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Why We Travel - By Kurt Caswell

People & Places
April 20, 2020

Kurt Caswell is an avid traveler who has backpacked, canoed, and rambled about in some thirty countries. His passion for travel and finding new ways to minimize his gear list made him an early supporter of Unbound Merino. We came across Kurt as a fellow traveler and customer only to discover that he is also a travel writer. Kurt is the author of four books of nonfiction, most recently Laika’s Window: The Legacy of a Soviet Space Dog, and a book of travel essays, Getting to Grey Owl: Journeys on Four Continents. He teaches writing and literature in the Honors College at Texas Tech University. We jumped at the opportunity to have him write a guest piece. We hope this is the first of many to come.

When I began to travel in my early twenties, I did so with an innocence that is not possible now. I knew only that movement felt good, and it offered something that helped me negotiate, even at that age, the sometime monotony of everyday life. I came to feel that movement—the slow approach of a high peak on a far horizon, the stream of passing faces and bodies in a busy airport, the ever-sharpening V-line while descending a river canyon—was at the very root of my identity. I found a satisfaction (unavailable anywhere else) in a good pair of walking boots, a sharp set of traveling clothes, and a loose plan anchored by a far-destination.

Later, when I came to think more deeply about the nature of travel, I articulated for myself a few reasons that help explain why travel is so alluring. Other travelers may give you other reasons for traveling, but here are a few I trust.

1. Travel asks that you accept that much of what happens is beyond your control.

At Larissa Station in Athens some years ago, I waited with two friends to catch the onward train to Patras, where we would board a ferry for Brindisi, and back to mainland Europe. At the appointed hour, the train did not appear. We waited for fifteen minutes. And then for thirty. Finally, I asked the ticket master when the train would arrive. It was now forty-five minutes late.

“The train for Patras will arrive,” he told me, “when the train for Patras arrives.”

The ticket master’s words resonate for me as the moment I really understood that the train (and the people who operate it) has little interest in my travel plans, that it cares not at all for my personal expectations. My expectations, I realized, were my own invention, and they had nearly nothing to do with conditions on the ground. To get to Patras I had to wait for the train to Patras, which meant letting go of my plans, my expectations for how this should happen. Once I did so, I discovered that while I was not in control of the train, I was in control of how I reacted to the train. Waiting for the train was a choice I had made, not a sentence carried out against me. The freedom that arrived with that realization was instantly more fetching and satisfying than any arising from something I might hang on to.

2. Travel tunes your senses

Because when you travel, the world opens to you to be sensed, to be seen, felt, heard, smelled, touched, and tasted with a clarity that is not otherwise possible. Coffee tastes better when got from a street café in Venice because you are tuned so completely to the coffee got from a street café in Venice. A crow delights you, perched on a snowy birch branch in the Vermont woods. You even recall a Frost poem you had once committed to memory, and it becomes part of that crow you see now. A traffic jam on the road to Rishikesh in northern India as the train comes through is a feast of sensations. Car horns. The musky oxen pulling carts loaded with produce. The angry shouts of a mahout urging his elephant forward. You notice all this as if from above, because when you are traveling, the trappings of modernity no longer touch you. Pay attention, you tell yourself. This will make a great story.

3. Travel hardens you.

And it hardens you physically, first. As much as travel is an act of the imagination, requiring an emotional, psychological, and sometimes a spiritual investment, it is at first an act of the body, a test of the body’s limits. You can see in a traveler’s face, in his hands, in his chest and legs and arms, the shape of the journey he has made. Form does follow function. Form follows action. How you spend your days shapes the body you have. And if you are traveling, your body will grow lean and strong and hard from its engagement with the purity of the road.

In his book Arabian Sands, British explorer Wilfred Thesiger marvels at the physical toughness of his traveling companions, “Their bodies were lean and hard, trained to incredible endurance. Looking at them, I realized that they were very much alive, tense with nervous energy vigorously controlled.” The body, hardened by travel, comes alive, then, in a way it was not before. When you return home, your friends and family are drawn to what has come alive in you. They say: something is different about you.

4. Travel is an act of fellowship.

To travel alone is admirable, as it affords a certain focus and requires you to master your fear. It is a luxury too, because you have so little to care for but yourself as you look closely at the world through which you move. But to travel with one or more companions offers the greatest of prizes: the risk and reward of fellowship. Traveling with companions requires that you earn the trust and respect of your companions, who you, in turn, must come to trust and respect. You travel by merit of a common purpose, even as the common purpose becomes the merit by which you travel. And that common purpose is: we are in this together.

5. Travel strips away your attachment to things.

For when you go, you go light. Your things do not define you, but you are defined by the few things you carry: your notebook and pen, your boots and best pants, a shirt you can live in. You feel better stripped down this way, lighter and more flexible, better able to respond to the unexpected. Travel unmoors you so that you are always adrift in an unfamiliar sea, moving in foreign currents, in search of a buoy to hang on to. But do not worry, writes the 15th century Zen poet Ikkyu, “there’s no way not to be who and where you are.” And the who and where you are becomes inseparable from the few things you carry. This is not attachment, it’s refinement, reduction, a coalescence of you and your tidy kit to what is pure and elemental.

6. Travel changes your perception of time.

Have you ever wondered why so much seems to happen in so little time when you travel? You return from a journey of just a few days and feel like you’ve been gone for weeks. For one thing, when you travel, you live in a heightened state of attention. The distractions of everyday life fall away (work; family; home maintenance; our obsession with social media, TV, and movies) making room for lived-experience. Travelers ask questions, make spontaneous decisions, experiment, and explore. Travelers seek the new, the changing, the wonderous, all of which feel timeless.

7. Travel is the measure of yourself against yourself.

A journey, with or without a companion, is a personal endeavor. You are your own master, no matter how strangely put together. Travel takes you to the limit of your endurance and tolerance, and at that limit, you assemble the courage to go beyond, or you find the grace to retreat. It matters little that you did or did not conquer the great peak, manage that surly border agent, or approach an attractive face in the crowd to say “hello.” What matters is that you discover your limit while climbing that great peak, while engaged with the border agent, or upon sighting that face in the crowd. “For me,” Thesiger writes, “exploration was a personal venture . . . it is not the goal but the way there that matters, and the harder the way the more worth while the journey.”


If you liked this piece, you can learn more about Kurt's writing and work on his website.