On the Contrary: Vacations Are Better When They’re Over
an argument by Joe Rusin
As summer passes its midpoint, many of us have been engaging in ritual summer vacation—taking some time and fleeing our ordinary lives for a slower, relaxing set of days. Maybe we go to the beach. Maybe we travel and sightsee. Maybe we go camping. Whatever it is, we feel the need to get out and ‘recharge’, even if this time is spent in our homes away from work. I myself have recently returned from my vacation, so I have been giving a lot of thought to the nature of vacations, and I’ve come to a conclusion.
Living in the moment is overrated. Especially when that moment is so much better remembered.
Let me explain. I am not anti-vacation. If I could, I would reverse my personal ratio of work to vacation, so that the majority of my life would be spent reading books and traveling around, but a few weeks a year would be set aside for some hardcore work. So I like my free time, and I think everyone else should, too.
But our vacations are so rare and precious that we tend to build them up. We look forward to them for months. We plan them obsessively, trying to squeeze as much rest and relaxation (or adventure and experience) out of those few days. When we actually go on them, it’s almost impossible for them to live up to the hype. I’m not sure about everyone else, but get a little stressed when I’m on vacation, constantly reminding myself to enjoy every moment for everything it’s worth, and unfailingly allowing my mind to occasionally wander to all of things I’m falling behind on in my regular life.
My recent vacation was a long-planned backpacking trip with my brother and some friends in the back country of Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. I’m not always the fit person in a party, so I trained for the trip for months to be in shape for the high altitude hiking and climbs. I obsessively went over everything I needed to bring, pestering my brother (a very seasoned backpacker) with incessant calls about equipment and how to pack the bag. I was pumped for this trip.
Then the trip came. Thankfully, the training paid off and I didn’t have any problems physically. And the trip wasn’t really a letdown—I had a tremendous time and saw some scenery that was beautiful beyond words (or at least beyond my words—luckily I took pictures).
I tried to drink in the whole experience—to appreciate every moment. But after a time, scenic fatigue started to creep in. That first Mountain Lake was astounding, but by the time I was seeing my fourth one it was starting to be the norm. Also, the secret about vacations, especially camping ones, is that there is a lot of down time when boredom can set in. For five days I was completely disconnected from the world. No cell phone. No news. No running water. I brought a book to read of course, but still there was plenty of time just sitting around, or hiking to the next campsite. During that time, my mind started to wander of its own volition to all of the things I was falling behind on in back in the “real world.” I’m in some of the most beautiful country in the world, and I’m stressing about whether I remembered to pay the cable bill on time. This is my vacation?
Once I got back from the mountains, things were overwhelmingly busy for about two or three days. I briefly actually resented that I had taken all that time off and had fallen so far behind. But then, slowly I got caught up, slipped back into a work groove, and started to reflect on the previous week. And this is when I really started to appreciate the vacation. All the boring moments and scenic fatigue evaporated and all that remained in my mind were the ESPN Sportscenter highlights of the trip. Now I realize that that trip was one of the best times of my life.
This got me thinking about the nature of experience. The best part of vacations is after they are over but the sensations of them are still fresh in our minds; when we can selectively and viscerally call to mind the best parts or our time off. We don’t have to remember the traffic jams on the highway, or the fights with family members, or even the food poisoning from the bad oysters (though that might be harder to forget). Experience, after all, is really just accumulated memory. We do things so that we will know that we have done them, and have the memory like a keepsake.
So for all of you out there already vacationing or getting ready to go, just remember that you don’t always have to live for now. When it comes to vacations, you’re really living for later.