Today I’m writing from a city that is strange to me. It’s big enough for wine bars and microbreweries, museums and traffic jams. It’s in the U.S. In fact, it’s in my own general region of the country, with the same warmish winter weather I left behind. Everybody speaks English. Everybody spends dollars.
This city doesn’t have a particular culture, something that sets it apart from others of a similar size. It’s not remarkable.
And since I’ve characterized it this way, I guess I shouldn’t call it by its name. I don’t want to offend anyone. Maybe it’s your hometown.
Or maybe you’ve never visited this city before and think you’d like to. I don’t want to make you second-guess your plans. Then again, maybe you’ve already been here. Maybe you don’t remember.
This city isn’t New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz, or Philadelphia, the birthplace of the nation. There are no beaches, or mountains, or canyons, or deserts, just buildings of the type you might see anywhere.
There is no “something special” that attracted me to the city. I came because Larry was sent for work and I tagged along, me and the dogs, to keep him company and have a little change of scenery. I had an itch for the unfamiliar.
And being here scratches that a little, even though in many ways, it’s just like being in any other place. There’s an Appleby’s, and a Best Buy, and a McDonald’s, of course, though I won’t be visiting any of them.
I’m staying in a Marriott, not a hostel. Not a chalet. Not a lodge on a mountaintop high up in the Alps. But in spite of the familiar, there’s a strangeness to the city, too. It isn’t home.
There’s a disorientation. The route from the airport to the hotel is different from the route between the Atlanta airport and my home. That’s why I missed a turn, and had to make a U-ey, to get re-oriented to my route. The “home” is different too, a hotel room, indistinguishable from so many rooms in so many similar towns, but very, very different from the tiny, quirky fish camp I call home.
Where is my room? Where do I park? What time is breakfast? Is there a toaster?
And where is Whole Foods? I’ve run out of pistachios and I must have them now.
The GPS gets me there. She’s the Sherpa of the cities, sure-footed, short on small talk. With her leading the way, I drive to Whole Foods, park in front, and go inside. I grab a cart and turn right, then left, down the aisle where…
What’s this? No bulk bins? No giant tubs of plastic for dispensing grains and beans? No pistachios?
You’ve got to be kidding me! This is not going to cut it. I need my nuts!
But wait. I’m in a strange city. And, even though I’m in a place I know well, I’m in a place I don’t know at all.
The bins here have migrated to a different part of the store. I find them, eventually. I fill a bag, write down the PLU, and hand the cashier my credit card. I know the routine.
The GPS guides me back to my room where I crack the nuts open, and snack while I watch the news. Then I curl up in bed and open my book.
It’s a wonderful book, Bewildered Travel: The Sacred Quest for Confusion, and since I’ve been so recently bewildered, it’s a perfect read for me. I recommend it to you too, next time you’re in a strange city. For your sake, I hope that’s soon.
The book’s author, Fredrick J. Ruf, makes a case for the value of disorientation, the kind we experience whenever we hit the road. He thinks losing our bearings helps us find our way. I’m not talking about finding your way to the pistachios, you know. I’m talking about finding your competence, about finding your confidence, about cracking open the shell of familiar habits and finding inside the kernel of your yummy true self.
That’s what we’re really after when we travel, that feeling of immediacy, that Zen “beginner’s mind” that comes from stepping outside our routines, from walking out any door into an unfamiliar world. Our destinations don’t have to be remarkable to disorient us. They just have to be strange.
New environments strip away our habits. Entering them breaks us out of the trance of everyday life. We can’t just mindlessly walk to the aisle where the pistachios are anymore because we no longer know which aisle that is. We can’t follow the route home that we’re used to following. We’ve got to take the road less traveled now.
Most of the time, I’m thinking about how to get rid of travel fears, my own and those of other people. The world is full of remarkable places, even if this city isn’t one, and I want to see them. I don’t want fear to stop me, so I work to quell my discomfort. I don’t want to miss out.
But then again, if Ruf is right, maybe fear’s not something I need to leave behind so I can hit the road. Maybe it’s what’s calling to me in the first place, and travel, with all its discomforts and disorientation, is where I’ll find it.
This is what Albert Camus has to say on the subject:
“What gives value to travel is fear. It is the fact that, at a certain moment, when we are so far from our own country…we are seized by…an instinctive desire to go back to the protection of old habits.”
The protection of old habits. I like that. Our habits do protect us. Sometimes they protect us in concrete, positive ways, the way my habit of brushing my teeth after meals protects my teeth from cavities.
But our habits also protect us in ways that keep us small. They insulate us and keep us from gaining a broader perspective on the world and its people.
Here’s Camus again:
“…we should not say that we travel for pleasure. There is no pleasure in traveling, and I look upon it more as an occasion for spiritual testing…Pleasure takes us away from ourselves in the same way as distraction, in Pascal’s use of the word, takes us away from God. Travel, which is like a greater and a graver science, brings us back to ourselves.”
What say you? Do you travel for pleasure? Or do you travel to be brought back to yourself, your real self, or to God? Has the disorientation that comes from travel helped reorient you to what’s important? Has losing your way helped you to reach your goals?
Where will you go next? Are you frightened?