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For now, it was just me and a wide-awake dromedary, craning our necks in the starlight. Who could sleep with a sky like that going on? I stood on a ridge of dune, gaping at the Milky Way. I’d seen foggy renditions of it, but never this foaming, whitewater river that seemed close enough to kayak. I stared, spellbound, goosebumps rising on my skin. The galaxy was no longer a concept. I was looking at it. The wonder sent me reeling through the inner reaches of outer space, as mythologist Joseph Campbell called it, seeing something I’d looked at hundreds oftimes with new eyes—the real reward of the road. Suddenly this scene was no longer alien. Sahara, dunes, insomniac camel, ghosts of Tuareg caravans, Milky Way, me—it was starstuff one and all. It didn’t matter that countless Moroccans had taken in that view before me. It didn’t matter that there were half a dozen Frenchmen in a tent a couple hundred yards away and that there would be more tomorrow. All that mattered was that I was here now, transfixed by travel’s version of the unified theory.
I’ve often been asked as an adventure magazine editor whether there are any exciting places left in a world that’s already mapped. The answer is: plenty, because the real adventure isn’t about boldly going where no man has gone before; it’s about going where you’ve never been. It’s not about finding the last dune yet to be trod upon by Vibram soles. It’s about the vast landscape of incognita territory within each of us, revealed through the magic of the journey.
This is the terrain that draws personal explorers away from cubicle, career, home, rut, and mutt to the distant shores of self-discovery. The call of the road is really about indulging our urge to know the world and, through it, our place in it. Ever since it grew out of privileged society’s Grand Tours of Europe in the 19th Century, tourism American-style has revolved around the idea of going somewhere to have other people do stuff for you. Real travel is about doing it yourself, as close as possible to the ground of where you are standing. Only then can we experience the journey, not just the destination, and uncover the surprises that lie behind the everyday surface of perception. Like my Milky Way encounter, the altered state of travel lets us see what is always there—but obscured by the filters of civilization. This opens up a whole new interior frontier, where we can venture beyond lingering fears, deeply held assumptions, and regimented behavior, where our identities are challenged and transformed. Strangers in strange lands become more familiar than the people back home. And our world suddenly expands—we’re connected to the global tribe, to the land around us, and to the wanderer within.
We were born to travel. From our brains to our big toes, natural selection designed us to move, discover, and seek out nourishment for both the body and our insatiably curious spirit. We may have forgotten our nomadic days, but our physiology hasn’t, which is why we get stir crazy when we’re cooped up too long.
Call it genetic manifest destiny. Studies show that the gene identified with exploratory and thrill-seeking behavior happens to carry instructions for building brain receptors that attract dopamine, a pleasure-inducing chemical in our bodies. Those with a high need for novelty, risk-taking, and stimulation have a long form of this gene, while the more risk-averse have a short form. But everyone, to varying de-grees, has a built-in biological urge to explore. Travel author Bruce Chatwin postulated from his studies of the traditional ways of Australian Aborigines and other nomadic tribes that we were built 'for a career of seasonal journeys,' not unlike that of fellow earthly species. Movement is at the core of existence, from the lulling motion in the womb, to the unfolding passages of our lives.
The world’s first long-distance travelers not trading or warring across antiquity were pilgrims, on the road to sacred mountains, temples, and shrines. Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims in search of salvation trekked for months across India to the Him-alayas and Mt. Kailas, an abode of the gods and center of the universe. Some still do, finishing with a 32-mile circumambulation, or kora, around the mountain’s base, a practice that the pilgrim believes erases a lifetime of sin. Those who complete the Kailas trek are believed to have made a symbolic journey through the complete cycle of life and death—and to have been transformed by the power of this passage.
One of the earliest recorded travel epics was that of Hsuan Tsang, a Chinese Buddhist monk who took off on a 20-year jaunt from Chengdu across Central Asia to India in the seventh century. His goal: to resolve spiritual conflicts by seeing with his own eyes the original Sanskrit texts of Buddhism. He hoped to 'find an Ultimate Truth that would resolve the true nature of reality,' reports Richard Bernstein in his fascinating recreation of the dogged monk’s travels, Ultimate Journey (Knopf, 2001). Neither the wrath of kings nor the ravages of deserts and mountains could keep this spiritual explorer from his appointment with enlightenment.
The spirit of that quest lives on in the wanderings of many of today’s travelers. The past few decades have seen the rise of adventure travel, ecotravel, archaeological travel, bike travel, solidarity travel, home stays, spiritual tours, along with the venerable traditions of backpacking and Eurailing—all created to make travel more participatory, and personally nourishing.
Behind it all is a craving for authentic experience in an increasingly soulless world. Dean MacCannell, a cultural analyst at the University of California at Davis and author of The Tourist (Schocken, 1976), says travelers want to find a 'connection between truth, intimacy, and sharing the life behind the scenes.' Urbanization and technology have eroded primal links to the planet—open space, wilderness, greenery, food from the ground instead of from drive-up windows, community, celebration—the things that make us feel most alive and true to ourselves.
In search of self-exploration and a life that makes more sense than staring at a computer 50 hours a week, many of us are becoming contemporary pilgrims. We’re discovering it’s not the meaning of life we’re after; it’s meaning in life, 'the rapture of being alive,' as Joseph Campbell called it. But to get this soul-tingling satisfaction from travel, we have to leave our comfort zones for trails less traveled. Out there, 'away from all that’s familiar we’re forced to face the Truth . . . of our soul’s journey on earth,' says Phil Cousineau, author of The Art of Pilgrimage (Conari, 1998).
