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Meaning Of Travel

Summer 2007 | Surprises

Summer 2007 | Surprises

The way that writer John Berendt discovered the tale that became his book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil has a wonderful moral for people thinking of taking a trip. In interviews around the time of publication, Berendt explained that in the 1980s he was going out to eat so often with friends in New York City that it occurred to him that he could spend the same amount of money on a round-trip ticket to some place he had never seen before. So one weekend Berendt went someplace he’d never been--Savannah, Ga.--and like some explorer in the Andes centuries ago, he stumbled upon an amazing treasure: the story that became his best-selling book.

The moral of this story is this: We can never really know where we should go on a trip. Choosing a trip, planning ahead, is in some profound way completely absurd. One winter I had a choice: to hike the Inca trail with an English friend, or to go to the Virgin Islands with a German pal. AIDS had just begun, and I was scared of germs. According to the guidebooks I read on Peru, shots were advised, so I took the safer choice. I loved my week in the Caribbean, but years later I went to Machu Picchu, and to this day I regret not having gone with Nick.

Who knows where he should go now? Yet we choose our destinations the way we choose our clothes. And we plan in advance.

A Harvard professor who studies happiness has even said that we cannot ever expect to be happy doing something we plan months in advance, since by the time we have to do it, we may be in a different mood or space altogether. This applies to travel. One reason the current system that demands we book at least a week in advance to get a good air fare, and tell them when we are coming back, is so repulsive is that it requires a level of rational planning that flies in the face of the whole idea of travel--its spontaneity, its impetuosity. Who knows when one will want to leave or come back? Even worse: Who knows if going on the Baltic cruise will be a bore or wonderful? Maybe you should go to Little Rock, Ark., instead.

In my 20s I lived in dread of being drafted into the Army. Then, when it happened, I was sent to Europe instead of Vietnam, and I had probably the happiest time of my life. I was free; I came out; I was in Heidelberg. I got to hitchhike on Air Force planes. All I had to do was go to Frankfurt to the air base and see where the next plane was going. Nowadays, we are locked into consumer packages that demand we know when we want to leave and when we want to come back and exactly where we want to go.

Worse, in the same way the thing I dreaded--getting drafted--turned out to be a form of liberation, the places we choose may not be the places that we need to go. It all comes back, alas, to knowing oneself--something few of us ever manage in the course of a lifetime. Toward the end of his life, the U.K. writer J.R. Ackerley (My Father and Myself) went to Japan. He loved it. The trouble was he had discovered it a bit late. We suspect there is such a country, a place, for all of us: the one we never thought of visiting. But we cannot know what it is.

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