by Mary D. Sanford

I was on the first leg of my three-month academic sabbatical, a whirlwind tour of the best college-level reading programs in the United States. Fourteen colleges, eleven states, and two suitcases, each large enough to contain a mini Barcalounger—or two. “Be prepared” is my travel motto. Be gracious. Bring gifts to calm the infidels (my relatives).

The first stop on the tour is my favorite. San Francisco in April. Two days of campus tours and stupendously fun cable-car rides, careening down Nob Hill or zooming down towards Fisherman’s Wharf. My room at the Holiday Inn, with its amiable personnel, is nice and simple. I belong to “the best surprise is no surprise” school of hotel selection. I believe that traveling is all about experiencing the local culture and flavor to its fullest—do it all, try everything! But at night, when exhaustion finally sets in, give me a clean room with fresh linens, a firm bed, and no weird smells.

On Saturday morning, my early Sunday departure to points east looms in the back of my mind like a lovesick cowpoke. Where to go? What to do? I catch a cable car (natch) and head nowhere, everywhere, trying not to cry, and wind up in Chinatown.

I pass restaurants where hanging chickens and pigs decorate the windows like Christmas trees in a department store. I hear vendors advertising their wares. Sniffle. On the next corner, I get stuck in a crowd being wooed by a Salvation Army band. It is at once moving and reviving.

Suddenly, I spot a well-coiffed Asian woman heading down the sidewalk, and I know what I want to do.

“Excuse me,” I ask her. “Where do you get your hair done?”

“Up there.” She points to a long, thin flight of stairs, and smiles. “The man, he is really good. Cheap, too.”

Why not? I figure. Getting my hair done would be an experience. After all, this was not only supposed to be a sabbatical but a great adventure. I had never traveled like this before in my entire life: I was alone, a bit scared (okay, very scared), and immensely excited. Life was really happening to me: just two weeks earlier, I had purchased my first house by myself in Rainier Valley (an “up-and-coming” Seattle neighborhood), plunked down nine thousand dollars at the travel agency to cover this trip, and kissed my dog good-bye.

The salon is tiny in the way that those small espresso-stand sheds are tiny. Barely big enough for three people, old, and hot.

“How much for a perm?” I ask the handsome cashier/stylist. He stares—hard—at my windblown, dried-out, frizzy hair, sighs, and says, “ Twenty dollars.”

“I want to look like her,” I say, pointing at the woman I’d followed up from the sidewalk. He and the gorgeous woman chat in A Language Other than English, gesturing wildly at me. I infer that they are saying “She’s gotta be kidding. It’ll take a miracle!”

First stop: salon chair, to be shampooed. This isn’t your usual reclining salon chair—nothing reclining here. I lean way-y-y back, sliding down like a slippery cat, and the stylist begins. Woop, woop. A head massage and a shampooing like I’ve never experienced before. I feel like my head is on a washing machine’s spin cycle—delicious.

Next comes the perm solution and a comb-out. I notice there is no hygienic bottle of blue cleaning solution next to the combs. No hygienic anything. Who knows who has used that comb! I refuse to think about it.

Remember, I remind myself, this is a great adventure. Relax. Breathe.

Three hours later, considerably more relaxed, and definitely more beautiful, I press a five-dollar tip into the hairdresser’s hand—big spender that I am—pay the bill, and float down the steps, a new woman on a new adventure.

After all, isn’t that what travel is all about?