Travel continues to be one of the most sought-after experiences in life. But is it really worth the financial investment and time commitment? In the following excerpt from The Happy Traveler, psychologist Jaime Kurtz considers the cultural allure and transformative power of travel.
As I set out to unpack the challenges of happy travel, I first had to confront my assumption that travel truly is a worthwhile investment of time and money. We certainly seem to think it is. When people sit down to construct a bucket list, travel goals shoot right to the top. A quick browse through the website bucketlist.org reveals a deep longing for far-flung adventures: taking a hot air balloon ride, seeing Niagara Falls, swimming with dolphins, visiting all seven continents, and even throwing a dart at the map and going wherever it lands.
Why? For one, travel is a life-in-miniature, a bookended period of time in which we experience a wealth of highs and lows. As the Danish writer Peter Høeg said, “Traveling tends to magnify all human emotions.”
From crippling fatigue to exuberance, from a search for solitude to shared belly laughs and deep connections, from cultural bumblings to heightened understanding of the world outside of ourselves: it’s all there, and many of us consider that full range of inner experiences to be essential for a well-lived life.
Our reverence for travel is also woven deeply into our cultural ethos. America’s short history can be summed up as one of movement and expansion. From the early explorers venturing to the New World to nineteenth century author Horace Greeley’s advice to “go West, young man,” from Kerouac’s iconic On the Road to Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, we are captivated by travel and believe in its restorative and transformative powers.
Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2006 runaway hit Eat Pray Love, in which the author spends a year discovering herself in Italy, India, and Indonesia, propelled countless women onto the path to self-awareness, healing, and empowerment. Tourism to the areas Gilbert visited skyrocketed on the heels of her book’s success. Ten years after its release it even inspired the essay collection Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It: Life Journeys Inspired by the Bestselling Memoir. More recently, Cheryl Strayed’s best- seller Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail chronicled her arduous and transformative three-month hike through rough California and Oregon terrain. Because of the number of women seeking a glimmer of this redemption for themselves, the trail has seen a spike in foot traffic since the book and subsequent Reese Witherspoon film were released. One hiker said, “It makes your own personal struggles and problems seem so small. Starting a new life for her was finding herself on this trail and I kind of was in that same point in my life. It’s such an empowering story for women. It will encourage a lot of people to find themselves on a trail.”
Indeed, so many of us are seeking to better ourselves and to come into deeper acquaintanceship with ourselves. We desire that elusive something that will serve as a catalyst for clarity, inspiration, personal growth, or a renewed sense of wonder. And with these narratives as evidence, we have come to the collective conclusion that this something lies elsewhere. To find it, we must take a break from our lives of routine and set off in search of something wholly different, a place where we can test out slightly altered versions of ourselves, free from the constraints of daily life. Through this process of exploration we might just be transformed or revived by the trail, the beach, the foreign city, or the open road.
And even if we can’t jet off to our dream destination, the spark of travel’s life-changing promise can live in us. Frances Mayes’s 1996 memoir Under the Tuscan Sun chronicled her restoration of a neglected Italian farmhouse and inadvertently ignited an obsession for all things Tuscan, from Subway’s Tuscan Chicken Melt to rustic bathroom tiles and hardware to Beneful’s Tuscan Style Medley dog food. Lacking the wherewithal to buy and restore a crumbling Italian villa a la Mayes, we can still live out a small bit of the fantasy through our food, furniture, and housing fixtures.
Featured image credit: “holidays-car-travel-adventure” by Alex Mihis. CC0 public domain via Pexels.