Wanderlust Energizes Later Life

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Wanderlust: those of us who have it always keep a corner of our minds dedicated to the next horizon, the next town, an exotic land. Travel intoxicates us and fires our imaginations; but not all of us like to wander.

Many people have health problems or feel they don’t have enough money; others just want to stay home—travel isn’t alluring. They may travel for work or to see family, but given a choice, they stay home.

Staying home can be a virtue. The Benedictines, for example, take a vow of stability, to live within the monastic community they first join. Some travel occasionally (they need permission) and sometimes, through rarely, a monk move to a different monastery. Most of them, however, live, work, relax and pray within their pledged community from the time of their vows until death.

Opposite the Benedictines stand modern nomads, unmoored members of the motorhome movement, staying a few weeks here, then there, migrating endlessly from campsite to campsite, from relatives to friends, always ready to fold up the levelers and drive away.

Most of us live far from each extreme. We see advantages in travel and stability. Maybe we want the contrast that travel offers.

Breaking Free and Discovering Possibilities

Settled life gets sticky, and if we’re not careful, soon we feel shackled to not only what we like but also to what we don’t like. We gradually, unconsciously let go of our freedom. Two aspects of this loss seem salient:

  • Settled life gets full of commitments and responsibilities to family, work, friends and organizations, leaving little room for exploration or spontaneity. Travel suspends these and lets us fly anew.
  • Settled life may grow monotonous, as if all of life were repetition and habit. Travel breaks the monotony.

Travel isn’t merely escape. It also expands our lives through lived experience, even if only temporarily.

  • Travel presents new people, places or events, perhaps in a new culture.
  • Travel helps us dream of new possibilities in our regular lives, giving us a rebirth, however small it may be.
  • Travel may present real adventures, like bicycling, hiking, hunting or other active trips, which can test and extend our physical experience.

Breaking free and experiencing life anew energizes and encourages us. One big bonus, of course, is travel’s temporary nature: it does not destroy our stable lives; they await our return.

In Retirement

No longer tied to the limited vacations of work and family school schedules, retirees may travel in all seasons and for long periods. Trips in the fall to see colors, vacations in January for skiing or ice-fishing or tours in April to see flowers in the South all become possible. My wife and I often go north in late September to see fall colors, then return south by mid-October when the trees in Georgia are turning. Leaves usually last here until after Thanksgiving, giving us two months of fall color.

Wanderlust fades as we age in part because travel gets harder, and also because each trip adds a little less wonder, fascination or understanding. So the sages often emphasize that we should travel in early retirement while we still find it exciting.

Even early in retirement, however, we often tire of travel more quickly than we tire of settled life. One or two months away is usually plenty. Returning home refreshed and energized, we look forward to again taking up our commitments and spending time with people we know. We may pare an activity here or add one there, but the stickiness and monotony we fled is magically transformed by travel into life’s richness and depth. It’s good to be home.