The Metaphor of Travel | Millbrook, NY

Posted by on February 27, 2005

Travel seems to inspire writers, which is certainly true in my case. And most people keep travel diaries. Or as Charles Nicholl says, in Journeys,“there is nothing like a journey to get people reaching for their pens, if only to write the old lie, ‘wish you were here.’”

There are so many books being published these days, and so many of them seem to be about travel.  At least that’s my impression. (I wish someone could give me the statistics of how many books were published in this country in 1960, and how many were published last year.) It’s my theory that too much is being published.  Maybe that’s why I don’t write a travel book.

There are jillions of books about all sorts of exotic places, which seem to be becoming more and more homogenized by the week. People keep trying to find unspoiled places, but then, if they write about them, they are likely to get too popular.

I’m interested in all kinds of travel books, but today I’m thinking especially of books on the metaphor of travel –  the inner and the outer of travel, you might say.

Of course I devour books on specific places like Rome, Russia, and Rhode Island. But what I’d like to focus on for this column is the subject of travel as a metaphor for our “journey of life.” I have a whole pile of these books, some purchased by me, and some given to me by friends.  Some are personal memoirs of a lifetime, some are anthologies with quotes from writers through the ages.

Here are a few that I reference quite often:

The Art of Travel, by Alain de Botton, the author of How Proust Can Change Your Life, whose thesis is that reading about travel can sometimes be better than traveling. (Could be true if airports tend to exhaust you)

The Spiritual Gifts of Travel, an anthology, which has excerpts from several travel writers including Jan Morris, David Halliburton, and Andrew Harvey. (some of  these are spiritual writers, whose travels tend to dwell on the travel within oneself, rather than the outward)

The Archetype of Pilgrimage, by Jean and Wallace Clift, which focuses    on outer action with inner meaning

The Art of Pilgrimage by Phil Cousineau, which is a seeker’s guide to making travel sacred.

Each of these books has all sorts of thoughts, ideas and quotations that are very valuable when you are traveling, and thinking of how the travel is affecting you.

One of these books quotes the Buddha: “You cannot travel the path until you have become the path.” That is the sort of enigmatic phrase that makes Buddhism so challenging, and so difficult to define.

Another enigmatic quote from one of these books is:

“Dear Lady, I sincerely hope that all does not go as planned.”

This quote I love, because it sets my teeth on edge. I always worry that things won’t go as I planned them.  But they say that is the way to learn, don’t they?

Another enigma: Saint Augustine says “ It is solved by walking.”  See what I mean?  Every spiritual leader or writer seems to be talking about traveling to find whatever it is you want to find.  What is solved by walking? Presumably, it is for the reader to discover. Yikes, what do all these metaphors mean in my life? Do they tend to make my travel stories better?

A Somerset Maugham quote: “ I went looking for adventure and romance, and so I found them. . .  but I found also something I had never expected. I found a new self.”  I’ll bet we’ve all experienced this last phenomenon, suddenly a “you” appears that you never realized existed, and it can be a good “you” or a very cranky one.

That seems to be the bottom line for writers who travel, or travelers who write – the finding of somebody else inside one self, or learning much more about oneself.

I can certainly attest to that fact, but mostly when things have gone wrong with a trip. My inner resources wax and want depending on the level of discomfort.  You may remember the Africa trip, a very difficult one, but with its memories seared in my brain and my psyche.

MY most immediate emotional and starkly revealing travel experience was many years ago, when I was in Mexico, at Atotonilco, a small village where there was a pilgrimage church. We arrived on a Friday afternoon, at the same time that many pilgrims were arriving from all over Mexico, for a religious festival honoring the Blessed Virgin.  I was admiring the gold leaf all over the altar, but when I turned around, poor pilgrims, with nothing for luggage but yellow plastic grocery bags, were falling to their knees as they reached the inside of the church.  At their sight, I burst into tears, which came from I know not where. The highly emotional reaction took me by complete surprise – and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

I would love to hear from fellow travelers in the area, about what has taken place during a trip to make you see more of yourself.  Email me a favorite reminiscence of such an insight.  Most of the best writers we have in the English language have written travel memoirs, and there have been fabulous travel writers, like Bruce Chatwin, Freya Stark, Jan Morris, Graham Greene, who are also famous for other genres, but who have always had a large component of travel in their novels and other writings.

Let me end, before this gets maudlin, with a quote from an old Arabian proverb: “it’s not the road ahead that wears you out – it’s the grain of sand in your shoe.”

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