Rear-View Mirror

By David A. Fryxell Premium

I’m a planner. Always have been, always will be. When our family takes a vacation, every detail of the trip is mapped out with the precision of a space launch. We know exactly when and where we’re going to have fun, and how much (“oh-nine-hundred-hours — hug Mickey Mouse, experience 33.4 seconds of glee”).

But sometimes, I’m coming to realize, it’s best not to look ahead so hard. As I get older and grayer, I start to wonder if it isn’t just as important to look in the rear-view mirror and pay attention to where we’ve come from. The future will rush over us whether we want it to or not, but it’s all too easy for the past to slip away. We spend so much time wondering, “What will it be like?” that we forget to ask, “What was it like?”

I was struck by this a few months ago, below decks on the last surviving ship of America’s once-vast whaling fleet, which is now docked at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut. I’m reasonably tall — 6 feet — but hardly NBA material, yet I had to spend the whole tour with my head either crooked to one side or my body crunched into a half-crouch. You can know intellectually that a) our forebears were shorter and b) conditions on a ship like the one Melville wrote about in Moby Dick were cramped and unpleasant. But there’s nothing like experiencing life below decks — crouching, crowded, underlie — to make you realize what it was really like.

Up on deck wasn’t much better, making me thankful I was a tourist and not a member of the crew. Fortunately, they weren’t actually rendering whale blubber, but you could look into the blackened oven and imagine, well, the smell. A historic interpreter did demonstrate splitting a codfish for salting, which drew the appropriate “eeew, gross!” gasps from a group of schoolchildren. Gross indeed, but salted cod helped Western civilization spread to North America and make New England the economic engine of the continent, as Mark Kurlansky explains in his prize-winning book, Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World (Penguin).

The view in the rear-view mirror isn’t always pretty, in short, but knowing where we’ve been does put where we’re going into perspective. When we left Mystic Seaport for a gourmet meal at the nearby Mystic Inn, I think the food tasted even better for our experience — it was not, after all, salted cod.

The people putting up with life in the past no doubt included your ancestors. Whatever your ethnicity, you can experience just enough of life as your ethnic ancestors experienced it at the 10 living history villages we highlight.

Similarly, if you remember the musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers or the old TV series “Here Come the Brides,” you know that frontier life in the Pacific Northwest was no picnic, either. You can get a feel for the heritage of Seattle, Portland and Vancouver with our guide.

I don’t mean to suggest that heritage travel should be more like boot camp than a vacation. In small doses, though, even the hardships of yesteryear can be entertaining — because you know you get to go back to a posh hotel or cozy B&B after “roughing it” as your ancestors did. That look backwards can make you better appreciate the view ahead. It might even cause you to shift life’s relentless forward momentum into a lower gear, if only for a little while.

From Family Tree Magazine‘s May 2003 Heritage Travel.