Since childhood I have always felt the urge to get away as far as I could as often as I could. It’s possible that I carry deep within me something of the gypsy. For me, summer heralds the chance of getting out of my office and classrooms and tuning my ears to the hum of the miles as they fly by. Whether it’s finding myself driving down a thousand anonymous blue highways or traffic-choked interstates, distance and life on the road brings with it the promise of something new and exciting.
In The Sheltering Sky Paul Bowles marks the distinction between the traveler and the tourist this way: the traveler is someone who travels for a limited time, and therefore knows that soon he or she will be returning “home.” Alternatively, the traveler is that person who travels for an indefinite amount of time and does not really know if he or she will return home. I’ve never been one who traveled for the sake of relaxation and sun-soaked fun. Instead, I’ve sought the rougher side of travel for the experience of feeling what it might be like to leave everything familiar behind and deliberately place myself in the midst of the uncanny. That’s what travel really is: a way to lose oneself among unknown, but strangely familiar people and landscapes. To date I’ve never come away disappointed.
Traveling alone can be one of the best ways to sink into oneself and really experience what it means to travel. I am not talking about business trips, but real travel that leads one off the beaten path, to lands where the food is as foreign as the language. For the most part, the days are busy enough to keep the solitary traveler occupied, but when night comes, and one finds oneself slinking back to the loneliness of an empty hotel room, well, that’s when you know you are on the path toward travel. What I mean is, that while traveling alone one can make all kinds of contacts, but at night, alone in your room with a bottle of whiskey or scotch, and the television or a book, the loneliness can be immense. If the television is off then chances are the hum of the air conditioner is the only sound; that’s if you are lucky enough to find a quiet hotel.
Driving can be just as lonely, but often pays off just as big. My best ideas always come when I find myself alone in the car driving for hours to some destination with just the hum of the miles as they go by one by one. Stopping at any number of rest stops of gas stations offer only a temporary reprieve from the solitude of the road. Americans drive much more than Europeans and Asians, and our identities are fundamentally tied to our automobiles. As irresponsible as it is today to just get in the car and just drive (the rising cost of gas, the carbon footprint we leave behind), it’s still one of the most joyful activities I can think of, and one that I am not ready to give up.
This summer I intend to travel to some familiar and not so familiar places. As a result, the frequency with which I write on this blog will decrease considerably. In fact, it already has. Travel is a chance for me to get out into the world and, more importantly, outside of my own head. I spend so much of my time reading, writing, and teaching (to say nothing of what it’s like to be a husband and a father), that I forget that there is a world out there. The purpose of travel is not to arrive, but to depart. Travelers are always on the move, always looking for the next town or city. Travelers are the ones who have the dust of the road caked into their skin, the smell of the trains clinging to his clothes and hair. Travelers are the ones who, for whatever reason, feel the need to spend large amounts of time away from home.
Despite all of this, it is really nice to return and find your loved ones waiting for you at the front door.