Become An Immersion Traveler

By Sheryl Kayne

Sheryl KayneI became an immersion traveler three months after my divorce became final. My first trip on my own was a long weekend. My ex moved in to stay with our teenage daughters; I went to a spa on Long Island. It was pretty wonderful, but on the first day I realized I needed to do more than be pampered. I asked my masseuse what her favorite activity was and she invited me to join her that afternoon, painting houses for senior citizens in her neighborhood. I’d never painted a room before, but I pitched in and learned how to prepare a wall and begin painting it. The next morning, on my nature hike, I asked the leader where she liked to take her kids on weekends. She told me about a wonderful installation art museum I’d never heard of before.

I’d traveled extensively with my ex, but that was a whole different world. I didn’t really take part in the planning, my fault. I left the planning to him, my mistake. He always seemed to know where he wanted to go and it sounded good to me. I added places I knew about from reading or experience. When we were in Milan and Vienna I made it a priority to go to the opera and in Florence I insisted on time for the flea markets, but I didn’t put a lot of time or energy into it. I was more of a passive traveler.

Once I found myself on my own, I remembered how I’d always wanted to take one of those long, exotic-sounding immersion travel trips to Europe or Costa Rica to jump into a different culture, learn the language, experience the food, traditions, and activities as a local and become one of them. I’d never taken a trip like that because of time and money constraints, but it sounded like the most meaningful way for me to travel, to get involved.

Voila. Immersion Travel USA was born. I applied the concept of European Immersion Travel right here, to my own way of life with accessible travel opportunities. Living life on a tight budget with my newly found single freedom, I learned to expand and increase my travel experiences in mostly free or very inexpensive ways.

Weekend getaways with the family became outdoor adventures in State Parks where the girls and I could volunteer our time and talents doing a wide variety of needed jobs, hike, enjoy each other, and camp out or stay in really cute cabins with modern facilities for about $50 for the weekend.

As a writer and single mom, I desperately needed think-time on my own. I did some research and learned that the National Park Service (NPS) has an extensive Volunteers-in-Parks (VIP) program (www.nps.gov/archive/volunteer/air.htm). Twenty-nine national parks currently offer artist-in-residence programs, including Acadia National Park, Maine; Buffalo National River, Arkansas; Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio; Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming; Herbert Hoover National Historical Site, Iowa; Isle Royale National Park, Michigan; and North Cascades National Park, Washington among others.

The artist-in-residence programs bring together professionals in the arts to publicize, share, and preserve resources in our national parks and to educate and communicate with the public.  Search “Artist-in-Residence” at www.nps.gov; a few programs charge a nominal, nonrefundable application fee. Visual artists, photographers, sculptors, performers, writers, composers, craftspeople, and other artists are invited to apply to live and work in the parks. I applied and received free housing and a free pass to the Everglades National Park, and free time to devote to my writing.

Immersion travel includes Helping (volunteering), Learning (new skills), Working (short and longer term jobs, many freebies or trades), Caring (animals’ rights and care and the arts), and Playing (out of the box fun stuff!)– great activities for all ages and stages of life. And I haven’t forgotten about spa possibilities. I’ve just learned there is more to a weekend than pampering–and combining pampering, learning, hiking, and growing is just my style.

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