Searching for the best of life on the road to anywhere.
"I could hear a new call and see a new horizon ... I was a young writer and I wanted to take off. Somewhere along the line I knew there’d be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me.” – Jack Kerouac, On the Road.
The journey beckons.
For On the Road’s Sal Paradise, it was the promise of inspiration. For The Beach’s protagonist, Richard, it was the call of a fantasy unknown, of “something we haven’t tried before”. Me, I wanted it all. But mostly I was looking for a route of escape when I booked a one-way ticket to Latin America at age 22.
It wasn’t a maiden voyage; by then I was mildly addicted to the lightness of being that came with being cut loose in a world full of possibility. Every scrape with danger and near-missed flight was a story to tell, and I had never been one to miss my bed, for freedom and familiarity seemed infinitely exclusive. I had the degree; a ‘real job’ I liked, but didn’t love. Still, adulthood was a race I wasn’t ready to swim – that once begun, I wasn’t sure I could stop. What unnerved me most, though, was the risk of drifting in the wrong direction.
And so I did the obvious, the acceptable: I left my languid home town of Perth, Western Australia, for a destination that seemed original, untouched, invigorating. My parents were worried. Friends and colleagues told me I was brave. My plan may not have been original, but it was freeing; I would simply be a Traveller, take some chances, some time to write, be inspired, and somewhere along the road I would decide what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. What did it matter if I already knew?
A month before I left, something happened. I’m not sure how different things would have been if it hadn’t. But it did; my family lost a member. It was the first death in my life that I had no way of preparing for; I knew I was rattled, but didn’t understand how deeply. When people told me it would be good to ‘get away’ I listened. But the year-long journey that followed would become a lesson in grief, change and unshakeable fear.
“… [T]he world is too much with us, and we are too much with ourselves,” wrote philosopher George Santayana in his Philosophy of Travel, published posthumously in 1968.
“We need sometimes to escape into open solitudes, into aimlessness, into the moral holiday of running some pure haphazard, in order to sharpen the edge of life, to taste hardship, and to be compelled to work desperately for a moment at no matter what.”
This is the reason we search flights after a dissatisfying week; it is behind the euphoria we feel upon hitting ‘purchase’ on those tickets to paradise, the jolt of excitement when the plane surges off the runway with promise of leaving our old lives behind, and the endless possibilities awaiting us on landing. As philosopher Alain de Botton writes in his modern traveller’s almanac, The Art of Travel: “... the swiftness of the plane’s ascent is an exemplary symbol of transformation. The display of power can inspire us to imagine analogous, decisive shifts in our own lives, to imagine that we, too, might one day surge above much that now looms over us.”
Frode Stenseng, an associate professor and senior researcher at Norway’s University of Science and Technology and an author of several studies on escapism, says the tendency is an integral and constantly practised element of human life – one that allows us to “narrow the monitoring of ourselves and ... feel a relief from our constant self-awareness”.
Escapism, he says, may be experienced in a plethora of activities: travel, sport, arts, reading, ingesting mind-altering substances, even working. “However, regardless of type of activity or interest, I believe that the state of escape has three psychological aspects in common,” he explains. “Activity absorption – that the person is highly alert to new experiences and more or less ‘lives in the moment’; temporary loss of oneself – that these new experiences draw attention away from oneself; and less self-criticism – that this increased focus on new experiences or tasks lead to decreased self-evaluation and potentially a less harsh evaluation of one’s general abilities.
“When failing an exam or [when we’ve] had a bad day at work, we learn from our mistakes, but we also need to move forward, and to escape self for a while may also be a way to gain some new energy.”
It’s true that time spent in a new space and culture has the power to alter your world view – that getting out on the road can spark the fire of creativity, just as it did for Sal Paradise. Some psychologists even recommend it as a method of dealing with personal pain. Yet in our shrinking world, opportunities for unique adventure – the open solitudes and sharp edges the travellers among us search for – are increasingly scarce. In the eyes of Ilan Stavans, co-author of Reclaiming Travel, the endeavour has become a mirage.
“There is nowhere new to go, nowhere else to escape,” Stavans writes to me from Puerto Montt, Chilean Patagonia – a once-small fishing port that is now home to about 200,000 people, not including the migrant population.
“Life-enriching travel mostly has to do with escaping civilisation, going where no one else goes ... Few such places still exist.”
Stavans, the Lewis-Sebring professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, Massachusetts, and publisher of Restless Books, wrote Reclaiming Travel, ‘a provocative meditation on the meaning of travel’, with co-author Joshua Ellison in a follow-up to their rousing New York Times opinion piece of the same name.
