Long before travel subsets became trendy — like extreme destinations, travel to learn, women going solo — Melissa Lanning was doing all of that, and more.
The 90-year-old former Georgia educator had always been interested in bringing real-life experiences into the classroom. If she was going to teach about a country, she wanted to first go there herself, then give insight to her students.
“When I was teaching, all the social studies lessons at that time dealt with places away from Georgia. I knew if I could see a place, then I could teach about it in the classroom,” she said.
Plus, she was curious and loved adventure. Her husband, however, was not that interested in leaving home, so on most trips, Lanning went solo, often blending in with families and others traveling together on group tours.
“No point in taking someone along who would be miserable the whole time,” she said.
Lanning, who is widowed and lives in the northern suburbs, spent a good part of her 44-year career as a teacher and media specialist with Fulton County public schools. Having summers off and extended holiday breaks was a welcome opportunity to go somewhere.
There was her 1970 safari to Africa. There were trips to Iran and Iceland. There was a monthlong visit to Nepal, where she brought in her own food and had to brush her teeth using Fanta because the water wasn’t safe.
She rode camels in Egypt and elephants in India. She went fishing in Alaska, and dog-sledding in Montana when it was 6 below. She’s been to Antarctica three times, once experiencing seas so rough that she and the other passengers aboard a Russian icebreaker were strapped into their beds at night. Lanning was in her 80s at the time.
“I was a different type of traveler.” said Lanning. “If you wanted to dress up and have your clothes dry-cleaned, well, my type of traveling was not for you.”
Lanning always traveled with others who were eager to learn; dress codes meant nothing to them, she explained.
Her first trip was around 1963, an eight-week excursion to Europe visiting 11 countries. She traveled by ship, and the total cost for everything was $1,000.
“I thought it was the last trip I’d ever take,” Lanning said.
In the ’60s, women didn’t travel without their husbands. “It was looked upon with disapproval,” Lanning said.
Now, women going alone is its own special travel niche, especially among seniors.
About 70 percent of participants with Seniors on the Go Travel in metro Atlanta are women who are traveling without a partner, says tour planner and owner Cathy Stokes. She said many are widows or have never married.
“Part of the reason we’re seeing so many single ladies on our trips is that it is a great way to feel part of a group, meet new people and make friends, but still retain the privacy that they’re used to at night,” Stokes said. “I’m definitely seeing seniors more comfortable going by themselves than I did 10, 20 years ago.”
Stokes also sees adventure options changing as baby boomers bring their active lifestyles into group travel. Allowing for extra excursions such as hiking and kayaking is more the norm now. For example, an upcoming trip to New England includes a dune buggy ride, an adventure that wouldn’t have been offered 20 years ago, Stokes said.
For Lanning, she’s already looking ahead and thinking about where she’d like to travel, because her favorite trip is always “the next one.”
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