In Praise of Vacations

Masami and I have just returned from a wonderful week-long vacation in the San Juan Islands. The purpose of this blog post is to argue that people should take vacations, even during the pandemic, perhaps especially during the pandemic. First, however, I need to explain about a Backroads vacation, why we love Backroads so much.

Backroads is an active vacation company, based in Berkeley, taking people on hiking and cycling trips. The company is only forty years old, and the founder and owner, Tom Hale, is still very much involved. His vision is that people see more, learn more, when they explore a place on two feet or on two wheels. Backroads combines this physical activity with luxury hotels and great meals; the only hardship on a Backroads vacation might be a long hard hill on the bike. And even that is optional, in various ways.

This past week, we met our cycling group in La Conner, Washington, at around noon. There were thirteen people in the group and three leaders. After a picnic lunch, we saddled up on the bikes and went out for a little ride through the lovely flat Skagit Valley. Backroads is all about options, so there were two options on this day: one of about a dozen miles and one more like twenty. And there were two options for bikes; most of the group was on electric bikes, so that they were getting some exercise but not huffing and puffing when we faced some headwinds; some of us were on “regular bikes.” And even among regular bikes, there were options, ranging from solid touring bikes to lightweight racing bikes.

Each day was both similar and different: a choice of cycling options, with some other activities thrown in for good measure: a hike up Mount Constitution, an hour and a half of wildlife viewing by boat, two hours of kayaking near Roche Harbor. I was pleased to be able to CYCLE up Mount Constitution, about two thousand feet of elevation gain in six miles. In the evenings, we ate great food, generally in groups of four: it was so fun to sit at a table, meet new people, share stories, share a bottle of wine. The hotels were top notch, especially the Outlook Inn on Orcas Island and the Friday Harbor Inn on San Juan Island.

But wasn’t this all terribly risky? Aren’t we in the midst of a pandemic? Meeting new people, cycling alongside them, sharing tables with them? Wasn’t taking this vacation CRAZY at this time?

First, I should say that we did take many precautions. Before we joined the trip, the leaders took our temperatures. When we were walking around town, or gathering to hear from the leaders, we wore our masks. We did not gather in a group of fifteen: we kept ourselves in smaller groups, generally five. We kept our distance from one another. Instead of the usual Backroads lunch, in which a dozen people crowd around a buffet table and help themselves, our leaders would SERVE us from the buffet, wearing gloves and masks. There was hand sanitizer at every corner; and we used it.

Second, however, I should admit that this trip was not without risk. Masks reduce but do not eliminate the risk that infection can pass from one person to another. So it is possible that, in one of our masked and distanced conversations, one of us passed the virus to another. When we were sitting at dinner, in groups of four, we kept masks on for the first few minutes, until food and drink arrived, but then we removed them, and enjoyed our meals. Most of us took flights to get to and from Seattle, so there is a risk of catching the virus in the airport or on the airplane.

Which brings me to my third and most important point: there are risks in staying home and “staying safe.” Even in the midst of the pandemic, more people are dying of heart attacks and strokes than are dying from the coronavirus. How does one prevent strokes and heart attacks? EXERCISE. And what were we doing every day of this vacation? EXERCISE!

For us at least, a Backroads vacation does not provide merely a week of intense exercise during the vacation. A Backroads vacation starts months ahead of time, when we reserve the trip, and start dreaming of hiking in the Dolomites or cycling through Death Valley. Dreaming and preparing, by getting out on our bicycles or on the hiking trails, getting exercise.

Indeed, even today, right after we return from one vacation, we are talking about what vacations we will take next summer. And we will be training for those hiking and cycling vacations all fall and winter; staying in shape, getting in better shape. Exercising with a dream is far better than just exercising.

So I think there is a good argument that one is at LESS risk by taking active vacations, and training to prepare for active vacations, than one would be “staying safe” at home. There is not just one risk, the coronavirus, there are various risks, including heart disease, and an active lifestyle, including active vacations, reduces OVERALL risk.

But there is more to an active Backroads vacation than just miles on the trial or on the road. There is a social side. We met people on this trip—I will not name names but you know who you are—whom we really liked and whom we would love to get to know better. We would not have met them if we stayed at home. We were fortunate to have as one of our leaders Paul Smith, who has been leading Backroads trips for decades in the San Juan Islands, and whose love for the Islands was contagious.

And by traveling, we were helping all the people in the hotels, restaurants and other businesses we visited. We did not get to talk with them the way that we usually would on Backroads trips; waiters generally did not linger at the table for conversations. But they told Paul that they appreciated having us there, and Paul told us, and we KNEW that we were making a difference in their lives, enabling them to stay in business during a very difficult year. The men in the group joked, as our wives made purchases, that we were helping the local economy; but the jokes were right, we WERE helping the local economy.

And there is the great benefit of getting away from one’s daily life. I wish I could claim that I did not look at the news while we were away, that I simply read my Victorian novel during down time. Alas, that would not be true; I did spend half an hour each day reading the grim news of the pandemic. I wish I could claim that I did not look at my email for a week. That would also not be true; I checked it once a day and answered some messages. I called my parents daily. But overall, we were AWAY, and we are better for having been away.

So Masami and I intend to keep taking vacations, even if the pandemic continues for a year or two or longer. Life is short. We intend to live our lives fully. We intend to stay active, and take active vacations, for as long as we can lace up our hiking boots. We are hoping to go with Backroads, and on our own, to Europe next summer. But if that is not possible, we will travel on our own and with Backroads in America. It is better, in so many ways, than staying at home.

Take a vacation.




  1. Mary Katherine Greene, Atlanta, GA on July 25, 2020 at 9:53 pm

    Tom and I loved meeting you and Masami this week. (I hope we were the ones that you liked!) I would second everything that you wrote in this blog post. There is something very special about a Backroads trip. (Even if you don’t ride a “regular bike” – ding! ding!)

  2. John Sinclair on August 8, 2020 at 5:11 pm

    My wife and I took this exact same Backroads trip about 20 years ago and fell in love with the San Juans. We should have bought a second home there before the secret got out and the prices went up. The ferry trips provided spectacular views and life seemed to occur at a far slower and enjoyable pace. I remember my ride up Mount Constitution! I still cycle (my wife no longer). There is one hotel on the islands where we stayed with Backroads (can’t remember the name) that was old, had slanting floors in the hallways, and boasted of having Teddy Roosevelt stay there. Sound familiar? If not, maybe Backroads moved on to a different hotel as it was not exactly posh. We did about 10 Backroads trips from Alaska to Nova Scotia with our last being a few years ago in Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, before my wife had to give up such trips. On the last trip, we met another couple from Baltimore who live about 10 minutes from us and we are now good friends. Glad to hear Backroads is still going strong; we still get their catalogs and I look with envy at the trips. Happy to hear you have had such good experiences.

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