Travel that transforms requires risk and frequent bouts of making a fool of yourself. But you live to tell about it, and in the process your vision of who you are and what’s possible changes. You learn lessons about perseverance and flexibility, getting lost and found again, losing control and liking it, junking plans and following your gut. Traveling on your wits and your feet instills faith, in yourself and in the universe. You learn to believe your own instincts, and to know that if you keep moving, you’ll somehow get where you need to be. You’ll also discover what you need to triumph over the odds when you get back home: the idea that you can.
Like Hsuan Tsang, real travelers today are in pursuit of the original sources, in this case, places that haven’t been sanitized, ordered, and commodified by modern civilization. As we get nearer to these sources, we uncover deeper rhythms, which anchor us to something more than the next home entertainment purchase. Graham Greene called this a hankering for 'a stage further back,' a 'nostalgia for something lost.' He hit on the heart of the matter, because the drive to live an authentic life is one of the strongest of our pyschological needs. Denial or distortion of authenticity causes neurosis. When we’re authentic, we’re in sync with the world around us.
This sense of harmony opens us to the realm of the sacred, where the discordant, the dissonant, the incomplete, the disparate, the conflicted come together in resolution. It’s the goal of all the world’s major religions under a variety of names: oneness, Nirvana, peace. And it’s what every pilgrim, every personal explorer, seeks.
Travel is a celebration of variety and simultaneously an affirmation of the universal. When I first started traveling in college, I was drawn by the distant and exotic, but now I know that what I really seek is a feeling I rarely experience at home: a sense of effortlessly dropping into alignment with the universe. It happens through the serendipitous events that are tossed up by the rhythm of the road—I’ll wind up in a place I didn’t intend to go to but discover that it’s just where I wanted to be, had to be. And it happens continuously with local people and fellow travelers.
Freed from the usual sources of definition—job, friends, car, area code—we can slip out of entrenched identities and realize pyschologist Abraham Maslow’s self-actualizing imperative 'to become more and more what one is.' When you’re in accord with yourself, it seems to exert a gravitational pull on others to join you in the synchronous swing of things. The road spontaneously ignites one-to-one encounters unlike anything we know in the workaday world. The social dynamics of travel—anonymity, limited time, engaged curiosity, switched-off competitive drive—create a framework of commonality, not difference, which makes for intense and heartfelt interaction. A Zimbabwean journalist inducts me into the rituals of the local dance floor at a working-class beer hall in Harare. A Fijian cane farmer invites me into his home for dinner and a stroll through the family photo album. Within hours, I know AWOL marketing directors and glass salesmen, Swiss teachers and French backpackers better than folks I’ve worked with at home for years.
During these excursions inside the lives of others, I have this feeling of being swept along by events I’ve done nothing to make happen. It’s like I’m riding a cosmic wave I haven’t paddled into, yet somehow I’m there—body, mind, and spirit all together in a curl that keeps on rolling. The sense of union feels not strange but innately familiar, like something in me had known this before I ever hit the road.
We’re usually reminded of our link to fellow humans only in times of disaster. Travel gives us a glimpse of that connection in the day-to-day, another example of its ability to guide us beyond the surface to a truer nature, to the 'underglimmer,' as the Japanese poet Basho called it. And the light glinting through is nothing less than the spiritual recognition that you and the other are one.
This sense of a truer nature comes across especially in the natural world. Cicero once said that when you enter a tall grove, the presence of a deity becomes known to you. This is abundantly clear to traditional cultures, who see summits, forests, and waterfalls as holy, as evidence of a sacred continuum in which land, gods, and people are all connected. Cut off from this experience by a blitzkrieg of concrete and glass, many Westerners are turning to ecotravel expeditions to try to reclaim their relationship to this ancestral richness, to get back to where they once belonged. It’s a development that’s good for the soul and the land, as long as the mode of travel and accommodations are low-impact. Revenue brought in from ecotravelers is helping to keep forests and endangered species alive from Madagascar to Costa Rica.
Wilderness is the ultimate in roots, that comforting sense that you’re part of something deeper than your cell phone plan. Standing in the midst of a rainforest or atop a snow-capped summit, you realize you can have a larger perspective on the world, understand a grander scheme to the universe. One of my favorite places for that is a backcountry trail (a few hours up the road from my Santa Monica, California, home) in Kings Canyon National Park that carries me above a waterfall in a narrow canyon with granite walls rising up a thousand feet on either side. I sit on a slab of rock with the foam of the South Fork of the Kings River roaring into space inches from me and gaze at the huge canyon below, and the white-domed Sierra peaks beyond. And I can see the whole journey—from feldspar to glacier to river to me—in one eyeshot. It’s a harmonic convergence that reminds me I’m not urban flotsam, but part of the scenery, part of an eternal passage that transcends human conflicts and career crises. The supreme authenticity of this moment brings the calm of alignment—and a glimpse into the sacred.
Joseph Campbell pointed that out in a sacred Hindu text, the Upanishads: 'When before the beauty of a sunset or a mountain, you pause and exclaim ‘Ah,’ you are participating in divinity.'
It’s at that moment that you can stop worrying about where you’re going and indulge in the rapture of arrival, where truer natures are revealed. As the Chinese proverb says, 'I traveled the world and found myself.' Journey on a truly open road, and you may just discover yourself, standing under a river in the sky.
Joe Robinson was founder and editor of Escape magazine from 1993 to 2000. He's currently working in documentary films and writing a book about work and the American identity, which will be published by Putnam/Perigee next year.
Discuss Travel in Cafe Utne: cafe.utne.com