You won’t find it on the map. And there are no scheduled flights.
Yet it’s one of the best places for discovery on the planet. I
hereby submit the case for going, uh, nowhere. It has many obvious
attractions-no schedules, no crowds, no 20-pound guidebooks to lug.
But most people are reluctant to take advantage of the offerings.
After all, it’s hard to pack for no particular place at all. And
how do you get there, when there’s no there there?
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
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
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.
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