Something happens out there that cranks up the can-do spirit. The perception of what's possible in life, limited by habit, hassle, setbacks, age, sex or any number of other self-restrictions when you left, is suddenly wide open. I guess that's why it's called the open road. On it, you're no longer defined by the daily environment, the ceiling of stasis, a fixed horizon beyond which you cannot go. The options are as unlimited as the turnoffs. I've come back so pumped with possibility that I'm sure a random drug test would bust me on the spot for performance-enhancing chemicals. The inner doubter has somehow fallen by the roadside, replaced by a clarity, confidence and will to get to the next place, to keep on moving in the rhythm of the journey.
Ain't no stopping us now. We're on the move. Tracy Garfinkle, a traveler who e-mailed me from the road in Turkey, calls this phenomenon 'a rush of empowerment-not power like you want to rule the world, but a realization that this is your world. It's a feeling of enlightenment that anything is possible.'
This famed traveler's 'glow' is no illusion; it's a real feeling of momentum, propelled by some fundamental changes in our internal driving mechanism. The journey has 'expanded our sense of self and our own resilience,' explains Paul Stoltz, author of Adversity Quotient, a book on the route to achievement. 'Travel is a condensed lesson of life, which is about facing and overcoming adversities. There's an incredible sense of mastery coming out the other end of a trip that says, even if things go wrong, I know how to handle it.'
In a world where it takes a seminar to figure out your phone service, mastery is not something we experience very often. But out on the independent travel trail, we get used to knocking off uncertainties and obstacles, and the habit carries over to the home front. 'If you can get yourself out of a mess or navigate from one place to another in a strange place, then you can do it anywhere else in your life,' says Jeffrey Kottler, a psychologist and author of a book on the road's therapeutic ways, Travel That Can Change Your Life.
Travel makes us believers. And what we come to believe is our own instincts, not what others or our own in-character role have pigeonholed us into. The empirical evidence has proven that we can get from here to there-wherever there is. We have seen great things, gone past the flat earth of our comfort zones, so the prospects, like us, have grown. We wind up flying home on Possibility Airways, the main carrier of initiative and imaginings.
All roads, ideas, moves ahead, start here, in the belief that they're possible, doable-by you. You may not know how; you just know, the way you knew you'd get from Kathmandu to some distant village in Yunnan; somehow you'll get there. That belief alone-if we keep it going-is enough to launch us on more difficult paths when we return. As John Gardner wrote in Excellence, 'Humans achieve what they think is possible for them to achieve.' If you don't think you can, you can't. Adventurous travel, though, reprograms us into possibility thinkers. We learn to keep moving in the general direction, knowing we'll figure it out as we go along. I can't think of a more critical piece of equipment on any trip in life than this compass of internal self-validation, jacked up through acts of exploration. The power of the possible is such that it can beat logic, conventional wisdom and forces able to crush you like a Dodge Dart in a salvage yard. It's how amateurs and left-fielders from Celestial Seasonings founder Mo Siegel to actor Billy Bob Thornton to too-short quarterback Doug Flutie to bottlecap salesman King Gillette ('Hey, Gillette, how's the razor?' the naysayers used to razz him) got past notions of impossibility propounded by the experts to get where they wanted to go.
While it's an amazingly potent force, possibility is also very fragile, and after being pounded by reality for a while, there may be only a shred of hope remaining. There was a point before ESCAPE got off the ground when the last fiber of hope that the magazine would see daylight slipped away, and life went black. But I got some encouraging words at a time when I needed them, and I gave it one more try. The point here is that when you come home from a trip flying like you've downed a case of Jolt Cola, jump on it. It's a precious commodity we never have enough of. There are too many realists and not enough idealists. The fact is, the real was born the ideal.
Just the act of travel, the motion itself, can help to get us out of intractable bunkers, where pressures and expectations we can never meet can keep us immobilized. Getting anywhere seems impossible. Until we go somewhere. 'When you travel or do an adventure sport, it takes you so far outside that box your brain has created that it opens up limitless possibilities of what you can do,' declares David Swink, an avid parachutist and president of Vienna, Virginia-based Strategic Interactions. 'You can feel that you're failing in your career and not meeting your personal goals, and then you go and conquer the Colorado River, or you cheat death by making a skydive. Then your mind starts to open up to know you can achieve great things.' We didn't come here to navel-gaze. The drive to strive is within us all, say social scientists. 'I believe we're born with a core human drive to ascend or move forward and up, to progress toward being and doing something significant with our lives,' declares Stoltz. 'I define that as our mountain. Each individual has their own mountain. What travel does is help us explore our sense of significance in the world.'
Part of discovering significance is feeling significant, which is a road specialty. Travel throws us into a chain of social encounters that give us a sense of our own ability to connect with others. We become more confident in navigating the social labyrinth at home. 'I think most of us return with a really enhanced sense of people, just by having to figure them out quickly-having a best friend for a day or two, then moving on to the next best friend for the next three days' and so on, says Steve Zikman, author of Power of Travel and editor of Chicken Soup for Travelers' Souls (out early next year).
