Travel as a Gateway to Self

New England 2011_045

Since the last post about the benefits of travel, I’ve been wondering why wanderlust smites some but not others. Can we trace its development in ourselves and thereby better understand our particular uniqueness?

Genesis of Travel in My Life

I grew up near Buffalo, New York and came south in 1973 to teach forestry economics in Virginia, then later in Alabama, and finally in Athens, Georgia. I noticed that many southern students intended to work near home after college.

At first I thought that trait was exclusively southern, but as I returned to high school and college reunions, I noticed that many of my classmates from the North stayed and worked in their home states, just like the young people I taught. Then I called to mind many southerners I knew who did attend school elsewhere, work in new places and travel widely.

Growing up southern or northern may correlate with wanderlust, but that was not an explanation. I began instead to think that family narratives, and maybe those of friends, might be the largest determinant of the will to travel.

All of my grandparents immigrated from Germany in the early twentieth century, so my parents told family stories about coming to America. The stories were part of general parental guidance that said people needed to follow opportunity.

At the same time, immigrants from Germany lived here under suspicion during WWI and WWII, and that also became part of the story. That may have loosened my attachment to my local area, as well as to the U.S.

My father took me hunting on farmland in communities that were thirty or more miles away, and I loved the trips. I read outdoor magazines about hunting in the Rockies and Alaska, which led to my first (unfulfilled) career goal—to be a hunting guide in Alaska.

Our family sometimes took automobile rides in the country on Sunday afternoons, just to see what was there. My eyes lingered on the passing farms and I wondered what it would be like to live there. Finally, we took two family trips to Florida while I was growing up, and the newness of everything—palms, alligators, coconuts, sand, ocean and people with colorful, light clothing—kept me alert and in the moment for the entire time.

In Others

Many of my students in the South grew up with different narratives, ones in which their families lived in one county for three or more generations. They were never distrusted among their friends and neighbors, except perhaps where race was an issue. Distrust was reserved for outsiders, especially Yankees, who moved in.

Southerners knew the national media disparaged their region as dominated by poverty, racism and ignorance. That regard may dampen any latent desire southerners have toward exploring other regions.

Such stories surely vary among families, which may account for southerners who travel and northerners who don’t.

Regardless of our feelings about travel, there is no need to feel travel is a superior activity. Those who like it can reflect, learn and grow as they encounter new places and people, and those who stay home can do the same through family, friends and activities in their home territory.

Perhaps one inherent advantage of travel lies in the fact that it makes differences quite vivid. The sights, sounds and smells of a new place can create bold and deep impressions that are hard to achieve by other means.

At best, as we think about our particular activities and their evolution in our lives, we gain a peculiar flexibility of mind that allows us to adapt to changing circumstances. If we figure out why we like travel, or why we like any activity, we may also know we can let it go when the time is right.

What do you think?