The Meaning of Travel

Travel - Every adventure has its humble beginnings. I grew up in a small town on the rocky coast Of New England. Living near the water was always something that I appreciated, and because of that, I developed the idea that a person’s sense of belonging to a physical place is a sacred thing. During high school, marine science classes put me in tune with my immediate
surroundings, while self-conducted experiments like swimming in hurricanes educated me as to how powerful natural forces could be. Knowing that at any moment I could be swept away by the sea put things in perspective. When it came time to choose where I would go after high school, being near the water was of the utmost importance. The coast was the backdrop for my childhood and the place where I was first introduced to the idea of adventures.

Coming to New York City at the age of eighteen turned my world upside down. Despite
the fact that Manhattan is an island on the same Atlantic Ocean that I grew up on, I was forced to redesign the concepts I had about home and belonging. I was now in a jungle. Gone were the soothing sounds of mother ocean; this new chapter in my life was accompanied by screeching breaks, police sirens and garbage trucks. This confusing transition caused me to seek out calm enclaves that reminded me of the natural world I had left behind. My attempt to understand the city was marred by incessant comparisons to smaller towns and seeing it only in the context of where I grew up.

After two years in New York, I traveled to Australia where I had the opportunity to reflect on New York from very far away. Sydney was the happy medium between the town and 2
the big city. Though there are parts that are bustling like New York, there were beautiful parks and beaches that broke up the relentless pace of Australia’s biggest metropolis. Going to Australia and finding complete happiness convinced me that through travel came a new understanding about myself. While I was there, I started to miss New York like it was home, not just a place where I went to school. The experience gave me a new perspective on life and a deeper understanding of the importance of traveling.

Travel is essentially any exploration of unknown places. All my fears about missing out on adventures by moving to the city were obliterated by my travel experiences. Wandering new continents and meeting other travelers illustrated a strange, but seemingly inherent nomadic tendency that exists in many people. Many times, exposure to travel imagery in magazines and television creates pre-conceived ideas about places that might be unrecognizable to others.

To what effect does preconceived notions about the places the traveler goes to shape how he perceives those places? Can one escape this subjectivity and really come to know a foreign place? Surely, the natives of any given travel destination know their country and cities better than anyone else, but why is it that sometimes a traveler seems to see more about a place than the native? How is our nomadic tendency related to our capability to travel faster and further than before? It seems now that our desires to drive fast cars, to be “on the road” and to amass frequent flyer miles illustrate the overall yearning for travel in contemporary society. Furthermore, the undeniable presence of car-oriented places like parking garages, shopping malls, motels and drive-thru a restaurant on American highways testifies to the fact that people want to move.

Is our propensity for these kinds of places a sign of our desire to be a nomadic people? Are we now living in a new age of exploration and discovery? 3 In The Song lines, Bruce Chatwin travels the Australian outback and examines the connection Aboriginals have with the natural world. For Australia’s native population, land is the most sacred thing in life; it tells the story of their past. As an Englishman, Chatwin is intrigued by the way Aboriginals defy white conventions and wander the expansive continent in a seemingly pointless manner. He learns that their “walkabouts” are in fact a way of passing ancestral histories onto younger generations and of connecting with deceased relatives.

Destroying any natural environment is like chopping down entire branches off a family tree.
Aboriginals haunt buildings that are established on invisible “song lines” where their ancestors reside. Their inability to settle down and adjust to fixed schedules or permanent dwellings baffled British colonists and led to dire circumstances when their world became “civilized.” The A Song line raises the issue of whether human beings are essentially nomadic people. Though the Aboriginal way of life is incomprehensible to civilized cultures, they seem happiest when roaming the outback. Is Chatwin right when he claims that the root of human unhappiness is based on the fact that society expects us to “settle down”?

While studying in Australia, I had my first encounter with Jean Baudrillard’s America. Reading about my own country on the other side of the world allowed me to think and observe in a way that I couldn’t manage while in New York. In a sense, I had to be far away to realize the influence America has on the world. Conversely, Baudrillard is a foreign traveler who has always acknowledged the American influence on Western culture, but never understood it. He studies Americans in the same way anthropologists might study cannibals. His outside perspective allows him to break down day-to-day trivialities and describe them in a way that makes our behavior seems strange and unreasonable. Baudrillard’s satire of life on the Los Angeles freeway reminded me of ideas put forth in Geography of Nowhere by James Howard 4 Kunstler.