As you meet people around the world who are as fascinated with you as you are with them in concentrated moments of gut-spilling, the idea dawns: You're not another number, one of 262 million with the same national anthem. Apart from the horde, you start to see yourself as a living, breathing, unique individual, whose story seems to be interesting to others. You become an exotic commodity for a while, an Americanski in Poznan, a walking bankbook in Togo - you're different, special. It's an ego boost that has been a prime lure of expat life since Marco Polo.
We'll need every edge we can get to tackle the routes up our respective mountains. The climb is long and humbling, and many don't make it. 'What happens is that adversity beats people down,' admits Stoltz. 'While there are those who get stronger by it, most people try to avoid it. They camp or give up.'
Stoltz estimates that 10 to 20 percent of people quit along the way, while 60 to 80 percent 'camp,' that is, they settle or make do after getting turned back a few times. That leaves 10 to 20 percent of folks he terms 'climbers,' who have a relentless sense of moving forward in their lives. When climbers get to an overhang, they don't quit, he points out; they reassess, restrategize and find a way around the obstacle. They continue to believe it's possible.
Travel helps to increase perseverance skills, what Stoltz calls our 'adversity quotient,' or AQ, which he insists is a more accurate barometer than IQ of how far we'll go in life. The road boosts confidence and resilience skills by putting us to the test of the unknown and uncomfortable. We take on forbidding outbacks, wilting red tape, scree-strewn slopes, humiliating faux pas, get hopelessly lost, but in the end find ourselves-and live to tell about it. We learn what we need to know to triumph over the odds at home: the idea that we can.
'Listen to the stories people tell when they come back from a trip,' says Stoltz. 'They talk about the adversities they overcame: 'We had this disaster, but it all worked out great, and we ended up meeting these amazing people. We took on the unexpected and overcame it.'
It wouldn't have been much of a trip if Odysseus had cruised back to Ithaca in record time. Meet a Cyclops or get lost, though, and things start getting interesting. 'The really good stuff happens once you give up what's familiar,' maintains Kottler. 'The good stuff happens when you miss the plane. The good stuff happens when you have the crap scared out of you, when you've got to figure out a way to get some food in your stomach or get where you want to go.'
During these moments of emotional activation, all your wits and senses are heightened to deal with the dilemma at hand. In the process you're forced to become open to things you wouldn't ordinarily consider and take risks you wouldn't back home. In those times it's quite possible for even the most treadmill-inclined to reinvent themselves.
Zikman has found that out on travels that have taken him all over the world. One of his signal events was climbing a 16,000-foot mountain in Ecuador on the spur of the moment. 'It gave me the confidence to know that I can reach for the summit in life and also in metaphor,' recalls the former zoning attorney from Toronto, now an author pursuing the creative life he always wanted to.
Wilderness and nature play a major role in stoking a larger sense of possibility. Artificial ceilings vanish in the vastness of big skies and natural reserves of inspiration. You can't think small when you're surrounded by panorama. Eyes and cerebrums have to widen to take it all in. 'When we get out into nature, it's the one time we feel, 'Wow, we are absolutely trivial and puny,'' says David Cumes, a physician and adventurer born in South Africa who has a medical practice in Santa Barbara, California. 'You put the ego on the back burner and open up to the right brain. And when we do that, we connect with the Big Self, and that's when we feel great. That's how peak experience comes about.'
Cumes became a believer in the power of wilderness to jolt us out of rational/logical left brains and activate the potential of the more reflective/receptive right side when he was in medical school in South Africa. To stay sane, he'd take off on outback trips, which would give him 'this sense of wonder, what I call 'wilderness rapture', and I'd feel so incredibly good about everything.' His highest highs came from time hanging with the Bushmen in the Kalahari Desert, though at first he couldn't figure out why.
'Why was it that these people who can't read, can't write, who've got nothing, are ecstatically happy?' he wondered. 'They're whole and complete and just seemed so normal. I started to look at that and see what wilderness did for these people. They have no spiritual practice. All they have is wilderness and nature practice. It got me tuned in to the idea that wilderness is probably the most powerful thing we can do for ourselves.'
Cumes put the lessons of the Bushmen and other adventures to work in a book, Inner Passages/Outer Journeys, and on the road-he leads inner journeys to wild places in Africa, South America and the U.S. 'We should be feeling this rapture all the time,' he argues. 'It's our birthright.'
That's what I feel when I return, an animating sense of entitlement, that I belong everywhere I go. That makes things I want to do seem less, well, foreign, daunting, more like home improvements. Staking that claim further is the more potent realization that, hey, it's been there all along. Travel has merely catalyzed and decalcified capacities that already exist within me.
But can we keep that spirit going at home? The answer is, yes, if we work at it. We can become climbers, assures Stoltz, by improving our AQs. We do that by learning to recognize adversity and changing our responses to it, by not assuming the worst, by reframing setbacks, by adopting the perseverance skills of climbers.
Kottler concurs-if we take the time to figure out what we learned from our trip and internalize it. 'Make public commitments,' he advises. 'You have to tell people what you're going to do differently. Instead of avoiding the unknown, you could embrace the unknown. Instead of avoiding risks, you could go out and challenge yourself to overcome them.'
After all, you've been there, done that.
FromEscape(April, 1999.) Subscriptions: $18/yr. (4 issues) from Box 462255, Escondido, CA 92046.