Vaguely Literary Post-Travel Thoughts

We walked on and circled the island. The river was dark and
a bateau mouche went by, all bright with lights, going fast amid
quiet up and out of sight under the bridge. Down the river was
Notre Dame squatting against the night sky. We crossed to the
left bank of the Seine by the wooden foot-bridge from the Quai de
Bethune, and stopped on the bridge and looked down the river at
Notre Dame. Standing on the bridge the island looked dark, the
houses were high against the sky, and the trees were shadows.

“It’s pretty grand,” Bill said. “God, I love to get back.”

-Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

Traveling is a funny thing. Those who do a lot of it know how addictive and essential it is, and how equally it pulls you with such force away from your mundane, everyday existence but then thrusts you back with sling-like vigor at the end. You always feel like you must “get away” from home when you venture out on some trip, but by the end it is “home” that beckons you, normalcy that grabs you, and a humdrum schedule that enlivens you with its familiar scent of mom’s cookies and newly washed sheets.

It is clichéd and yet obligatory to now quote T.S. Eliot, who wrote in Four Quartets:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning.

I hardly had any time to process or “arrive” at any sort of cognitive illumination over the last few days. I was too busy stressing out about flight delays, cancellations, jetlag, lack of food and spending an unexpected night in a Comfort Inn outside our nation’s capital. But as I finally sat on my five-hour flight from D.C. to L.A. this morning, I had some serious time to contemplate.

Naturally, I could think only of death. Babies were screaming, the turbulence was consistent and harrowing at times, and the old lady next to me could not stop drinking $6 mini bottles of Glenlivet scotch. I was reading The Courage to be Protestant by David Wells but really could only think about death—the inevitability of it, the unpredictability of it, how utterly unknown the experience of it is for anyone living. I thought of Shakespeare and that skull in Hamlet. I thought of Emily Dickinson’s poem about “The Bustle in the House / The Morning after Death.” I thought about Air France and Lost. Morbid, I know. But traveling for any period of time tends to shake off the dust of one’s perspective on life and forces you to consider the big questions.

One of the consistent lessons of travel in my life has been the question of control. The limits of control. I’m a big planner and when I travel I typically type up detailed itineraries, Darjeeling Limited style, with all the details and needed contact numbers, ticket confirmations, etc for each day. But as much as you can plan and prepare, things inevitably go awry and circumstances demand adaptability and flexible course correction. But it’s all part of the adventure. I think John Steinbeck hits the nail on the head in Travels with Charley, when he describes travel in this way:

A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us. Tour masters, schedules, reservations, brass-bound and inevitable, dash themselves to wreckages on the personality of the trip. Only when this is recognized can the blown-in-the-glass bum relax and go along with it. Only then do the frustrations fall away. In this a journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.

I think this is probably true for life in general. The minute we think we have it figured out, domesticated, understood or controlled is the minute we begin to lose our grip. I think it’s probably a better approach to just roll with the punches and understand that life happens with little regard to how we hope or expect it to. You will get sick when you least can afford to (as I did during the first few days of my stay in Oxford). You will randomly stumble upon famous people (as I did in Paris with the Obamas). You will have to sit in grounded planes for 3 hours and eat only airplane pretzels and water (as I did yesterday, in a dark dark moment of my recent history).

But all of it is good for you, in the long run. It humbles you—and heaven knows we can all use a little more humbling in our lives. To be confronted with life’s unpredictability and hugeness and incomprehensibility is simultaneously travel’s chief challenge and its raison d’être. And I know that these lessons can probably be learned without crossing an ocean; there are always more streamlined and less roundabout ways of doing anything. But life isn’t always about streamlining, and taking the long road home is sometimes the best way to go.

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One response to “Vaguely Literary Post-Travel Thoughts

  1. Brett, I’ve enjoyed reading your travel posts. Like you I am an organized traveller and lately I’ve been thinking about death too. Your stay at the Kilns inspired me to pull Lewis’ The Great Divorce off of the shelf (finally) and I’m into my second reading of it.

    I don’t have much insight on life vs. death but I can offer this: We can’t control where a road will lead us but we can choose which road to take. And we must choose wisely with eternal impact in mind. According to Lewis, if we find that we have taken some wrong turns we cannot fix our life by continuing on and hoping it eventually works itself out. We have to go back to where we got off track and make a right choice. He was talking about roads leading to Heaven but I think it’s a good general principal too.

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