While Baudrillard uses highway etiquette to characterize human interactions in California, Kunstler damns suburbs for creating these highways that make people dependant on cars. The two authors have a similar obsession with automobiles and the way they affect the United States. They both would agree that the automobile not only changed the American landscape, but it also changed the way Americans live. Despite the fact that Kunstler is an American, his road trip teaches him many new things about his own country. In his discussion of American cities, he illustrates the fact that no matter how far we’ve evolved from living nomadic lives we are once again in constant motion. Much of his cynicism is directed towards suburban areas and how they distance people from not only natural environments, but also other human beings. In this context, is our connection to automobile travel isolating us from other human beings?

In Walden, Thoreau heads to the woods as a way of rebelling against his countries irresponsible ways and to get in touch with the natural world. While his travels are only a short distance into the backyard of his mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau learns many things about himself and delights in his ability to manage without the use of money or many other trappings of the civilized world. The way he strips his life down to the utter basics is inspiring and, in many ways, very primitive. By separating himself from other people and tramping through the wilderness, Thoreau is able to reexamine his place in society and strengthen his sense of belonging to the natural world. Though it’s not possible for everyone to disappear into the woods like this, Thoreau sets an example of how people can avoid mindless conformity by living by their own design. His retreat forces him to understand what it takes to survive in the wild. It seems that in New York City this type of retreat is impossible, but there’s also less 5 pressure to conform than most other places in America. It is interesting to think about how Thoreau might pursue his transcendental leanings in a place like New York.

In On the Road, Jack Kerouac depicts the modern, car-obsessed American scoffed at by
Kunstler and Baudrillard, but he’s using the highway as a way of chasing his every last thought and emotion. Kerouac’s hero Sal Paradise uses the expansive American freeways to experience everything he can, and through his incessant discussions with Dean Moriarity he draws many conclusions about his position in life. One thing that Paradise has trouble working out is his conflicting feelings towards settling down. While he is fascinated by Dean Moriarity’s wild, nomadic lifestyle, he fears that it will result in homelessness or even death. At the same time, he is easily lured to go on the road no matter how involved he is with school or personal relationships. There are many times when it’s hard to tell exactly why he’s so down and out.

Does he want to stay or leave? In many ways Sal Paradise would be the ultimate conundrum for someone like Bruce Chatwin. His life is like a cycle where the pressure of life becomes so great that he starts wandering, but then finds sadness on the open road. Does Sal Paradise travel to escape or to learn more about the world by experiencing as much as possible? In Four Voyages, Christopher Columbus faces dangerous storms and the impossible task of crossing the Atlantic for the glory of Spain. With each journey he perseveres despite tremendous odds against him, yet he eventually loses his grip on reality. In the course of ten years, Columbus goes from heroic discoverer of the New World, to a man obsessed with his own misconceptions. His inability to let go of preconceived notions about where he is essentially gets in the way of his ability to learn about the West Indies. Instead of discovering the Caribbean Islands, he conquers the cultures that existed on them. His explorations are not based purely on the pursuit of knowledge; they are tainted by greed and false impressions. Columbus’ inability 6 to readjust his sense of place causes him to lose his footing as the world’s premier discoverer.

As an explorer he succeeded in opening the door to a new age in discovery but his failure to acknowledge his mistakes had disastrous effects. What would the world be like now if Christopher Columbus acknowledged his true location and treated Caribbean natives better? Would he be humiliated if he returned to Ferdinand and Isabella bragging about the true resources found in the Caribbean instead of what he wanted to find? Columbus’s voyages illustrate an element of travel that can easily ruin any adventure. His expectations for what he wanted to find made him blind to the true value of the West Indies.

In The Song lines, Chatwin includes passages from his journals where over the years he collected quotations about travel and movement. Many of them are relevant to my discussion. Here are some of my favorites: "Our Nature lies in movement; complete calm is death (Pascal, Pensees)"."For a long time I prided myself I would possess every possible country (Rimbaud)". "Its good to collect things, but it is better to go on walks (Anatole France)". "The Wayless Way, where the Sons of God lose themselves and, at the same time, find themselves (Meister Eckhart)". "I am a citizen of the world (Diogenes)". "Life is a bridge. Cross over it, but builds no house on it (Indian Proverb)". "But where there is danger there grows also what saves (Friedrich Holderlin, Patmos)". "When I rest my feet my mind also ceases to function (J. G. Hamann)". Perhaps some of these quotations will be useful touchstones for further discussion at my colloquium.

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