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: 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 we must get from point A to point B via the shortest possible route and before everybody else, even though there is nobody else. We wind up beating only ourselves out of the juice of journey, the stuff in between.
One of the ironies of travel is that we often get more mileage out of it when we have no objective. 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 is provided by a vehicle that may need dusting off: wandering, your guaranteed ride to wherever. It’s a time-honored route to wisdom in some cultures. Aborigine youths learned the ways of the world on walkabouts, long trips into the wilderness alone. “To start from nowhere and follow no road is the first step towards attaining Tao,” wrote Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu.
But, by God, we want results, 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, congratulating myself on how much I’d polished off.
Now I know that when I wander over to a guy grilling chicken along the road in a town in Belize, something more delicious than bagging a distant town by sunset may happen. I may find out about life when Belize was British Honduras, or chat with a woman about music, or be asked to a local dance. Suddenly I’m not on the outside looking in: I’m looking for a punta rock step.
Wandering is mobile meditation. When I’m going nowhere, everywhere is interesting. I don’t feel the need to be anyplace else, 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.
“Most of the interesting things are found when we wander off the path,” says Pico Iyer, author of Falling Off the Map (Vintage Departures, 1994). But this isn’t exactly self-evident in a society in which, on the approval charts, wandering lies somewhere between wino and meter maid. “Society is predicated on efficiency,” writes Iyer, “and wandering is about discovering all the things that efficiency won’t bring you.”
Engaged wandering is the root of all exploration, triggering the chain reaction of data that leads to new knowledge. In fact, it was our introduction to travel, our first modus operandi. Childhood browsings led us to the interests and friends we would take into adulthood as we embraced this, rejected that.
Roving without objective, says William Glasser, psychologist and author of Choice Theory (HarperCollins, 1998), satisfies four basic needs–love and belonging, power, freedom, and fun. “Fun may be the most specific need related to . . . seeing new places. It’s the genetic reward for learning. When you wander, the reason is to learn.”
The footloose urge usually gives way at adulthood, when survival and security needs kick in and “external control psychology” formats our lives, he adds. Outside opinions curb wandering ways. Before and during the Renaissance, clerics considered travel a sin, a gluttonous feast of pleasurable sensations that put a blasphemous focus on the material world instead of the hereafter. They derided curiosity as lust of the eye. It was only after Francis Bacon and his contemporaries proved that travel could have a purpose–scientific advancement–that the church gave grudging approval. The stigma remains, though. Journeying for journey’s sake has an indulgent scent, still heretical, still guilt-provoking. My dictionary defines 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. The late author and mythologist spent much of his 20s living in Paris, Munich, and Carmel; meeting fellow drifters like John Steinbeck; discovering and reading the works of Mann, Goethe, and Nietzsche. He ping-ponged from Sanskrit texts to James Joyce to Carl Jung, and his wandering led to a completely original course he might not have discovered had he opted for the straight and narrow.
Not keeping to the “sensible course” made perfect sense. “It’s like a tree growing,” Campbell says in A Joseph Campbell Companion (HarperCollins, 1992). “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 is where the traveler crosses into that off-the-map latitude of luck, chance, and serendipities. We spread the net of potential 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. You’re getting on a train in London when a friend you lost contact with years ago steps off the car you’re boarding–as happened to me one day at Earl’s Court Station.
These encounters are exhilarating because, paradoxically, they’re so far-fetched they seem planned, fated, the very thing we hit the road to shake up. They make us feel we’re part of the universe. As random strangers and events pop into our path, we sense that we’re finally plugged in. And we don’t have to do anything to make it happen. 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 let go that we find what we’re looking for, concealed within the counterlogical, where strained rational minds don’t expect it to be.
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,” says Kathleen Mijas, a Beverly Hills clinical psychologist. “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.”
It can also be a liberation from yourself, which is what many overly self-regulated sorts–yours truly and Iyer plead guilty here–love about travel. “Travel absolves me from having to make perfectionist decisions,” says Lawrence Millman, author of An Evening Among Headhunters (Brookline, 1998). “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.”
Things are wonderful in their strangeness because we have not predicted them or rehearsed responses to them. We experience life in first run, without déjà 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 control mode required for us to function in society and satisfies a yearning for what is 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 in time reveal the path to all of us accidental tourists.
From Escape (Aug. 1999). Subscriptions: $18/yr. (4 issues) from Box 462255, Escondido, CA 92046.