How to Plan A Spontaneous Vacation

I am writing 100 How-To essays. It is a big project. Here is why I am doing it. This is essay 26 of 100.


I have a two-hour layover in Las Vegas. I’ve never spent much time in this airport and I’m impressed with how on-brand it is. There are rows of video slots around every corner, and whole lounges that are just for smoking and gambling and having a trucker hat or a bride-to-be sash. The speakers are pumping out Frank Sinatra, inviting everyone to embrace their pretending. Two days ago, I'd planned to be in Orange County right now visiting my grandmother, but instead I am in Los Vegas watching a woman with three Lhasa Apsos and a leathery tan try to balance a light blue cowboy hat on her head. 

I’m on my way to Omaha. You either know all about Omaha or you never really cared for Bright Eyes. Those are the options. 

Omaha is the home of Saddle Creek Records — the label that represented (besides everything Conor Oberst ever touched) Rilo Kiley, Azure Ray, The Faint, Big Chief, Hop Along, The Mynabirds, and a ton of Mike Mogis projects. There’s a rock venue there called Slowdown that was intended to serve as a permanent home for all things Saddle Creek. It’s in a relatively new building, and the record label is next door. 

If you were a kid in the early aughts with a stick of black eyeliner and a Livejournal, the Omaha music scene was your wet dream. All the bands were good and they were also all sad, and in our collective fantasies we could go to shows every night while sipping on bourbon (which we'd never tasted) and kissing skinny jeans-wearing boys (which we'd also never tasted). The internet was in its early stages. Personally, I spent pretty much all my online time on the Saddle Creek website, trying to buy new CDs so I could be the first to hear of the next greatest saddest band. 

I went to Slowdown once while I was on a comedy tour. I performed standup on the stage. I tried to play it cool, but I gluttonously took a bunch of backstage pictures (that all ended up looking like brown walls and red curtains and nothing special). The sound producer “totally knew Mike (Mogis).” I tried to make out with him, but he had a girlfriend. Whatever. To be totally honest, I couldn’t enjoy my time there because we were in and out of Omaha so fast. We had to leave the next morning for another gig, so we were there for a grand total of sixteen hours, and we spent the majority of that time sleeping. 

Also, although I’ve tried to block this memory a little bit, Alexis and I once bought a horrible beat-up wreck of a car in Omaha. It got totaled in an epic crash that found us upside down and underwater in Nowhere, Nebraska. That was the scariest physical thing that ever happened to me, and I am now not capable of riding in the front seat of other people’s cars. And I drive like a person who is legally dead. (“Sophie, why are you stopping? The light’s not even yellow.” “But it is possibly ABOUT TO TURN yellow.”) The car kept breaking down and ultimately it kind of blew up. It also got stolen. When it was found, it was wrecked inside, so I abandoned it. This is not a proud part of my history.

Anyway, I feel like those two trips don’t really count. Besides, I’ve left out the most personally interesting single fact about Omaha: it is where Isa Chandra Moskowitz lives, and where she built her restaurant. (There’s one in Brooklyn, too, but I obviously couldn’t plan a trip to Brooklyn. There are too many social obligations in Brooklyn, since basically every cool person I’ve ever known lives there now.) 

My love for Isa blossomed in tandem with my love for Saddle Creek. In 2005, right after I’d decided to be a vegan, she put out this book called Vegan With A Vengeance. In those days, Food Fight Grocery was a tiny shop in a comically small cement room on Division Street in Portland, and it sold like nine things. I remember buying: $12 gelatin-free marshmallows; a shirt that said, “Wings Are For Flying Not Frying”; and that book.

If you have gone vegan within the last, say, eight years, you don’t know what it used to be like. We used to have rubbery Boca Burgers (just one flavor), hummus, and those cardboard Tofutti ice cream bars, and that was it. But lo: Isa had made a cookbook with foods that seemed IMPOSSIBLE. I remember verbally gasping when I saw a recipe for vegan French toast. This felt like someone telling me that I could reach through my television to grab a piece of pizza. That’s how impossible French toast for vegans felt. For the most part, this was a dark age composed of Oriental flavor Top Ramen and PB&J for every meal. 