“I have been travelling for decades,” he explains of what motivated him to explore the notion. “The further I go – like Patagonia – the clearer it becomes that travel is now a nuisance. To go places, it has become imperative not only to look critically at space but to understand our ancestral instinct to be restless, to always be on the move, and the extent to which that constant move is by definition destructive.
“We must look for ways to travel differently, around known places, and around ourselves, in order to understand the real limits of our humanity.”
Much has changed since our ancestors traversed the globe on mystic pilgrimages, for discovery, trade and conquest; since Freya Stark, ‘the last of the romantic travellers’, went across the Middle East by camel and donkey in the 1930s, even since journalist and one-time Mrs Ernest Hemingway Martha Gellhorn undertook the journeys recorded in Travels With Myself and Another, when the cracks in the proverbial road were already showing.
“Remember when you didn’t have to plan your trip like a military operation and book in advance with deposit in enclosed,” she laments in her memoir, published in 1978. “Remember when you were a person not a sheep, herded in airports, railway stations, ski lifts, movies, museums, restaurants, among your fellow sheep ... ?”
Disillusion is a hard fact of travelling. But more than anything, the notion that wherever you go, there you are, rings true. And what you get out is largely dependent on what you put in, says Stenseng. “If escapism is carried out based on a need to travel into new positive experiences, the outcomes are mostly good, such as positive emotions and increased life satisfaction,” he explains. “However, when escapism is rooted in a need to run away from negative experiences, feelings, or thoughts, the outcomes are poorer, and may lead to ... shame, and even a stronger need to escape self.”
Gellhorn – a serial escapist – was the first to admit to moments of apathy on the road. “We can’t all be Marco Polo or Freya Stark,” she wrote. “Though we too have our moments of glory we also tire, our spirits sag, we have moments of rancour.”
In my case, that aimless melancholy – tinged with the cynicism brought on by finding myself a tourist in paradises already lost – began to threaten early in the trip. It mingled with a fog of grief that grew more dense the further I wandered, taking the shine off simple pleasures and tunnelling hedonism into guilt – soon to become a hurricane.
No doubt, there were moments of glory – captured in photographs to prove to my world and myself: I was having fun.
There was midnight salsa dancing and days of joyful exploration and conversations in a new tongue and drinking fresh coconuts and swimming in the clearest, bluest waters I’d ever seen.
And then there were panic attacks on long-haul buses and the shaking that wouldn’t stop and the paralysing and ever-growing fear that someone was going to die; me, most of the time. This had never happened before. But slowly and then all at once there it was, overflowing through the hole left by the loved one I had lost, exacerbated by the unending possibilities I had set off to chase. Now, it seemed, they could only lead to failure.
Home was only a flight away. Instead, I kept going – propelled by a drive to get what I came for but experiencing the wonder around me at a limited capacity, as if from a thick glass box with not quite enough oxygen to fill my lungs.
“Anxiety is love’s greatest killer,” wrote the fearless traveller of body and mind, Anaïs Nin. “It makes others feel as you might when a drowning man holds on to you. You want to save him, but you know he will strangle you with his panic.”
It felt to me at that time that this was not a phenomenon exclusive to romantic relationships. As things grew darker those fleeting but enriching friendships of the road became more difficult to spark, as if others could sense the hum of panic buzzing through my veins and had resolved to stay out of arm’s reach.
Two weeks out from completing a year-long journey – alone in Tulum, Mexico – I finally gave in.
The day before I boarded an early flight home I travelled to Ik Kil cenote, a water-filled sinkhole, and launched myself off its cliff into the bottomless pool below: a final act of defiance in the face of a fear that kept following.
On my return to the real world, the paranoia manifested differently – devoid of any real risk to feed on – in an iron unchecked, a garage door left open, an unsolved ache or shortness of breath. I wasn’t the person I had been a year ago, but the boil had slowed to a simmer. When the time came to step into the next chapter, the fear was not in admitting I wanted to pursue writing as a profession, but in the realisation that I would need to leave home, and all that was protecting me, in order to achieve it. I didn’t know if I still had the strength.
My chance to find out came much sooner than I’d anticipated, or wanted, with an opportunity I couldn’t refuse on the other side of the country – thankfully not the other side of the world.
This time I left as a seeker rather than an escapee. Still, I was terrified the panic would find me the moment I stepped out into the open, alone. It never came. Perhaps Martha Gellhorn was right when she wrote, “Nothing is better for self esteem than survival.”