The farther one goes the less one knows.
Lao-Tzu, 550 BC
The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.
St. Augustine, c. 390
Travel teaches toleration.
Benjamin Disraeli, 1832
In the Middle Ages people were tourists because of their religion, whereas now they are tourists because tourism is their religion.
Robert Runcie, 1988
In The Songlines Bruce Chatwin does his best to make the argument that man’s most natural state is in motion. He reaches back into our nomadic past and points to offhand observations – such as the fact that crying babies tend to fall asleep calmly when they are walked around a room – as evidence that deep down inside every man and woman is a desire to set forth. To explore into the unknown. To keep on truckin’. Why else are stories like Thelma & Louise, On the Road, and the long shelves of travel literature and tourism brochures so universally compelling if not for the fact that they speak to an inner and ubiquitous desire to break through the stagnation of contemporary comforts?
Indeed, Runcie has a point in describing our modern infatuation with travel as religious. Often, friends and even strangers ask to see my passport, and as they turn its crowded swath of pages their fingers linger on its stamp-stained backgrounds of pithy patriotism as if it were some sort of relic of antiquity. “Wow,” they say, their eyes rising slowly, “I can’t imagine what it must be like to visit so many places. You must have seen everything already.”
I would be lying if I didn’t admit that such admiration inspires feelings of validation; an outsider’s legitimization of a life spent on the road. But I would also be lying if I didn’t admit that such instant acclaim also inspires feelings of fakery. For it is as easy to continue traveling, propelled merely by inertia, as it is to remain on a couch stuck under the debilitating weight of a television remote control.
Live in this belief: I am not born for any one corner of the universe; this whole world is my country. If you saw this fact clearly, you would not be surprised at getting no benefit from the fresh scenes to which you roam each time through weariness of the old scenes. For the first would have pleased you in each case had you believed it wholly yours. As it is, however, you are not journeying; you are drifting and being driven, only exchanging one place for another, although that which you seek – to live well – is found everywhere.
Travel is like adultery: one is always tempted to be unfaithful to one’s own country. To have imagination is inevitably to be dissatisfied with where you live.
Anatole Broyard, 1989
All traveling becomes dull in exact proportion to its rapidity.
John Ruskin, 1856
Travel is an addiction. And you, my friend, are a junkie. Not the functioning Of-course-I-can-quit-any-time addict. Nope, my man, you’re the hollow-cheeked lotus-eating kind. The far gone. The unredeemable.
I recognize the signs very well. Because I, too, was a user. So I know those highs: the enervating unfamiliar city, the excitement of the unintelligible, and the artificial promise of another self. And like all highs, they are temporary. So that’s why you start looking for them again.
It is so heartbreaking to read this comment now because Joel – who, like me, also spent the third decade of his life ever on the road – was able to break from the persistent temptation of novelty and personal re-invention to dedicate himself as a husband and father to his beautiful wife and daughter. And yet, on a rare trip during this new era of domesticity, Joel died in a freak accident at Hong Kong International airport, a place I’ve spent far too many hours over the past ten years.
Joel’s point – and the point of so many authors anthologized in this issue of Lapham’s Quarterly is that there is nothing noble in travel for travel’s sake.
Those who travel heedlessly from place to place, observing only their distance from each other and attending only to their accommodation at the inn at night, set out fools, and will certainly return so.
Lord Chesterfield, 1747
Veronica and I were walking down Kreschatik, Kiev’s main thoroughfare where she has lived almost her entire life. By this time I had already been in Ukraine’s capital for over a week and had walked up and down Kreschatik dozens of times, but here was Veronica pointing out all sorts of architectural, commercial, and urban planning details that I had failed to observe. I suppose that, tired and cold, I was mostly walking while staring at my shoes. What is important is not place, but perspective. You can travel to the ends of the earth (a certain breed of tourists pay more and more money to travel to corners more and more remote) and still walk around staring at your shoes, or you can walk through your own neighborhood and see it as you’ve never seen it before. The beauty of travel – as in painting, writing, and photography – is its tendency to awaken a keener sense of observation. But continuous travel without rest and recovery can also dull the senses.
I have just completed a forty-two-day voyage around my room. The fascinating observations I made and the endless pleasures I experienced along the way made me wish to share my travels with the public, and the certainty of having something useful to offer convinced me to do so.
One of the most interesting stories was Voyage Around My Room by Xavier de Maistre who wrote it while under house arrest for 42 days for dueling. Upon release he didn’t consider publishing the story until his older brother printed it without his permission. Susan Sontag called it “One of the most original and mettlesome autobiographical narratives ever written.”
This issue of Lapham’s Quarterly is probably my favorite to date. It took me three weeks to get through, but that is mostly because I read a majority of the texts twice or three times. I couldn’t agree more with Aldous Huxley who wrote in 1925:
It is delightful to read on the spot the impressions and opinions of tourists who visited a hundred years ago, in the vehicles and with the aesthetic prejudices of the period, the places which you are visiting now. The voyage ceases to be a mere tour through space; you travel through time and thought as well.
I said much the same a few months ago in an interview with Lesley Yarbrough of Brightkite. Thinking back on unpleasant memories of an alleyway scuffle in Caracas, I grinned at Juvenal’s quote from 125: “The traveler with nothing on him sings in the robber’s face.” Trading Pigeon English pleasantries with my fellow train passengers as we set out across eastern and southern Ukraine, I re-read Gertrude Stein’s celebration of social European train travel compared to the individualistic American ‘automobiling’.
It was also pure pleasure to re-read, perhaps for the dozenth time, Henry David Thoreau’s Walking, and his praise of unhurried sauntering. “The Poor in the Bus Depot” by the Brazilian poet Ledo Ivo will now always come to my mind whenever I am in a train or bus station, surrounded by the fragrant poverty of the poor returning with their burlap-wrapped bags to the slow life of the countryside. (Ivo has published 25 collections of poetry, only one of which has been translated into English.) A letter from Charles Darwin senior to his son trying to convince him to not travel aboard the HMS Beagle because it was a “wild scheme” that would be “disreputable to his character” gave me a good laugh.
Who has not known a journey to be over and dead before the traveler returns? The reverse is also true: many a trip continues long after movement in time and space have ceased. My own journey started long before I left and was over before I returned.
John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley, 1962
To be really cosmopolitan a man must be at home even in his home country.
T.W. Higginson 1879
When a traveler returneth home, let him not leave the countries where he hath traveled altogether behind him.
Francis Bacon, 1625
The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.
G.K. Chesterton, 1909
Because my own journeys so rarely have what could be considered a beginning or an end, they rarely feel like journeys at all. Not orbits, but rather floating in space.
But now a clear end to this journey has come into view. Or at least a significant pause. In mid-December I will board a flight to LAX, back to the California winter sun, her quiet beaches, the constant crashing of the Pacific Ocean into bleached sand. Empty life guard towers, sea gulls scoping for morning crumbs. Los Angeles will become home for a couple – or even a few – months. I imagine my first week to be pure recovery. To try and come up with some sort of personal narrative for all that has happened over the past year so that I can pack it away into the trickery of memory. So that I can handpick anecdotes which are meant to give some semblance of answer to inevitable and impossible questions: “So, how was it? What was your favorite place? Did anything surprise you?”
I will probably sink into a temporary depression upon my return; I almost always do, and never know why. But already I am looking forward to set foot in Los Angeles as though it were a foreign land. There is so much that I don’t know about the city because I have more or less taken it for granted as my own. Cyrus has already given me dozens of taco trucks to hunt out. Good Magazine constantly features lesser known corners of the City of Angels that I would have never thought existed. I will seek them out with a new eye in a familiar geography.