A Ghost Story

This photo shows the main staircase at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado

Matter is never created or destroyed. That’s what I’ve been told, at least since middle-school biology. Seen through this lens, can we explain the supernatural? What if spirits, specters, ghosts are not all in our heads or a trick of the light or eye – perhaps they are simply matter, or energy, redistributed?

I don’t really believe in the supernatural, except … sometimes a little piece of me does. How to explain otherwise my experience, a few years back, at The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, known to ghost chasers around the world as one of the most haunted sites around?

My husband Andy and I had signed up for an evening out during a trip hiking day trails in Rocky Mountain National Park. We heard the hotel restaurant was quite good, and the ghost tour seemed like a fun diversion to fill an otherwise quiet evening.

There were about 20 of us in our group, and our young guide regaled us with stories as we progressed through the historic property. We heard the requisite bits about Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick; the other celebrities and VIPs who requested to stay in the notoriously haunted rooms and lived to tell mind-boggling tales. I was entertained, but highly skeptical, until we got to the fourth floor.

Our guide brought us to a pause in a small vestibule with two couches and a coffee table. “This floor used to be the children’s wing,” he explained. “The [proprietor] Stanleys didn’t like children, you see, so for the most part they would be kept up here for the duration of the summer while their parents vacationed with the Stanleys and other guests at other parts of the hotel. Oftentimes we’ll get calls asking us to ‘tell those kids to stop running around the halls’ – and of course there will be no one there — or teachers or parents who are guests will take notice of odd happenings. Candy or chewing gum will disappear from their rooms or be moved around, or they’ll be relaxing in the lounge and will feel the space suddenly grow very cold, or get the sensation of a child’s hand taking theirs. It’s all very good-natured, but this is definitely one of the more active places in the building.”

At this point, Andy and I had been separated, he on one side of the tour group, I on the other. I waited for most of the others to pass so we could walk to the next point of the tour together.

The crowd shuffled along and Andy took a step toward me. As he did, the oddest expression crossed his face — a widening of his eyes in surprise, a flicker within (of fear? panic?), and then a huge grin. As I saw his smile grow wider, I felt a whoosh of air speed past me, an icy-cold current, as if a window had been opened and an arctic breeze took flight through the hallway. But there was no window, and no vents were in sight, either.

“What just happened to you?” I asked Andy.

The words tumbled out, rapid with excitement. “I took a step forward and the temperature felt like it dropped about 40 degrees,” he said. “It felt like I was standing in front of an air conditioner.”

I told him what I had felt, and we lingered a moment to see if anything would happen again, but were disappointed. Realizing our tour group was well down the hallway, we hastened to join them.

We are both educated, highly skeptical, 30-something agnostics. Yet neither of us can possibly explain what our senses perceived that evening.

“We want to assign patterns and meaning to everything,” my uncle counters, when I tell him this story. “Your mind plays tricks on you, especially with the power of suggestion.” He tells me about an email he received from a long-lost friend, just as he was about to send him a note. “That’s not divine intervention or fate or anything with meaning,” he says. “What that is, is a coincidence.”

Coincidence. I like the word, I like the concept. I like the random nature it implies – the little tweaks to our daily lives, the disruptions in our organized flow, that in their meaningless random occurrences ironically shake us out of our stupors and tune us into meaning. An unexpected email makes one reconsider a neglected relationship. A cold patch, seemingly unexplainable, gives us a great story, a travel anecdote that forever imprints the memories of our Colorado vacation. Are these events random? Probably. Supernatural or divinely guided? Well, if matter is never created or destroyed, who am I to say for certain?

Why do we enjoy a good ghost story? In today’s world of instantly accessible facts and information, often delivered instantaneously through a few taps on a keyboard or mobile device, a ghost story is often one of the last bastions of surprise, or inexplicable wonder. It’s part fantasy, as all good unprovable stories can be, but with definite roots in the physical. Tell me a good ghost story, and I will feel my heart rate start to quicken, my ears will pick up on the slight, white-noise background sounds I had not registered mere minutes before. A good ghost story creates community – we here, gathered in wonder to ponder the unknown, perhaps joined by others, invisible, out in the ether – and roots us inevitably to the past, the place, the possible.

I tend to partake in ghost tours (if they’re available) in new cities I visit. A few years back, I noted to one guide that they’re a really entertaining way to learn about the history of a place.

