I’ve been transcribing two boxes of travel journals I keep stashed under my desk. I’m far from finished (deciphering bus-bounced scrawl on coffee-stained pages takes time), but a clear pattern has emerged. Wherever I was making my entry – geographically or mentally – one key part of the journey consistently escaped record: the return trip.
This gap kind of surprised me. Travel writers often get asked about their dream choice for a one-way ticket anywhere. Many of us tend to tout the exotic first, but my answer is something you won’t see in 1000 Places to See Before You Die: home.
Home, I think, is the ultimate travel destination – and sort of the point of it all. “Home,” of course, can mean different things to different people.
First-generation immigrants or army brats may grow up less rooted to a specific place. Pico Iyer, whose stab at “Why We Travel” remains one of the most readily cited justifications for this crazy thing we do, notes how even though he was born to Indian parents, in England, and then moved to America at age seven, he doesn’t feel he can really call himself an Indian, an American, or an Englishman.
Perhaps I have a stronger sense of “home,” even if that definition has blurred for me in the 20 years since I left Oklahoma.
I spent my entire childhood in Tulsa, in one house (with a double-decker fort in the back), and have vivid memories of playing sprinkler Wiffle ball with my friends as the swell of cicadas buzzed in the summer heat. And so I still say “I’m from Oklahoma,” even if my home address – i.e. where I hang the hat, keep my stuff, watch the telly – has shifted from San Francisco to London to New York City and now to Portland, Oregon.
That sense of “home” that I carry around with me has played a huge role in my life as a traveler for two reasons. One is obvious.
We can’t really appreciate home until we leave it; travel is the thing that gives us perspective on where we’re from.
In The Future of Nostalgia, Svetlana Boym writes that “the vantage point of a stranger informs the native idyll.” (This is part of the reason why I remain skeptical of the “travel like a local” craze.)
With travel, we all have the opportunity to return home as strangers – just as nobody recognized Diggory Venn in Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native, or writer Ted Conover, who spent many months riding trains with hoboes, came back to Denver so ragged his sister didn’t know who he was. (I know the feeling: my mom didn’t recognize me when I returned from Guatemala with a shaved head and a long beard.)
Confounding friends and family is fun, sure, but the real point is not that we may look different, but that we may begin to see and feel differently.
Conover noted at the end of his book Rolling Nowhere how, once he had settled back into his Denver routine, he “would hear train whistles across town…that companions could not hear even if they stopped to listen.” His Denver had grown and changed.
Our curiosity and engagement are piqued when we travel, and that doesn’t just turn off when we return. At least it shouldn’t. I’ve found that if I hear someone swirling ice cubes around in their Big Gulp at a Tulsa 7-Eleven, I think of the rickshaw driver hauling a huge dust-coated chunk of ice in Saigon, and how I’ve noticed that we don’t have tangles of power lines tangled atop street corner posts the way they do in Quito.
The second reason: Though my travels have given me multiple points of reference that continue to change me and how I relate to the familiar, home lends perspective to the places I visit as a traveler, too. I think of it as a game I like to call “finding home abroad.”
I never wanted to be nomadic. (To me, experiencing only the different would be like a comedy without the straight man.) My plan, 20 years ago or so, had been simply to travel a lot and live abroad a few times. Now, while I travel, I imagine how my life would be in places I never seriously plan to live in. I check real estate listings in Montpelier, France, or Beijing, and love traveling with commuters however they travel wherever I am — on a combi-bus in Tuxtla Gutierrez, on a tram on the outskirts of Moscow.
Jorge Luis Borges wrote that James Joyce’s Ulysses returned home only so he could look back on his journey. Like a Polaroid picture, the meaning of our travel experiences often takes shape after the fact, once we’ve settled back into the familiar to reflect.
I find that this holds true even when I’m road tripping in the U.S. The Great Plains aren’t everyone’s favorite landscape; most see the flat, subtly rolling fields as justification for their reputation as America’s “fly-over zone.” But once I get past them, climbing up the Rockies or navigating the dense forests of Pennsylvania, I start to appreciate the – don’t laugh – majesty of those big skies and distant horizons.
This reminds me of a cheeky little writer, Xavier de Maistre, who took to his sleeping quarters during the French Revolution as a home-bound Magellan. His resulting “travelogue,” Voyage Around My Room, is only partly serious. As Alain de Botton put it in The Art of Travel, de Maistre is simply trying to “shake us from our passivity” – to get us to engage with the places we think we know so well.
In the same work, De Botton goes on to note that “The pleasure we derive from journey is perhaps dependent more on the mindset with which we travel than on the destination we travel to.”
That’s a mindset that can only form abroad – like a muscle built from exercise — and that finds its greatest purpose once back home.