In a destination-oriented world, the virtues of a nonitinerary are as clear as dark matter. We're conditioned to think that we must get from point A to point B via the shortest possible route and get there before everybody else. Even though there is nobody else. We break the tape at the end of a hard-fought vacation day and wind up beating nobody but ourselves-out of the juice of journey, the stuff in between.
As Oliver Cromwell once put it, 'a man never goes so far as when he doesn't know where he is going.' One of the ironies of travel is that we often get more mileage out of it when we have no objective. Targets have a way of narrowing the sights to a single bull's-eye. Set out without a fixed destination, and the prizes multiply as you enter a collide-o-scope of people and paths attracted to you as if by some cosmic pheromone.
Transit to your nondestination is provided by a vehicle that may need a little dusting off: wandering, your guaranteed ride to wherever. Wandering sends you off with a radical new priority: no priorities. The goal is whatever your moseying turns up. It's a time-honored route to wisdom in some cultures. Aborigine youths learned the ways of the world on walkabouts, discovering the secrets of survival and confidence on long trips into the wilderness alone. Eastern thought has long baffled the West with its emphasis on journey over destination, a mainstay of Zen and Tao. 'To start from nowhere and follow no road is the first step towards attaining Tao,' wrote Chuang Tzu.
But, by God, we want results, not traipsing around in circles. And we want to know what they are before we leave the door-conquering Kilimanjaro, blitzing Tuscany. Nothing wrong with a mission, mind you, but obsessive quest of the most direct line to the goal turns your travels into rote, notch-on-the-belt affairs. I used to sprint through trips, at the end of the day congratulating myself with how much I'd polished off. I hung up the race cleats after realizing that seeing it all wasn't as important as experiencing a small chunk of it in lingering detail. That's what stays with you.
Now I know that when I wander over to a guy grilling chicken along the road in a Belizean town, something more delicious may happen than bagging a distant town by sunset. Such as finding out about life in Belize when it was British Honduras, or having a woman join us for a chat about music, or being asked to a local dance that night. Suddenly I'm not on the outside looking in; I'm looking for a punta rock step.
Wandering, for me, is a kind of mobile meditation. It clears the mind of everything but what's right at hand. When I'm going nowhere, everywhere is interesting. I don't feel the need to be anyplace other than where I am, which is just the way my blood pressure likes it. I can veer off over there if I want, zigzag to the highlights of my trip. That's where that spiral of road happenings starts, in the collision with the unexpected, roost of adventure, serendipity and the occasional stash of homemade moonshine.
Tangents set it all in motion. 'Most of the interesting things are found when we wander off the path,' agrees Pico Iyer, author of Video Night in Kathmandu, Falling Off the Map, and an inveterate wanderer, who's currently at work on a book about global citizenry. 'Suddenly a whim will take us in this direction, and that's where the excitement lies.'
Of course, this isn't exactly self-evident in a society where wandering has no productive purpose, on the approval charts somewhere between wino and meter maid. 'Wandering is an attack on that whole philosophy,' Iyer points out. 'Society is predicated on efficiency, and wandering is about discovering all the things that efficiency won't bring you and going into the margins.'
What we find in those margins is an essential part of the discovery process. Engaged wandering is the root of all exploration, triggering the chain reaction of data that leads to new knowledge. In fact, it was our first introduction to travel, our primary modus operandi as kids. Childhood browsings led us to stumble onto the interests and friends we would take into adulthood, as we sampled this, got knocked down by that, embraced this, rejected that.We all wander in our younger years, because we need to, says William Glasser, a psychologist and author of a dozen books, including Choice Theory, his latest. Roving without objective, he suggests, satisfies the four basic needs-love and belonging, power, freedom and fun. 'It's certainly a part of the need for both power [to get a sense of who we are in the world] and freedom,' he points out. 'Both have a lot of curiosity attached to them. Fun may be the most specific need related to wandering and seeing new places. It's the genetic reward for learning. When you wander, the reason is to learn.'
Grown-ups need to wander, too, but the footloose urge usually gives way at adulthood, when survival and security needs kick in and 'external control psychology' formats our lives, says Glasser. Outside opinions curb wandering ways. 'People say you shouldn't wander, you should do something more constructive-that's external control people telling you how to live your life.'
