We are traveling 1,000 miles an hour around the center of the earth. The earth is traveling 67,000 miles an hour around the sun – nineteen miles per second. The sun and its solar system are spiraling around the center of the Milky Way galaxy at 550,000 miles an hour. The Milky Way galaxy is flying away from the center of the universe like everything else since the Big Bang, scattering everything outward in all directions.
Does it feel like you’re hurtling through space at nineteen miles per second? Of course not. Because we were born on the fly. We’re used to it. This is all we’ve ever known. We were born traveling.
The best DNA and archeological evidence shows that modern humans, Homo sapiens, walked out of Africa 50,000 - 80,000 years ago. Earlier hominid species existed long before that. In fact, just a few miles from my home in San Diego, definitive evidence of human activity dating back 130,000 years was recently discovered, shattering earlier estimates of humanity’s arrival in the New World by a factor of ten. For our entire evolution, humans were never much good at staying put. That distant horizon is far too alluring.
As we prepare for our summer excursions, a brief reflection on the philosophy of traveling is in order. Why are we called out from our domestic tranquility to rough it on the road? What lures us toward the unknown? And why, as soon as we get home, do we once again begin dreaming of far off lands? Maybe it’s because we are more at home on the road than we are at home. We have always been traveling.
Before you step out the door, traveling teaches you its first important lesson. It happens during the process of packing – the art of reducing your material life down to a few bags you can sling over your shoulder and drag behind you. When you wake up at home and get dressed, you have all of your clothes to choose from. On the road, you have only what you can carry. Packing reduces your life down to its essentials – it is an exercise in decisiveness and commitment. You don’t need to choose a specific outfit for every day of travel, but you do need to assemble a small number of things that work well together, and are suitable to the elements. You need to know where you’re going and adapt accordingly. Black tie dinner and the opera house? Rainforest camping? Back-pack train hopping through India? As in life, know yourself, know your environment, and know your cultural context. Make a decision and live with it.
The best trips, like the best lives, are well-balanced endeavors with just the right amount of planning and the just the right amount of spontaneity. Over-planning turns your trip into a chore, death-marching from one fixed appointment to the next. Under-planning creates even more stress as you squander precious vacation time navigating simple arrangements that could’ve been better handled from home. As in life, failing to plan is planning to fail. But nobody likes a task-master either. Leave open, unstructured days sandwiched between your plane tickets and hotel reservations. You never know. You might find yourself passing through a village that barely earned a mention in the guide book. You walk its cobblestoned streets and stop into an empty café at the end of the day. At a window table, sipping the best espresso you have ever had in your life, watching the alpenglow bathe the rooftops in gold, a wordless recognition passes through you even though you have never been here before. You know you can’t leave. Not yet. Not today. You find a room at the local inn. That night a festival in the town square brings out the entire village. You mingle with the crowd, hearing in their voices and seeing in their eyes something familiar, something true, something real. Among these strangers you feel a warmth and belonging that eludes you back home. The strangeness of the world takes off its mask and reveals its oneness. You can’t plan moments like this. Nor can you seek them. They find you only when you aren’t looking, and only if you leave openings. Mystery and beauty cannot enter where there is no space.
Some of us write travel journals. A lot of us take pictures or videos. These are all wonderful ways to interact with your experiences, mold them into art, or at least record your memories for later enjoyment. But those of us who journal or photograph our travels are well aware of the subtle and insidious effect these processes have on the very experiences they supposedly celebrate and enshrine. I call it the camera effect.
If you love taking pictures as much as I do, you find yourself constantly scanning the environment for the next shot. Standing in the middle of Yosemite Valley, instead of experiencing Yosemite Valley, you’re obsessed with how to best capture an image of Yosemite Valley. Instead of controlling the camera, the camera controls you.
At their best photography and travel journaling connect us to a place and create lasting works of beauty and value. At their worst they rob of us the very experience we traveled so far to enjoy. As a photographer I’m always cognizant of the light – its direction, its texture, and its impact on color saturation. Atmospheric haze, shadow, and a hundred other variables crowd my mind. I’m always scanning for interesting compositions, angles, and juxtapositions. I’m seeking the emblematic image – something that will capture the entire zeitgeist of a place and time. In other words, I’m enfolded in layer after layer of insulating interpretation – stuck in my head essentially – instead of really truly being here now. Sigh.
Same with journaling. Often in the midst of an experience I think to myself, this is how I’ll describe this tomorrow morning over coffee when I write my journal entry about this, and standing in the middle of Versailles, I’m lost in a descriptive word-cloud about Versailles. What a shame. Zen Buddhism often reminds us of the dangers of getting lost in abstraction, and how the mediation of thought blankets the immediacy of life with numbing distance. As 17th century Japanese poet Matsuo Basho so poignantly put it: “Even in Kyoto/Hearing the cuckoo’s cry/I long for Kyoto.”
The purpose of travel, and of the well-lived life, is to free us of our complacency, rip away our mooring, and cast us adrift into the wonder of it all. Only when we leave the safety of the shore do we experience the immensity of the sea. The sailboat was not made for the harbor.