What A Long Strange Trip It's Been
Round the world! There is much in that sound to inspire proud feelings; but whereto does all that circumnavigation conduct? Only through numberless perils to the very point whence we started, where those that we left behind secure were all the time before us.
—Herman Melville, Moby Dick
Take a look at me, at what adventurer now crosses the threshold again after all the challenges, revelations, transformations, and atonements of a hero’s journey—for I had been heartbroken, hospitalized, and robbed blind; forced to bribe border guards, to ride on the rooftops of jeeps and sleep on the rooftops of buildings. I’ve played harmonica in the open door of the old trains that cross the Deccan, and I’ve howled at the moon with drunken Burmans in the Shan hills. I’ve developed charade hand signs for everything from “Where is a hotel?” to “Make it spicy.” I’ve told girls, “You’re beautiful,” in a dozen languages. I’ve swam in seven seas. I’ve survived the twenty-two thousand miles of road and land and adventure between London and Tokyo.
In writing about what I did and the people I saw, I fashioned myself a traveling historian like Xuanzang, Ennin, Ibn Battuta, Herodotus, Marco Polo, or Sir Richard Francis Burton, although the world has become much smaller since their days, and my scope of it smaller still from the regal vistas of those noble scribes. Here in these pages is little more than my daily life and the most memorable people and trivial events that filled it. If the Reader was able, despite all its failings, to take anything from what was for me an exercise in memory and style, then I am glad; but I do not think that entertainment or education were ever my intent
I wondered in the end about what I had thought I would get out of this trip when I began it, and whether or not I achieved my aims. It did not matter. I was like Lawrence at the liberation:
Damascus had not seemed a sheath for my sword, when I landed in Arabia: but its capture disclosed the exhaustion of my main springs of action. The strongest motive throughout had been a personal one, not mentioned here, but present to me, I think, every hour of these two years. Active pains and joys might fling up, like towers, among my days: but, refluent as air, this hidden urge re-formed, to be the persisting element of life till near the end. It was dead, before we reached Damascus.
I ask for leave, I want to go home, and no more of this striving, striving, striving. The uncertain wanderlust that had driven me to undertake a reckless voyage was well enough burned out for me to plant down roots in the ashes now that the task is ended. But I feel the wanderlust will return, to sweep away all else but an anxiety of wheres and whens; and, more importantly, these years of travel had awakened some finer freedom from dormancy.
Skip warned me: once a traveler has gone a year on the road, it would become his home, a home too attractive for any settling down in only one certain place. I resisted this out of fear of transience, impermanence, and loneliness: fear, that “dagger of the mind”; until I realized that I had nothing to fear from this vagabond nature, that there are benefits to the freedom to pass through even in one’s home country. It is not that I have severed my roots; I have not, but I have severed the chains that bound me to a stolid, stable life of familiar routine, of leaving all determination in the hands of trusted powers, of fearing change and poverty at the expense of life, as the faces around me change so slowly that I may forget for a time the limited span of my life and pretend at Immortality—for what more is Eternity than a circle repeating endlessly?
I was no longer afraid. I wanted the freedom I might earn, different than the liberty that my nation promised. James Joyce wrote: “When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.” It is perhaps pretentious to call myself unshackled, but I have been indoctrinated into an awareness of opportunity: there are ways one might live in incessant change, amid new friends whom we love desperately for their fleeting rarity, and with new ways to make a living, reminded constantly by novel circumstances to be amazed by life and the world, and always able to chose again from its bounty. I see a picture of somewhere beautiful or a map of somewhere fantastic and think, “I will go there.” I wonder about today and tomorrow more than ten years from now, and I am perplexed and even vexed when my friends ask me about my retirement plans. Stability is a myth, and careers a twentieth century reinvention of slavery!
So what will I do now? I have little idea. It is my intention to learn a new language, to improve myself, to travel to every continent and live in many different countries, to have a dozen different jobs, to ride my bicycle a long distance, to know the world as much as a man can. Everywhere is worth seeing, because everywhere there is the beauty of life and nature; and often the beauty that is hardest to find is the most worthy of our pursuit. I indeed found much more to love in Syria and Burma and the other places hard to reach, than what all the museums of Europe and the beaches of the Pacific might offer up to customers.
An itinerary? A plan? What rot. Give me adventure! and thou line of travelers, faces hid behind the bindings of your Lonely Planets—ye disgust me! Cast away that fake Testament, look around unencumbered, and open your mind to the truth of those places that in your ignorance you never considered. Not just the countries, but the towns, the streets, the restaurants, alleyways, and the strangers who inhabit them! You won’t find these things on the map, says Ishmael: “True places never are.” Yield to the new experience, to the word and hand of the stranger, to trust and love and hope: say Yes: listen to other travelers and go there. Even if you never leave your country you can still find adventure. Write down the names of small towns, put them in a hat, and visit the one that comes out. Invite a stranger to dinner. Hand out watercolors and paper and see what your friends can imagine. Challenge yourself to appreciate different music. Put down the remote, and never live through the television again. The real world is just a step out the door if you know how to open your eyes.
Someone once said to me that travel does not get out of your system. Everywhere you go, everyone you talk to, every picture you see, each suggests a thousand more amazing places to experience, to smell and taste, to love—not just to wonder about, because a traveler knows that with a cheerful attitude one can go anywhere in the providence of total safety, and that anywhere one goes there will be something worth the journey. Once you have traveled for a certain length of time, it becomes impossible to stop. Starting is not easy, and those first steps take sacrifice and a yielding up of stability and familiar tempers to the tempest of liberty. But if there is some strength in you Reader, then there’s nothing for it but to follow that Song of the Open Road.