Looking Back, Seeing More: The Rewards of Returning to Old Places

By Janet Hook

With pandemic restrictions easing, I’m confronting a perennial travel-planning dilemma: Explore a new destination or revisit an old favorite? 

It’s tempting in Covid’s wake to strike out in new directions. Life is short, the bucket list long. Nothing gives an intellectual growth spurt quite like immersion in a new place and culture.

But over the past year, I found return visits brought another, deeper kind of awakening. I revisited three places I’d not been to in decades, and the journeys unearthed fresh insight into how I had changed over a lifetime. They helped correct memory’s distortions and lacunae, and allayed a nagging regret.

During trips to Northern California, Belize and New Hampshire this year, I re-inhabited the perspective of my 20s, 30s and 40s, a kind of nostalgia tour of my adult life that feels like an archeological dig now that I’m on the far side of 65.

When my husband and I returned to California’s Point Reyes this year for the first time since our first son was a toddler, I was thrust back into the mindset of an overanxious new mom. Visiting the area for Thanksgiving weekend in the early 1990s, we were still learning how to handle a kid who had just learned to walk. 

We made the mistake of checking into a quaint inn where our room was decorated with breakable baubles, sending us scrambling to keep the room safe from Luke’s inquisitive hands. At a restaurant for Thanksgiving dinner, Luke would not sit still in a high chair. I was consumed by trying to keep him from disrupting the feasts of strangers.

All that looms larger in my memory than Point Reyes’ sweeping dunes, dramatic cliffs and abundant marine wildlife. In fact, on our return this year, I could hardly remember: Did we visit the lighthouse or not? Had we seen seals and otters cavorting in the shoreside waters?

If I saw less of nature’s grandeur in California visiting as a preoccupied mom, I saw more in Belize with kids in tow when our sons were 9 and 12. There we experienced one of the greatest joys of being a parent: Viewing the world through the naive eyes of a child. 

The Mayan site of Xunantunich, Belize (Photo: Bill Patterson)

The thrill my sons expressed while snorkeling in the world’s second largest coral reef — nurse sharks! sea stars! technicolor fish! — was infectious. We were mesmerized by the organization and industry of leaf cutter ants. Scampering up Mayan ruins was an adventure. When a hiking guide teased a tarantula out of its hole, the boys gazed in fear-laced fascination. So did I.

During our return to Belize this year,  I enjoyed being unencumbered by child-management demands, but found myself envying people traveling with kids.  It was great to see ruins, leaf cutters and a tarantula again, but it lacked the frisson of seeing them with little boys.

A recent New Hampshire trip to meet my college friend Tony was my first visit to Mt. Washington in more than 45 years. It was like returning to a crime scene, and it reminded me of something I’d rather forget about college-age Janet.

My last foray there was also with Tony, to go rock climbing up the vertiginous Huntington Ravine.  But in that ill-fated excursion, Tony fell and cracked his head when a large rock above him came loose. Miraculously, after some time with his bloody head in my lap, he summoned the strength to make an exhausting slog out to the road that winds up Mt. Washington. We flagged down a car and got him to a hospital.

Returning with Tony to Mt. Washington this June brought back a painful insight: I winced when I thought about how dire the consequences could have been if Tony had been knocked unconscious or incapable of walking out. This was before cell phones and I did not really know where we were or how to get out. I was relying entirely on someone else to show me the way — a lapse of judgment that I would never repeat over many years of wilderness travel that followed.

Coming back to Mt. Washington was cathartic.  It freed me to reconnect with the most spectacular massif on the East Coast. It prompted Tony and me to have our most detailed conversation about the experience. He observed the irony: The episode may have burdened him less over all these decades than it has me. He’s climbed Mt. Washington dozens of times since our accident.

White Mountains, New Hampshire

So in many ways return visits can be more soul satisfying than seeing new places. Creating new memories about places can reshape old ones. With memory’s flaws and life’s changing perspective, every visit reveals something previously unseen. Whether you return regularly to a place — as I do a small island in Maine where we live part of the year — or revisit after a long passage of time, a new person shows up every time. 

I may soon have another test of this with a return visit to Barcelona, which became one of my favorite cities after my first visit several years ago. The seaside setting, the rich history, the museums, the soccer, the food. What more could you ask from one place? Still, I never planned a trip back, seeking instead unexplored destinations like Zambia.  

But now my son is moving to Barcelona for a spell, a great invitation for me to return. This time I will see it through the fresh eyes of a 30 year old, the same son whose tantrums shaped my view of Point Reyes and whose enchantment with animals and bugs enriched my experience of Belize.

Leaf cutter ants, Belize (Photo: Bill Patterson)

Janet Hook is a former political reporter for the Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal who lives most of the time in Maryland. She is a nicer person when in Maine.