Yorktown is unabashedly small. I went there with a might-as-well-while-I’m-here attitude after my day at Colonial Williamsburg. I booked a room in a motel overlooking the water, and asked the clerk at the front desk where I could get some dinner. She recommended two places, and I went to the latter of the two. I left my car in the motel lot and started along the road by the water. I wasn’t quite ready for dinner, so I took my time and walked along the boardwalk and out onto the pier to see the boats go by. The music was just starting on the final night of “Shagging on the Riverwalk,” a summer concert series. The sign explained that I could expect local bands playing beach favorites, oldies, and Motown, and that I should bring both my lawn chair and my dancing shoes. The dancing had already begun as I walked by. I watched a selection of baby boomers doing their own slow, shuffling, partner dances. The tune wasn’t anything in particular, which is why one group was doing a West Coast Swing while another seemed to be mid-Foxtrot and a third was giving their own interpretation of what seemed to be a ChaCha.
I walked past the dancers to a statue of General George Washington and Admiral Francois de Grasse greeting each other to make final preparations for the battle at Yorktown. I felt like the statue was deserving of a caption contest, as both men seemed to be on the verge of saying something while simultaneously having something to hide.
I found the restaurant the clerk had recommended and asked the hostess for a table for one. She sat me at a tiny and awkwardly placed table behind the host’s desk and I waited. The hostess hadn’t given me a menu, but I expected to get one from my server when he or she came to fill my water glass. But the server never came. I sat there, first catching up on some reading on my phone, then staring expectedly around in hopes of catching someone’s eye. The two women at the front were busy adjusting things at the host station, and the other servers seemed focused on their own tables. I kept waiting. It was already clear that no one had been alerted to my presence, but that was no big deal. I figured before long the hostess would glimpse over and realize her mistake, or the server who should be taking care of my section would ask if I’d been helped. But nothing happened. I just sat there. No menu. No water. No server.
I looked to the center of the room where tall stools circled the central bar. It’s strange the power that social conventions can have on you. A part of me felt like I couldn’t get up, even though it was clear I had been forgotten. After all, there was a system. The host tells you where to sit, and you follow directions. If I were to just get up and walk away, I would be going outside the system. It’s amazing that such an action still seems wrong even when the system has broken down.
Eventually I had had enough. I walked up to the bartender to confirm that they had full food service at the bar, and I sat down. I didn’t mention the table I had been at or suggest that anyone do anything different, I just asked for a menu. She took my order right away and my food was out in minutes. I left her a generous tip and walked out, having no particular inclination to complain and certain that no one was aware of the mistake.
As I made my way back to the motel I passed by the dancers, still in full figurative swing. I stayed for awhile to enjoy the scene, until the singer stopped in between songs to make an announcement. He explained that it looked like the weather might turn soon, and that they would have to pack it up if it started to rain. As I walked up the small hill to my motel I turned back to see the clouds had covered up the sun and the scene had turned dark. I walked up to my room. From the balcony I watched as the rain started, and I could hear the announcement that the musicians would have to stop for the night. The summer music series was finished. Over the next hour the sky went completely black and the rain pounded down on Yorktown.
My short visit to Yorktown got me thinking a lot about agency. Sometimes during this trip I show up at recommended restaurants only to find them closed. Occasionally I’ll plan to see a national park, only to have the weather turn on me. Sometimes I get lost. Sometimes I make bad estimates. Sometimes things don’t go according to plan. And none of it really bothers me, because there is no plan. All of it, in fact, is the plan. When your only travel goal is experience, it becomes almost impossible for things to go truly wrong. And in fact, having things go wrong makes for better storytelling. I haven’t told many people about the times I showed up at a museum and everything was fine, or instances when the food at a restaurant was pretty good. I might mention in passing that the weather was perfect at a particular location, but I’ll go into detail about how I had to pull over on the gulf coast because the rain was so bad.
While conflict is always the key to a good story, I think the reason we don’t normally see the good in such small misfortunes is that we were planning on things to go well. I doubt the people at “Shagging on the Riverwalk” enjoyed getting rained on. I’ve watched many an unhappy vacationer storm off upon seeing a particular attraction is closed. But on this trip I’m not planning nearly as much as I might on a typical vacation. So when the restaurant is closed I think, “Well, I could have looked up the hours before I got here. That was my choice.” And I start to realize that everything is my choice, even when things are without a doubt not my fault. I didn’t want to sit alone and ignored at a rickety table when I went to get dinner. And had I continued to do so I imagine I would have been pretty upset by the time someone noticed me. But because I made the decision to get up and sit at the bar, my evening changed. I wasn’t waiting for someone else to acknowledge me, I was making myself known.
And so it goes. I get worn out from hikes and I eat bad food and sometimes I’m just bored. But I chose all of it. Every minute of my trip feels proactive because I took the initiative to go in the first place. Nothing merely happens to me anymore. I am not regular Katrina going through her everyday life, hoping nothing will go wrong. I am a Katrina full of agency, who sees each misfortune as the wages of chance, paid out in exchange for adventure and a story worth telling.