Last week, my husband and I took our first summer vacation together. We traveled to the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee.
Before we could settle in our mountainside cabin, we had to make a pit stop at a grocery store in Gatlinburg. The store was bursting at the seams with families who evidently had spent the whole day traveling. In the dairy aisle, in the spice aisle, in the paper products aisle, I walked past child after child in a state of near-meltdown or already gone nuclear.
I sympathized with them. I, too, had burnt a day on the road. I was hungry. I didn’t want to shop for groceries, and the crowds sucked away my energy.
It’s easy to idealize vacations as a chance to leave stress behind, but the reality is that a good chunk of most trips involve crowded grocery stores and busy traffic, getting lost and hungry, and everything going wrong.
Why is it so hard to relax and put all busyness aside on a vacation? I wondered as I slogged through the grocery store. How can I stay calm and rest when the vacation turns even more stressful than life at home?
You Can Have It All
When I was younger, the balance was effortless. Every year until I hit middle school, my family would vacation at Holden Beach in North Carolina. I actually have pleasant experiences of the grocery store where we stopped before heading to our cabin.
Somehow the days perfectly combined rest and activity. I would lie in the hammock under our rental house, or I would spend hours on the beach making sand castles. At night, my family strolled along the shore, watching the sun set. The slowly ebbing sunlight reflected in little pools of water in the sand enthralled me.
I’m sure that our North Carolina vacations often involved hassles that my parents had to address, but I don’t want to think that the environment created on those vacations has to be over for me.
It might be my job to deal with stuff going wrong on vacations now, but I still want to recreate that childlike enjoyment of the mystery and beauty of new surroundings. I want to reclaim the refreshment of spirits from the wind whispering in the trees or a twilight walk on the beach…and the restfulness that comes from a little extra sleep in a place designed to be comfortable.
Despite its unpromising start, my husband and I did end up having a great vacation in Tennessee. The trip taught us a few simple things about how to be at leisure. It just takes more effort now that we’re the ones in charge.
Turn Your Phone on Silent
As soon as we arrived at the cabin, Daniel and I both silenced our phones. I was surprised by how calming it was to never hear that omnipresent “bing” announcing a text, or the persistent ring tone on Daniel’s cell phone. I don’t hate those sounds, because they connect me with family and friends.
Nevertheless, ringing cell phones intrude on vacations by reminding us of other things to do besides rest. They are the workaday world’s beck and call.
Likewise, checking my email this summer brings up the job uncertainty I am facing. By unplugging from our computers, we managed to forget about all that stress. That alone would have made the vacation worthwhile.
Relax Without Sinking into Sloth
Last summer, when I went to England for two weeks with my family, I spent most of the first day there in our hotel room, trying desperately not to fall asleep so that my body would adjust to the time difference.
I told myself that I was still appreciating London because I would periodically go and look out of the window at the lovely facades and narrow streets outside the hotel. Instead, I should have gone on a walk down the street, even though I felt too tired. There were plenty of museums in the area, and I could have enjoyed an easygoing afternoon.
The desire to do nothing is a big temptation to an introvert like me. Since Daniel and I are both rather introverted, we spent a day or two almost entirely limited to our cabin. We didn’t sleep in until noon and languidly eat leftovers for a meal late enough to be both lunch and supper, though.
We stayed active inside by dressing up for a romantic meal. Daniel prepared delicious homemade food. I did the dishes. We ambled around the porch and admired the mountains. We didn’t have to subject ourselves to roller coasters or crowded restaurants just because most people like them, but ultimately it would not have been restful to spend most of the day within a few feet of bed.
Plan for Convenience Not Control
We saved ourselves from sloth in part because we had a general plan. The plan was not “sit around and do nothing”; it involved a flexible wake-up time, making scones, reading, keeping the cabin clean, and so forth.
Daniel did a wonderful job coming up with an itinerary for our trip. We knew approximately how many times we would eat out, what meals we would make when we ate in, what activities we would do, and when we would do them.
After one or two restaurants where we had planned to eat unexpectedly closed for the day, and a downpour put a damper on our first hike, however, Daniel mourned that nothing was going according to that day’s plan.
I gave him some advice that I don’t follow enough myself: It’s unreasonable to expect that nothing will go wrong. Plan shouldn’t give us unreasonable expectations; they should save us effort during the trip.
Because we had planned in advance, we didn’t have to get up every morning and think about what to do. We didn’t have to worry if we were doing enough to take in the beautiful surroundings and appreciate the uniqueness of the area. We had already discussed what we wanted to do.
Proof of Concept
When we packed up at the end of the trip, we discovered that our car battery was dead. Not dead as in “just needs a jump and it will be fine,” but dead. Normally, this type of situation would freak me out. Once I get an idea in my head that something will happen in a certain way, I find it hard to be flexible.
To my surprise, I handled the dead battery situation calmly. We had experienced what should be a rather obvious truth: Taking a break isn’t just enjoyable during the vacation; it’s helpful on your way back to everyday life.