THE BLOG

Do You Have a Case of Wanderlust?

06/11/2013 04:04 pm ET | Updated Aug 11, 2013

According to Wikipedia, "wanderlust is a strong desire for or impulse to wander or travel and explore the world." I suspect that if you're reading the Travel Section of The Huffington Post, you are likely to have at least a mild case of this condition. Did you ever wonder where this feeling comes from?

I've pondered at times if this could be an inherited trait. In a prior blog( http://www.huffingtonpost.com/helen-davey/the-reluctant-traveler_b_2704469.html),
I've written about the propensity of my ancestors on both sides to be explorers and adventurers. Does this mean that wanderlust could be genetic?

On the other hand, I grew up hearing my father's true-life bedtime adventure stories, and I'd go to sleep with images of exotic places and people dancing in my head. My father, Jim Davey, was the son of John Davey, the world's first tree surgeon and founder of the Davey Tree Expert Company in Kent, Ohio. Like his father before him, my father continued studying trees, a career that took him all over the world.

Whether due to nature or nurture, I was determined to follow in my father's globetrotting footsteps. From a young age, I knew it wasn't a question of if, but when - and more importantly, how?

Growing up, one of my favorite stories was about my father's round-the-world luxury cruise in 1922. He and his first wife Mary were on board the Cunard Line's RMS Laconia II. This voyage was billed as the first circumnavigation of the globe since Magellan.

It's hard to imagine that almost 100 years ago, this was a major media event. The Laconia's arrival in port after port was a cause for exuberant fanfare, news coverage, and worldwide celebration. However, many of the harbors were surprisingly primitive at that time, and a big ship like the Laconia had trouble navigating them.

The ship departed from New York, transited the Panama Canal, and then visited Japan and other countries in the Far East. From there, it continued via the Suez Canal, through the Mediterranean and back to New York. This trip was not only a "first," but also the gold standard of luxury travel and exploratory ambition at this time.

My father's mission on this first-ever round-the-world-cruise was to study and photograph the world's trees, and, as an early environmentalist, to gather information and convey what he learned about man's impact on the natural world back to others.

Remember, in 1922, there were no travel books and no travelers - only explorers. Nowadays, movies and television routinely show glorious global wonders, but in my father's time this technology had yet to be invented.

Armchair travelers had only one main source of information about the world - The National Geographic Magazine. Founded in 1888, by the 1920's and 1930's, it was found on the coffee tables of many curious Americans. As one of the photographers for the periodical during that time, my father captured groundbreaking images of sights most of its readers had never before seen.

In personal letters home to our family, my father's enthusiastic descriptions of the fantastic flora and fauna of the world are vivid and compelling. He described his special tour of the Emperor of Japan's private gardens, and the spectacular natural beauty of Niko and Nara; the botanical gardens of Java [Indonesia] at Buitenzorg [Bogor]; and the botanical garden at Kandy in Ceylon [Sri Lanka], which he considered to be the finest in the world. His only disappointment was that he was not able to explore the mountains of Formosa [Taiwan] because "head hunting savages still hold sway there."

In these letters from so long ago, my father glowingly describes magical moonlight scenes: on board the Laconia II, passing by the base of Mount Fuji, on the way from Tokyo to Kyoto; the great pagoda, Shive Dagon, in Rangoon, its spectacular gold leaf spire glittering at midnight; and the Taj Mahal, "which makes our modern millionaires look like pikers compared to this fellow Shah Jahan." Then there was his 3:00 A.M. ascent to Tiger Hill on Mount Kanchenjunga to watch the sunrise over the Himalayas, "a thing of rare grandeur and a sight for the gods."

As a child hearing my father's stories, and especially after his death from a heart attack at the age of 64 when I was only 8, I wondered how I could ever infuse my own life with the same sense of wonder and excitement. How could I explore the world without being a tourist?

Enter Pan American World Airways!

In my junior year of college, I remember the fateful day when I came across a Pan Am advertisement for stewardesses with a college degree and a second language. Reading about Pan Am and its famous round-the world flight 1 (westbound) and flight 2 (eastbound), I was hooked, and knew I had found the perfect path to fulfill my lifelong dreams. I remember thinking, "Round-the world flights! Are you kidding me? Where do I sign up?" And just as my father had taken to the oceans, I took to the skies.

One of the airline's slogans was, "Pan Am has a place of its own. You call it 'the world.' We call it 'home.'" Pan Am's founder Juan Trippe and his right-hand man Charles Lindbergh explored - and obtained the rights to fly into - formerly unreachable parts of the world. They created an amazing network of complex routes, connecting the entire globe. What other company had a whole world to give to its employees?

In joining the Pan Am family, I found adventurous kindred spirits, passionate about exploring and experiencing our world. My father had always said that, "travel is the best education," and the twenty years I spent as Pan Am flight attendant enriched my life in countless ways.

But as in every story, there is a dark side - both with the Laconia II and with Pan Am. Sometimes with adventure comes trauma and tragedy.

During World War II, in 1942, a German U-boat torpedoed Laconia II off the coast of Africa - the very ship on which my father had traveled around the world twenty years earlier. It had been carrying Italian prisoners of war, Polish and British soldiers, as well as civilians. As the Laconia II was starting to sink, the German submarine surfaced to capture the senior officers, and to begin rescue operations for the more than 2,000 survivors in the water. Three other German and Italian submarines joined in the rescue efforts, and with hundreds of survivors on their decks as well as in lifeboats in tow, headed toward Africa. Each submarine had Red Cross flags across their gun decks.

In a very tragic miscommunication, when an Allied B-24 bomber spotted the U-boats, its orders were to sink the submarines. As the plane dropped bombs and depth charges, the U-boats were forced to cast the lifeboats adrift. After ordering the survivors on their decks into the water, the submarines dove to safety. Later that day, French vessels rescued 1,500 Laconia passengers, but unfortunately 1,000 men and women did not survive. Today, the Laconia II rests somewhere on the ocean floor off the coast of Africa.

This tragedy is known as "the Laconia incident," and has been documented many times, in articles, books, and even a movie.

And just as there is a shadow following the ship that my father was on, so, too, was a dark cloud building over Pan Am. Beginning in the 1970's, the specter of terrorism came to the fore, with the worldwide symbol of American grandeur - Pan Am - as its primary target. The culmination was in 1988 when Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland: it has been called "the day the heart of Pan American died."

After years of struggling with a new worldwide airline culture that no longer valued the elegance an earlier era, and a failure to adapt to the new rules of survival, Pan Am died a slow and painful death. Piece by piece, property by property, route by route, Pan Am's once mighty "world" was dismantled. On December 4, 1991, Pan Am went out of business, dead at the age of 64, the same age as my father when he died.

For me, the image of the Laconia II lying silently at the bottom of the sea, correlates poignantly with the haunting image of Pan Am Clipper Maid of the Seas lying shattered in that Scottish countryside, her blue and white nose cone still recognizable.

It's a harrowing reminder that travel, with all its extremely rewarding benefits, can at times carry a heavy price. Nevertheless, the elegance of the first round-the-world cruise on the Laconia II, and Pan Am with its many "firsts," such as their exciting round-the-world flights, are part of the golden age of world travel. I wouldn't trade my memories for anything - even those that are tragic or frightening. For me, the love of travel will always be a crucial part of who I am.

It feels like it's in my bones.

This blog is dedicated to our fellow Pan Am traveler -- now Pan Am angel.
Nancy Miller Latsha (February 14, 1957 -- June 10, 2013)