The Inner Journey: Power Tripping

Any list of the world’s eternal mysteries has to include duty-free
shopping. I’ve never gotten why I would need to stock up on Halston
perfume or dead-weight Glenfiddich in the middle of the Pacific
Ocean, say at Fiji’s Nadi airport. (Hey, look what I bought in the
South Pacific, a bottle of booze from Scotland!) But what might be
the best travel souvenir really is free, of both duty and price
tag-and actually has something to do with the place you visited. It
always rides back with me in the glow of a great trip. The prize: a
sudden power surge that makes me think I can do just about anything
– solve a dilemma, shake a rut, leap tall buildings in a single
bound. I’m sure you know the feeling. It’s that sublime sense of
enlarged horizons, a belief you can go wherever you want to in the
world. Because you’ve just done it.

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.

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