Sailing high above the Atlantic, the roar of twin jet engines pushes the sun farther and farther behind. Through the porthole the horizon bisects sheets of blue into air and water. Rorschach splotches of white clouds stretch into invisibility and refracted light causes me to squint faintly at nothing in particular. Headphones repeat the same old music. The songs that are true are the songs they don’t play: I’m leaving on a jet plane, here I go again on my own, and so on.
They say that people who suffer from wanderlust are in a perpetual state of either looking for something that doesn’t exist, or running from something they can never get away from. My experience tells me it’s not a question of either/or but rather a statement of both and how much.
But what an obvious and patronizing statement. If it’s wisdom, it’s a pithy wisdom. We are always in a state of running away from something and running towards something else. Always.
This is true of almost anything or anyone in life. It’s just far more apparent in someone who organizes their life by flight itineraries.
I’m no exception. Both are true, I’m running from something and looking for something else. And travel is my primary vehicle.
One way I know is because my trips home are always bittersweet. Coming home is bittersweet. Leaving again is bittersweet. The good ole’ US of A is predictable, both in its spiritual relief and the now all-too-familiar reverse culture shock: Blankets of clothing draped around lumbering bodies; faces imprinted with lines from a relentless strain of daily privileged existence; efficiency and economy and dependable tip-top service for which so much the aforementioned health, both emotional and physical, is sacrificed.
The offensive personal intrusions in the name of “security.” The sense of entitlement always on display, including my own. The blood-fueled sports. The gloriously salted and sweetened food, synthetic yet disgustingly delicious.
The empty and meaningless statements which pass for “courtesy” and “hospitality.” The rude and cold statements which pass for “respect” and “friendship.”
The bad tattoos.
A population which is at once both surprisingly cool and rational, yet hopelessly addicted to the dramatic and inconsequential.
More locally: The gluttony of Tex-Mex and Texas BBQ in my hometown. The laugh and embraces of people who have known me for half my life, or in some cases my whole life.
The same old beer in the same old bars, now with just newer music. The hulking pickup trucks with all of the metal shit attached to the front (what the hell is that for anyway?).
The smiles of aging parents. The loud commercials and logic-defying claims that every store simultaneously has the lowest prices. The labored attempts at disproving who you once were, only to end up confirming it once more.
The traffic, the fucking traffic. And the sociological stupidity of whoever invented the idea of a suburb.
The surprising amount of homelessness for such a rich society. The self-defeating ostentation of people who spend all of their money on things which only isolate them further. The annual reminder of how much I don’t miss having a car.
Christopher Hitchens wrote that anyone who is able to should make a point each year to visit a country where people are less fortunate than themselves. “If it doesn’t prevent you from getting fat,” he said, “it will at least prevent you from getting soft.”
To me, being soft is being complacent: the state of having nothing to look forward to and nothing to move on from. I fail to see how a lack of complacency is necessarily a bad state of being.
But there is a problem with wanderlust.
The more places you go, the less any single one is likely to satisfy you. As with any purely external form of satisfaction, there’s a cruel diminishing return to it. Yesterday’s exotic is today’s bore. Yesterday’s news is today’s history. It’s the core of any addictive behavior: you need more and more and more, until one day you need less. Or even worse, you die never having known enough.
The more you see and experience, the more you see the overlapping of personality across culture, you see the universality of daily human existence, the common denominator of nature, and you understand that joy and relationships too, are location-independent.
You (hopefully) begin to understand the reward for any journey must be the journey itself or nothing at all — the moments of airport tedium as well as the exaltation of the world’s highest monuments; the anxious anticipation of the unknown as well as the jaded boredom of routine; the vanity of indulging in prestige and class as well as the humility of the living among the most downtrodden and unfortunate. All are valid and necessary. All are their own steps upon the same path of your life.
Compulsive traveling is often criticized for being futile; i.e., like living life on a treadmill, always moving but never getting anywhere. I disagree. I would compare it more to a race where the farther you go, the farther away the finish line gets. On the one hand you never do reach the finish line, but no one can claim you didn’t get anywhere.
Traveling must be done with a certain attitude, a zest for the new, a silent pact to oneself to every day be better and make better than what came before, and to leverage the world for that noble endeavor. You can fit this in any suitcase and unpack it in any hotel. It’s available to you in any circumstance, independent of any judgment, clique or jurisdiction. It transcends the folds in space-time.
Which leads me to another obnoxious but pithy piece of wisdom: “Wherever you go, there you are.”
This one is also true and it is also patronizing. You can never escape yourself. But you can never find yourself either.
You just are.
You exist and I exist and so does the world. And whatever you choose to do with this miraculous state of affairs, do it with the opposite of complacence, do it with an existential lust. Run away and run toward, at all times. Run in such a way that it stokes the flame and fire of feeling and reminding, that you are alive.