Away from home without the kids

Posted: Sunday, August 16, 2009

I was in Texas last week to attend what would have been my 30th high school reunion. I say "would have" because I moved away after my sophomore year and didn't graduate with my Austin classmates. Nevertheless, I'm glad I went.

Research states that in our youth we tend to dwell more on the negative aspects of life than on the positive. I was no exception to this tendency, and blamed my negativity on the social caste of Austin High School.

Predictably, my last years of school in California didn't improve my outlook, proving the axiom that you can take a teen away from his misery but you can't take misery away from a teen.

But times change. People change. I changed.

Some months ago I joined Facebook, one of many social networking sites on the Internet. Soon afterward I discovered a couple of my classmates from Texas and reconnected with them, which led to more reintroductions. Soon I had an invitation to come for the class of '79 reunion. When my wife said "go," I went.

The Austin I returned to is not the same Austin I left in 1977. The population has grown sixfold. The skyline is much taller. The city limits are much broader.

Still, the older parts of Austin are much the same as they were in my youth, so I chose the novel approach of visiting my old haunts in the same manner as I first discovered them: from the seat of a bicycle.

My mother, a Texas transplant, thought I was nuts to want to ride a bicycle in Austin in the summer. I was warned about heat and traffic and the size of the city, to no avail. I had an answer to every challenge, and the more I was warned the more determined (my mother would say stubborn) I became. I bought a used mountain bike within two hours of my arrival.

Over the following three days I traversed 70 miles of once-familiar terrain, and enjoyed some of the best bicycling I have ever experienced. Despite triple-digit Texas temperatures I wandered, pedaling slowly but deliberately, drinking lots of water, and stopping often to rest or to talk with people I met in my meanderings.

My original intent was to bicycle in the mornings and hide indoors during the hot afternoons, but in practice I never made it back to the hostel before evening. Chance encounters and conversations with strangers became the hallmarks of my daily excursions; indeed, I spent much more time talking than touring!

The Hostel International, Austin - I highly recommend hostels to anybody traveling alone - was just about perfect. I made many acquaintances, both American citizens and foreign nationals, with whom to enjoy idle chit-chat or more in-depth conversations about international relations and the state of the planet. Every night featured varied discussions that lasted into the wee hours, and I enjoyed every minute with everybody I met.

The reunion was equally sociable and enjoyable. I was remembered by more people than I thought I would be, and I remembered more than I thought I would. The old high school caste was a thing of the past. I was a part of their history, and they a part of mine. It was more than a reunion: it was a homecoming.

My classmates asked about Alaska, and I had answers to the most common questions. I showed off pictures of glaciers, told stories about bears, and assured all who would listen that ten below zero isn't really all that cold. I listened to their stories too, and we all gave a moment to remember those who would no longer be telling theirs.

I also had a terrific visit with my grown daughter and her husband, who moved to Austin from Fairbanks after her graduation from college. I showed them the town I remembered (a rather short tour), we took in some new sights, and we visited with my mom, who still thinks a bicycle is a very bad idea.

And at journey's end? I was greeted at the airport by my wife, my jacket, and two very happy children, happy that daddy was safely home. Happy trails.

• Michael Wittig is a stay-at-home parent and long-term Juneau resident.

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