On the way
I’ve never traveled frequently, nor lived very far from where I was raised, here in Sonoma County. My early years were spent among the apple trees and dairy farms south of Sebastopol and out along the coastline, from the gently rolling hills of Bodega Bay up to the high cliffs and tall redwoods of Fort Ross.
I kept close to the woods and streams I knew. For me, then, beyond wandering about the countryside most afternoons, travel was only the annual visit to my grandparents’ home in Berkeley a few weeks each summer, and that one road trip we took, when I was very young, to stay during the last year of The War with my father’s family in Oklahoma.
My brothers are seasoned travelers, cosmopolitan citizens of the world, as comfortable in foreign countries as I am here. John had circled the entire planet when he was young, and settled finally in Australia to be near China and Southeast Asia. Charles, on the other hand, frequents Europe, and resides there whenever he can. Languages, for them, seem as easily taken on and removed as clothing, as needed, and unfamiliar customs are as easily assumed.
Many of my friends are also great travelers. This past year David and Rava visited Mayan ruins in Central America, hiked around Land’s End in Cornwall from St. Ives to Penzance, and toured the French Polynesian Islands. Randy and Sarah, on the other hand, haunted Paris, and the wine country of Burgundy and Bordeaux. These are vigorous and generous people, whose view of the world is steeped in boundless fascination and gratitude.
“We had done a great deal of reading about the Mayans before we went,” David explained to me, “but actually seeing the ruins of their cities made everything more real and immediate.” He then added, “I continue to be amazed by both the diversity among human cultures and the similarities between them. It makes me happy to know that human creativity has so many ways of expressing itself, and that this creativity is not limited to one people or one region.”
My friends bring me gifts from other places – stories, souvenirs, and most important, the exuberance of an expanded view of this life we live. I know they also bring their own gifts to those places that they visit – the gifts of their interest, their educated attention, and their ardent appreciation. They remind me to appreciate appreciation – and its fruit: gratitude.
This human mind we have, it seems, is always wanting to find something new. Science constantly discovers things unexpected, anomalies that tell us we will never quite know everything, and that we need to constantly change our opinions of reality. Seeking to embrace something larger, we will always find ourselves embraced within something even larger.
And yet, I once believed I did not need to travel, because the entire world seems to come here. Outside my little cabin I strike up fascinating conversations with people of all ages, from Europe, the Near and Far East, Central and South America, even Scandinavia and Africa. But these, I realize, are still a select group of very fortunate people, and not necessarily representative of those who wait to be met elsewhere. I almost envy the serendipity rewarding my more adventurous friends, who learn so much more than I can ever imagine on my own.
But, as I found this past year, there is a certain cost to travel: it involves great effort, and often great difficulty. Airports must be (I think) the most uncomfortable of architectural environments – outside of prisons. They provide a theater in which there is no escape from being part of the performance; we are always placed on exhibit, in a wide variety of the most uncomfortable chairs. And everybody else, like me, is simply waiting, surrounded by people so busily involved in traveling anywhere else. And, as my daughter reminds me, there can be those vagaries of weather that leave us there waiting for another flight, another day.
Traveling to Australia this past year brought all this quickly home to me. From Los Angeles to Melbourne, even as a non-stop event, the flight took an entire, surreal, 17-hour night, suspended over the deepest, darkest sea on earth. Our little metal box (I thought, rather morbidly) would certainly be lost forever down there. And during that long flight I was intimately exposed to the far reaches of human nature – what children (and their parents) are capable of in extremis, and what others will do in the darkened cabin when safely anonymous.
Still, I’ve found, the value of travel is worth the cost – and that going away is not really going away. To know what the world is made of, and so what I am made of, is never as clear to me as when I find myself stumbling into a new place, and know that I am fully there, in that new here.