Aimless roaming has never had much of a lobby in the Western world. Travel was considered a sin by clerics up through the Renaissance, a gluttonous feast of pleasurable sensations that put a blasphemous focus on the material world instead of the hereafter. Curiosity was derided as lust of the eye. It was only after Francis Bacon and his contemporaries proved travel could have a purpose-scientific advancement-that the church gave grudging approval to some voyaging. The stigma remains, though. Journeying for journey's sake has an indulgent scent, still heretical, still guilt-provoking for the indulger. Webster's can't find too much flattering to say about it, defining wandering as 'movement away from the proper, normal or usual course, not keeping a rational or sensible course: Vagrant.'
Joseph Campbell's path was anything but normal, if not tantamount to vagrancy. The late author and mythologist was once a rolling stone. He spent much of his twenties wandering; living in Paris, Munich and Carmel; meeting fellow drifters like John Steinbeck; reading and discovering the works of Mann, Goethe and Nietzsche. He ping-ponged from Sanskrit texts to James Joyce to Carl Jung, and it led him down a wandering route to a completely original course that put all his diverse interests together, one he might not have discovered if he had opted for the straight and narrow. For Campbell, not keeping to Webster's 'sensible course' made perfect sense. 'While wandering, you experience a kind of mysteriously organic process,' he says in A Joseph Campbell Companion. 'It's like a tree growing. It doesn't know where it's growing next. A branch may grow this way and then another way, and then another way. When you look back, you'll see this will have been an organic development.'
Wandering seems to have no rhyme or reason to it, but it is getting us somewhere-the vicinity of discovery. Freed up from the controlled home front, we're tossed into the natural randomness of life, where we collide with people and ideas swirling around like electrons just outside our ruts, so many particles of possibility bounding our way.
This is where the traveler crosses into that off-the-map latitude of luck, chance and road serendipities. We spread the net of potential contacts and opportunities from a tiny universe to a huge one. You meet the president of Nicaragua's brother, who gets you an audience with the president-as happened to Monroe Fisher, the Talkabout man we profiled a couple of issues ago. You're spacing out in front of an emptying Tube train in London, when a friend you've lost contact with for years bumps into you as she steps off the same car you're boarding-as happened to me one day at Earl's Court Station.
The fascinating thing about these encounters is that they're exhilarating, paradoxically, because they're so far-fetched they seem planned, fated, the very thing we hit the road to shake up. They make us feel more a part of the universe, that we belong. We're in the world, not just of it. As random strangers and events pop into our path, there's a sense that we're finally plugged in. And the best part is that we don't have to do anything to make it all happen. After busting a gut to get somewhere, suddenly, not trying gets the job done. It reminds me of Zen chronicler Alan Watts' law of 'inverse effort.' The more we try, the more we drive what we want away. It's when we don't care and amble along unself-consciously that we find what we're looking for, concealed within the counterintuitive, the counter-logical, just where strained rational minds don't expect it to be.Wandering puts the premium on unfolding, on letting things build and evolve as they will, instead of us directing the action. No longer fighting fate, we're dancing with it. 'When you allow something to unfold, you have to be more in the moment and experience whatever is happening as if that is important, instead of where you're going,' notes Kathleen Mojas, a Beverly Hills clinical psychologist. 'We get so caught up in the routine of things that we miss so much. Everyone should have some time that's unstructured, even if you're not going on a trip.'
For some people, giving up structure and surrendering the helm to the vagaries of the road is not a pleasant prospect. 'Sometimes people's rituals keep them held together, and it gives them a sense of who they are-their job title, their role, whatever it is,' adds Mojas. 'When it's just you, then you have to get in touch with what's there, and that could be empty or scary or overwhelming for some people.'
It can also be a liberation, from yourself, which is what many otherwise overly self-regulated sorts-yours truly, Iyer and ESCAPE contributor Lawrence Millman plead guilty here-love about travel. 'I tend to be a perfectionist at home,' admits Millman, author of Last Places and An Evening Among Headhunters. 'But travel absolves me from having to make perfectionist decisions. I'm in other people's hands. I no longer have to suffer the turmoil of having to have everything exactly right. When I travel I don't choreograph at all and let the whole ambience, the mood of the place, dictate my wanderings. When you give yourself up to that ambience, rich and strange things happen.'
They are things wonderful in their strangeness, because we have not predicted them or rehearsed responses to them. We experience life in first run, without dÈj vu, utterly new.
Wandering doesn't pay the bills or mow the lawn, but we need bouts of it just the same. It balances out the con-trol mode required for us to function in society and satisfies a yearning for something radiantly mysterious and inexplicable. And in this, it is like a dream, restoring us with images from a deeper realm, giving us cues and clues that may not make sense at first, but that in time reveal the path to all of us accidental tourists.
FromEscape(October, 1999.) Subscriptions: $18/yr. (4 issues) from Box 462255, Escondido, CA 92046.