Travel is often recommended as educational, as a way of appreciating different cultures and increasing one’s tolerance and fellowship. But I have seldom seen that travelers really exhibit these characteristics. Often travel is a confirmation of biases and cultural prejudices (almost nineteenth-century in tone). Or the traveler has set out with less information about the target culture and language than those who have stayed home and done a little study.
Travel has acquired such a de rigour attitude today that it is the counterpart of collecting, or of overscheduling activities in order to demonstrate one’s importance. A person is presumed to be incomplete without travel, though, of course, the destination and who one sees or what one visits is raised as criteria for whether the venture was worthwhile.
We are far away from the observation of Thomas a Kempis that whenever he traveled he returned more empty than when he had set out. For travel is not indefinite. It is always with the intention of returning to one’s “home” after “vacating” it. Refreshment, relaxation, renewal — these are goals that are usual put “out there,” as if they are not part of oneself by nature or potential.
By travel I mean that formality of taking a fossil-fueled vehicle and going someplace really not intrinsically unlike one’s home base and seeing different versions of human industriousness, folly, greed, or vanity. The splendor or attraction of ruins is a good example, though what lesson the modern traveler learns from Machu Picchu or the Parthenon, or the Great Wall is not clear. Where travel was once reserved for the wealthy, it is now available to .. the relatively wealthy, on a sliding scale of value: sometimes the same set of multinational fast-food chains, sometimes a rare antiquity, sometimes a business-class hotel.
One can catch one’s breath before an awe-inspiring monument or stained glass or natural setting. It is true and satisfying, for a moment or a few weeks. You may live in the mountains and want to travel to the city or you may live in the city and want to travel to the mountains. There is an acceptable price and an acceptable value. But how often has the traveler stood before something seen in a book and remarked, “Yes, it is just like that after all.”
Getting about physically is not what I mean by travel. Thoreau said that he couldn’t stay indoors for a single day without acquiring some rust. One must walk about or get out and see the stars or the trees or the flowers or the snow, feel the air, the sunlight, hear a bird. For city-dwellers, this may be difficult and discouraging, and the temptation to fly far away is a great but delusional lure. One must come to grips with one’s habitat. The inner walls of the anchorite’s cell became the boundaries of the earth’s stratosphere, the bowl of heavenly stars by way of imagination and solitude.
The solitary is equipped to understand the follies of travel but is often tempted to become sedentary, cerebral, and too comfortable with home or room. The Indian sadhu or Japanese hijiri were homeless, living entirely with nature and at nature’s caprice, in part to test the tendency of attachment and willfully discard it. In doing so, the path of travel became the pilgrimage of mind and spirit. The stars and forests and mountains became household objects. They did not set out to see anyone or anything. It was just that life takes us on a path where we intersect with all that matters anyway. We don’t have to set out traveling; we are already traveling, and have merely to get our bearings.