“Well, that’s the thing,” the guide said, dropping his voice to share a secret. “Ghost tours are really just history tours with a little bit of spook and lore thrown in. If we package them as history tours, no one shows up—we can’t give the tickets away. We call it a ghost tour, though, and with a few slight program modifications, people can’t get enough of it.”

I think back to some of my high school history courses, and struggle to recollect details and minutiae. Ask me to recall a ghost/history tour, however, and the stories come rushing back. Really, what I think we’re all looking for is a good story, whether it’s to tell our friends over coffee (or a campfire), or for the modern age, to distill down to essential characters and broadcast over Facebook and Twitter. We all want to spin a good yarn to those willing to listen.

Did a ghost brush past me that day in Colorado? Maybe, maybe not. Ironically, though, whatever touched me gave me the impetus to reach out to others, and interact via the story, whether it’s in the flesh , a voice over a phone line, or pixels on a screen. Ghosts, spirits, whatever you want to call it – it’s super natural to want to connect.

Photo courtesy Kent Kanouse via Flickr Creative Commons

Where Should You Go on Your Next Vacation?

This photo shows a man leaning out of a van window

I’m not a night owl. When I travel, I like to have early starts and active days, where I’m out exploring a destination’s cultural landmarks or outdoor trails, capped off with a low-key evening centered around a fantastic meal.

So a few years ago, I begrudgingly found myself in Las Vegas on a business trip, a destination I never would have sought on my own. My days were spent in business meetings, my nights in mixer events at nightclubs or casinos. I was ready to write it off as a one-and-done trip, when a few colleagues invited me to go hiking on our one day off.

And suddenly, I was enchanted with Nevada. Here, about a 35-minute ride from downtown Vegas, were landscapes utterly unfamiliar to my East Coast sensibilities: red rocks, ochre sands, sweeping cliffs, a few scrubby trees. After the buzz of the Strip, I relished the fresh air and quiet, as well as the chance to connect with my colleagues in a setting that appealed to me. It placed everything in a new light, and made me realize my first impression had been limited (and that I was too hasty to judge).

The next year, when I went back to Vegas for another conference, I was more prepared. I didn’t have time for a hike, but I prepped for what my schedule would accommodate: In my downtime, I sought out a cooking class, took long walks down the Strip to get “outdoor” time, and had several delicious meals. And I realized: Few destinations will disappoint if approached with the spirit of adventure and discovery.

Get the full story over on the Society of Grownups blog.

How to Travel with Just About Anyone

This photo shows a man in the driver seat talking to a woman leaning in through the passenger window

When I teach the “Beyond the Hostel” travel chat at Society of Grownups, I always ask my students about the best and worst trips they’ve ever taken. More often than not, their “worst trip” answers involve traveling with people who didn’t mesh well, ranging from clashing personalities to disagreements on food, activities, budget (you name it).

We’ve all been on trips where we didn’t necessarily get to choose whom we traveled with — and should you find potentially incompatible travelers will be joining you on your next trip, you’ve still got time to make the most of it.

Get the full story over at the Society of Grownups blog.

 

Debunking ‘Best of’ Travel Lists

This photo shows a globe and a headset

“What’s the best day of the week to book airfare?”

“Where’s the best hotel in Paris?”

“Who has the best lobster roll on Cape Cod?”

When it comes to travel, I often get some variation of these questions from friends and family — and it makes sense at first glance. We work hard and get precious little time off each year, as such, we want to make sure we’re making the most of our vacation. Hence the pursuit of bests — if we’re only getting a week in Jamaica, or a long weekend in San Francisco, we want to make sure we’ll enjoy it and have an ideal experience.

Any and all major magazines have their “10 Best” lists popping up for everything from airlines to airports, hotels to restaurants. (I may even be guilty of having authored a few such stories in my previous life.)

But here’s the secret: Even after 10+ years of studying consumer travel trends, I’m here to tell you that the word “best” is — at best — a fallacy. Think about it: It’s a means of finding a quality experience that will appeal to the most people, across all walks of life. It’s a way to quickly distill something complex and nuanced into an easy-to-digest format. And it’s a method for busy travelers to save time during trip planning — after all, consulting a “best of” list is the quickest way to research a new place.

But by focusing on the generic “best”, ironically, you might miss the experience that would be best for you. So it’s time to remove the term from your Grownup traveler vocabulary.

Get the full story over at Society of Grownups blog.