Wide open, uninhabited spaces cure many of the mind’s ailments. Maybe this is because the great outdoors is one of the few remaining realms of real quiet, and thus offer the adventurous traveler a rare chance at absolute stillness. Standing before the endless desert, an isolated beach, or under jagged mountains, even a real loud mouth feels compelled to shut up for a minute and listen… not just to the subtle sounds of nature, but to himself, which is important (see #16). Break away from the well-traveled path for long enough and you might even find a pretty place to sit with no cellphone reception (gasp!) and be truly immersed in your surroundings, if only for a minute or two.
Most of us don’t live anywhere near such a location, so travel is great, if only for this reason. If you get out of town once in awhile and seek this sort of thing out — at least in my book — you’re on the right track.
And of course, travel is really handy in the complete opposite sense. Crowded streets and cities convey an urgent sense of life and diverse opportunity that can’t be found in the countryside. Not unlike education, these are the kinds of things that everyone can benefit from, especially if you leave behind the comforts of home and commit to immersing yourself in an unfamiliar culture. That’s a sure-fire route to multilateralism, which Americans are increasingly lacking.
But you really don’t have to get out that much to be well-traveled, at least in spirit. Once in awhile, eat at some wildly strange ethnic restaurant, stroll through a nice park with no agenda, force a conversation with a cab driver, read a “stranger in a strange land” book like On the Road, or listen to some new, challenging music. It’s not the same as getting your passport stamped, but amazingly close.
All that being said, I’m cautious of those who can never seem to stop traveling or planning the next big trip. Part of what makes travel such a catalyst for growth is that you have to leave home behind, along with whatever identity you’ve made for yourself there — but then eventually return home, face yourself, and decide how to move forward. People that get travel crazed… I can’t help but think it’s sometimes a way of keeping that identity at a distance and perpetually stalling the very hard and important task of figuring out who you are and what is important. Well-traveled folks are usually well-adjusted, but at least from my experience, the over-traveled are quite the opposite. There’s more to a good life than going on vacation.
© 2012, Ian Mathias