What do we get from travel, anyway?
I'm writing this on my JetBlue flight from Austin back to San Francisco. My holiday, all five nights and four days of it, is over.
Yesterday I broke off from my travelling companions and took the day to walk around Austin. I like being unencumbered by a timetable and with a new city to explore. I like a day in my own company.
I spent much of my time walking, dishevelled, ruffled by the heat, disoriented, but content. It occurred to me that maybe there was something illogical about how natural it felt to be where I was. I was far from my home, and my wife, in a strange place, spending money at a greater rate than I usually care to.
I've written here before about travel being something that is afforded to the relatively privileged. But even given that we can, why do we do it?
What do we get from travel that compels us toward it? As I moved about the city I compiled a list in my head.
I was in Austin to visit Bea, an old friend from university days. She lives in Britain, and was doing a research fellowship in Austin as part of her doctorate. It's the second time I've seen her since I left for America. Which is about the same rate as I see most of my oldest friends. My friends are spread through Europe, America, and Australia. You've got to take opportunities such as these when they present themselves, even if it involves a three-hour flight and five days in Texas... well... maybe especially if it involves a three-hour flight and five days in Texas.
I love the context travel gives me to how small I am against the scale of the world. When I would first fly from New Zealand to America it was startling to arrive and see all the people moving purposefully to untold destinations, the cars pouring through, how much bigger and casually and completely active it all was. While we were in New Zealand, this was always here unaffected by all of us.
I like to feel lost and alone in the world. I find it regenerative. I'm surprised by the insights it gives me on my own life. On my first two nights I took meandering walks back to my hostel from different parts of Austin. They were directed by Google Maps and saw me winding through Austin's stranger nooks and suburban crannies. The streets were dark and empty and a foreign skyline lurked in the distance. I felt miles away from anything familiar. It was intoxicating.
I've recently finished a gigantic piece of work and a series of smaller projects have wound down. I'd been pushing myself pretty hard. I really felt like getting away. I was excited to go to Texas. But if I broke it down, I could get the same mentally medicinal effects of escapism as I did on this holiday anywhere.
On Sunday we stopped in at Luckenbach, way out in the Texas countryside. There's an old-fashioned honkytonk there, with a small bar (wallpapered with curios) that you can buy beer from, a crummy food stand, a music hall with open sides and country musicians playing, and an abundance of shaded outdoor seats. Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings recorded albums here. We ate grilled cheese sandwiches and drank beer. There were roosters playing in the trees. Our rented Toyota Camry was severely out of place, as 90 per cent of the cars in the lot were trucks. Stetson hats, cowboy boots and denim shirts were the vogue. There was a small dog wearing a cowboy hat.
Sure we all got a kick out of how "Texan" it seemed, but crucially real life, with its lists, deadlines, and demands seemed an infinite number of miles away.
I like to roll a little live-action, non-Wikipedia related learning into my travelling. Austin was a big win in this regard. Presidents of the United States, 1960-2012, have become a favourite recreational reading topic of mine. Austin was the hometown of the 36th president of the United States of America, Lyndon Baines Johnson (1963-1969). There's a presidential library rolled in with the University of Texas in town, and a beautiful expansive ranch in Johnson City nearby that preserves his "Texas White House" and the house he was born into. Did you know that LBJ grew his hair long in retirement? Or that he had 70 phone jacks installed in his house so that he could have a phone next to all his favourite chairs? (Which included the toilet seat.) I do... now.
Isn't all travel borne out of a primal, if doomed, urge to go everywhere and do everything? That nothing is out of reach?
Whether it was haring about Austin, scoffing barbecued food, visiting famed spots, walking renowned streets, or driving the countryside, taking in the green, undulating, beautiful Texas countryside, and the jagged, more-limestone-than-water Pedernales River, I think a trip like this soothes a very basic desire in us to conquer the world.
What's your list? What do you personally draw from travel?
(As proof of what a good time I had, a few holiday snaps run alongside these words, and follow underneath...)
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