and her upcoming fourth birthday. Before I disembarked, I picked up a free copy of the Alaska Cruise Coupon Book. It’s over 60 pages packed with shopping deals and gift ideas, and I knew that it would help me find the perfect gift for my granddaughter.
Isaac and I walked off the boat, hand in hand, grins pasted on both our faces. We walked along Front Street, and I pulled Isaac into a shop right away. We browsed the goods. He picked up a bear-claw back scratcher (for himself of course!) but I was keeping an eye out for the perfect gift. I didn’t yet know what it was, I just knew that when I saw it, I would think of Allison.
We ducked out of that shop and into the next. For the next few hours before our flight, Isaac and I spent all our time shopping. I bought a small metal float plane for Grayson, knowing that when I gave it to him, I would be able to tell him about our flightseeing adventure.
The flight lived up to my expectation. Just riding in that little plane and wearing headsets was an adventure in itself, not to mention the incredible views.
Our next stop was Juneau, the state capital, and we did more shopping there. I bought so many souvenirs using my Alaska Cruise Coupon Book I wouldn’t have been able to keep exploring if I hadn’t used my coupon to get a free reusable shopping bag that I could carry all my gifts in. As soon as I got it, I wished I would have done the same thing in Ketchikan.
Juneau was where I got a jacket for Naomi, a waterproof bag for my brother, and ulu for my friend who fancies herself a chef.
Juneau was also where we took the Goldbelt Mount Roberts Tramway and zipped up the side of an Alaskan mountain without breaking a sweat. Once on the mountain Isaac and I wandered the trails and talked and laughed. We ate lunch on top of Mount Roberts too, at the Timberline restaurant where I enjoyed some rockfish fish tacos and looked out over the glistening Gastineau Channel.
Our third stop on our Alaska cruise was Skagway, small town with astonishing gold rush history. Our first activity in Skagway was to ride the scenic White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad, which took us rolling up past the famous bridal veil falls and resulted in some of the best photos of the trip.
Our last few hours in Skagway were spent shopping, and I still hadn’t found the perfect gift for Allison. Isaac and I walked along Broadway Street and I scoured all the stores, constantly flipping through my Alaska Cruise Coupon Book scanning for incredible deals. I picked up a train whistle, an Alaska calendar, jade jewelry, soaps, and wild smoked sockeye salmon fillets. But I still didn’t have something for Allison.
It was nearing the time when we needed to head back to the cruise ship, but I insisted we stop in just one or two more stores. I hadn’t seen that gift yet, and I could not stop until I found it. Then, just when we were running out of time, I saw a black bear nesting doll, and I thought of Allison.
Back home, bursting with happiness and eager to share my stories with friends and family, I gave out all my gifts right away. Except for the black bear doll. I wrapped that one with colorful paper, a ribbon, and a bow. Inside I included a little note, just for Allison. Then I tucked it away and waited for her birthday.
When the day came and I got ready to leave for Allison’s birthday party, I walked past my Matryoshka dolls and a I had a hard time holding back the tears, but this time they were tears of joy.
Allison unwrapped her gift, and her mom helped her read the note. I showed Allison how the dolls worked, and she gave me a hug and said thanks. Then she started unwrapping her next present.
Later, after cake and games and after all of Allison’s friends left, I was sitting inside talking with Isaac. I looked over his shoulder and saw Allison taking the dolls apart and putting each bear back together, lining them up just so. That time I couldn’t hold back the tears. I wept and I smiled bigger than I think I’ve ever smiled.
Shortly after that Alaska trip and Allison’s birthday party Isaac retired. We’ve been spending almost all of our time traveling. In the last year we’ve been on a safari in Africa and had dinner in Paris. We’ve tasted wine in Napa Valley and spent a night in an Irish castle.
I turned 67 recently, and my traveling has just begun. I don’t regret that I waited so long to start galivanting the world, because I have three beautiful children, and one grandchild, (so far!) and a loving husband, and a home. I’ve lived a full life, and I wouldn’t change any of it.
But I’m still brimming with curiosity. Each new adventure I take seems to peel back a new layer of the world. Each time I return home I begin planning the next adventure. Everywhere I travel I buy gifts for my friends and family. It’s my way of sharing my vacation with them. My way of showing them love.