This cookbook DELIVERED. I cooked my way all the way through it. I’d never really been interested in cooking before, but Isa lit a fire in me. She taught me how to make Pad Thai (I still use the original recipe, even though she’s altered hers since then) and carrot cake. I've purchased or been gifted every cookbook she's put out since then, and they’re all now totally battered. (Literally: I spill batter on them.) I’ve bought other vegan cookbooks, but nothing can remotely hold a candle to Isa’s. She clearly cares about making food that tastes not just good, but interesting. Like, the first time I made a mushroom hot pot for Luke (from Isa Does It, my current favorite cookbook) he was all, “Wait. How did you get it to taste like this?” And I replied, simply, “Isa.” (The actual answer, for the culinarily inclined, is whole anise star pods and dehydrated shiitakes. But it’s easier to say “Isa.”)

I’ve seriously digressed. The point is, the trip I have planned to Omaha is what I would describe as a potentially perfect vacation. And I planned it yesterday.

I’m not in Orange County because my grandmother had to cancel our visit to see her. She’s had a lot of company lately and she doesn’t feel well. This is sad, and I hope she feels better soon; I was really looking forward to seeing her and spending a little time in her company.

But — and I’ll bet you can relate to this — I can’t remember the last time I took a trip that wasn’t to visit someone or to present something or otherwise work-related. I love visiting the people I love, and I’m lucky to have so many people in so many places who want to see me, but visiting people requires coordinating schedules and buying hostess gifts. It means that you have the potential to disappoint someone you love, so tensions are always a little high. I am coming from Portland, where I’ve spent the last week. Portland is among the worst places in this way: there are no fewer than 30 people I’d like to visit every time I’m in Portland. Yeah, sure, it’s the greatest problem to have, but it feels so heavy. 

And when you’re home, it’s kind of the same thing. People want things from you. They want to hang out or throw a fun party that you could go to. They want to employ you at a job that you are expected to show up to and preferably work hard at. These things, too, are wonderful, but at the same time, they ask a lot. 

I think people long for varying texture. We don’t benefit at all from monotony, nor does it do us any good to be consistently stressed or pressured in the same kinds of ways. Musicals, for example, are best when there is good singing AND dancing AND dialogue. That’s a lot to ask of a two-hour long show, but then again, ticket prices for musicals are a lot to ask of regular people. Chunky peanut butter is better than smooth, because it’s nice to have both the smooth and the crunchy mixed together in your mouth. Our bodies and minds want to do things that are different; that change; that are maybe a little scary because they’re new.

While there’s nothing more important, in my opinion, than community and friendship and love and family (chosen or otherwise), there are times when you have to obey your own rules and answer to no one. And you need to be somewhere, sometimes, where you won’t greet your independence with a five-hour Mrs. Maisel binge-watching session. Hence: this trip to Omaha.

Luke and I don’t know anyone in Omaha. (I mean, there's that sound guy who knew Mike (Mogis), but he may not remember me.) I want to go to Isa’s restaurant and walk in the cold park. I want to go to the museum and just be quiet there. I want to write for a long time with a pen in a journal without worrying that I’m going to be late to meet a friend.

And before you chirp at me, yeah, you’re right: my husband is coming along. But one of the things about having a husband is having a person who you can be quiet next to, and to whom you don’t have to lie about what you want to do. 

(Luke hasn’t ever been to Omaha! So that means there’s a double reason to explore like crazy. We can go to the monuments! Does Omaha have monuments? We’ll learn!)

Last-minute plane tickets can be expensive, but not when you’re buying plane tickets to Omaha in winter. And we’re taking the train back. I have about a trillion points on Amtrak, so that part was all the way free. (We’re getting a roomette! See previous blog post about the roomette. Fun fact, actually: this post about the roomette is the most popular piece I’ve ever written on my blog. People REALLY like to know about the roomette.)

The last time I had a purely euphoric vacation was, now that I think about it, the last time I traveled alone and not to see anyone. I had a train ticket from San Diego to Salinas, where I knew no one. On the train, I listened to Typhoon and painted with my first-ever set of watercolors. In the Steinbeck museum, I listened to old Sophie Tucker and Marilyn Monroe recordings. At the library, I listened to nothing, because it was quiet, and I liked the quiet, and it was such a strange and rare and perfect thing, and I knew no one would ever know how much I was taking and taking and taking it in.