One of the benefits of travel, whether near or far, is the prospect of renewal. Besides getting from point A to point B, travel offers unique opportunities for seeing life a little differently. Once on a plane, train, ship, bus or automobile, for example, the traveller becomes a sort of willing prisoner. While some passengers turn to amusements to pass the time, others find the act of travel opens the mind to fresh perspectives. It's like being in suspended animation. On a long trip, one may become melancholy, thinking about the past, reflecting on loneliness and failures; but at other times, ideas flow like a waterfall with new resolutions, plans for the future, and ambitions. Travel can be as much about measuring oneself as it is about physically getting to a new destination.
Not everyone, however, sees it the same way. John Steinbeck, winner of the Nobel prize for literature, in his narrative about a trip around the Baja Peninsula in 1941 (The Log from The Sea of Cortez), appears to take the view that people do not escape themselves, no matter how much they long to travel. Describing the scene on the departure from the port of San Diego, Steinbeck writes:
"Strangers came to the pier and stared at us and small boys dropped on our decks like monkeys. Those quiet men who always stand on piers asked where we were going and when we said, 'To the Gulf of California,' their eyes melted with longing, they wanted to go so badly. They were like the men and women who stand about airports and railroad stations; they want to go away, and most of all they want to go away from themselves. For they do not know that they would carry their globes of boredom with them wherever they went. One man on the pier who wanted to participate made sure he would be allowed to cast us off, and he waited at the bow line for a long time. Finally he got the call and he cast off the bow line and ran back and cast off the stern line; then he stood and watched us pull away and he wanted very badly to go."
I admire the detail in the scene, but I respectfully disagree with the great Steinbeck. While I think it's true that travel is often simply a temporary diversion from our daily problems, I don't think a trip leaves us unchanged: those of us who may be carrying around those "globes of boredom" can free ourselves of them.
On a flight to Toronto, I find communion with Timothy Taylor's thoughts on the subject in Air Canada's enRoute magazine. Taylor has written a series of travel articles called "The New Simplicity." He opens one of them like this:
"In travel, while you don't want to rush, moments of real speed can be exhilarating. I mean those times during a trip when you can feel the globe rotating under your feet, the landscape transforming before your eyes. Liftoff out of Vancouver, on a trans-Pacific flight, is particularly evocative of this sensation for me. The ground melts away behind, the scenery blurring and morphing. The sea opens up under the wheels, and there is a sudden sense of transference, of life moving from the known to the possible. And when the landing gear folds home, with that light but comforting thud, a point is sealed: We're all in transit, in physical suspension, mid-teleportation. When the flight is over - I feel this every time, with a sudden and intense certainty - a new world of unpredictable possibilities will begin to make itself known."
Taylor finds this experience is not limited to planes. Describing the high-speed trains in Japan, he makes this observation: "... the trains here often feel less like a linear mechanical system and more like a quantum one, a series of black holes sucking people out of one reality and releasing them some distance away in the midst of another."
Back when travel was more of an "occasion," before the days of x-ray machines, line-ups, and general cattle-herding, a voyage was much more likely to offer moments of authentic conversation, fresh perspectives and even zen-like clarity.
And yet, despite all the modern-day hassles, remarkably, it still does. All that is required on our part is a little awareness and letting go of the shackles of the mind, even only for a minute or two. It's well worth it.
Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind. ~Seneca
1. Description of the Log from the Sea of Cortez.
2. enRoute magazine. "Eastern Promises. The New Simplicity, part three: Betting on Buddha," by Timothy Taylor.
3. Taylor's website is here.