“Getting on the road” are four magical words. In spite of the challenges of packing, unpacking, waiting in lines and being uncertain about all of the details, the excitement of the unknown is addictive. Why? Some very different answers come to mind.
First, while traveling, every minute is out of the ordinary. Routine things – like going to sleep, eating breakfast, deciding what to do for fun – are chances for novelty. Eyes, ears and taste buds are on alert when away from home. When I imagine myself traveling, I anticipate being surprised by the unexpected.
Another benefit comes when past moments in our lives are summoned up. Repeated trips to many favorite cities bring back memories of people with whom I traveled; I hear their clever observations and see their faces, even though many are no longer alive. Parts of the past pop up when visiting a new city. When visiting Valley Forge, suddenly, I was again a beginning teacher in Los Angeles. I remembered trying to convey the brutal challenges of the winter of 1777 to my seventh-graders, many of whom had never seen snow. Pictures in our textbook re-emerge – to them, snow looked like sand. Remote memories splash up during travels.
Travel provides opportunities to follow natural curiosities down new roads. Does visiting the birthplace of Rembrandt, or the studio of Jackson Pollock, help explain their lives and their work? How would going to the history museum in Raleigh stimulate new understandings of the South, before and during the Civil War? Although likely we find ourselves in a new city for a specific reason, our travels give us permission to explore. When I went to see the Clinton Presidential Library and Museum in Little Rock, I expected to re-enter the era of the late 20th century. Little did I expect to be pulled into 1937, by a show of haunting photographs of residents of the Arkansas State Penitentiary at a nearby local museum run by the public library.
Travel can force us outside of our comfort zone. Even with a map, getting lost is inevitable while traveling. How we cope with rising panic, recover our bearings and continue to pursue our original travel goals gives us a glimpse of life on the edge. Humor – which can initially seem as remote as home, while lost – can become a partner in a terrifying travel moment. Asking for help opens us up to the kindness of strangers.
When taking a walk our first night in Venice more than a decade ago, my husband and I thought we were following an easy loop between restaurant and hotel. However, the farther we went, the more we realized we were lost. I still remember how scary it was. Several men were standing under a streetlight laughing and talking. We approached them, and my funny pantomimes helped them understand our predicament. Although we couldn’t speak each others’ languages, they gave us directions to efficiently return to our hotel.
Finally, after travel, we return home with new eyes. Sleeping in our own bed again – delicious. Things we took for granted – food in our refrigerator, making coffee, getting together with friends – are all the more appreciated. In talking about the trip, or sharing photos, we revisit our recent experiences, all the more vivid when we describe them to others. And, soon, it will be time to plan the next trip.