Author: Brooke Pacy


Who can resist the siren call of travel? In a perfect world, we might stay put, but human beings aren’t constituted to slog happily through four months of relentless cold, relentless heat—maybe even relentless perfection—so when  Valentine’s Day delivers another eight inches of slush topped with ice, the sighs go up like smoke from the chimneys of every house on the street: “Let’s blow this burg. Key West. Aspen. The Caribbean. Someplace sunny with groomed slopes or beaches—or a war might liven things up—or a weekend at the Plaza, New York theaters, restaurants. Change. A trip.”

One January in the late 1960s, trapped under a stalled and infinite rain cloud with four children in various stages of the flu, I’d have sold my soul for one. Cheap. We had exhausted Dr. Seuss, Chutes and Ladders, and all the possibilities of still life in charcoal. I couldn’t remember a voice without a whine or a feeling untinged by grievance, when I picked up a New Yorker for one rare half-hour to myself and read a profile of Buckminster Fuller. He was a thinker who died in 1983—just a month before I expected to meet him on his island in Maine, but that’s another story—a man who journeyed out into thought and brought back sparklers. College kids of the time called him The Main Brain. He had a way of connecting things. When a child asked him why a log burned in a fireplace, he told him to think of all the years the tree had been soaking up energy from the sun. “That’s just the sun’s energy unwinding from the log,” he said. He had a bone-level awareness of earth as a spaceship—band in his family the terms “sunrise” and “sunset” as misleading — and thought that if people were meant to stay in one place on the globe, they’d have roots like trees. He designed his geodesic dome — simple, light and stable — for nomads.

For me, his profile was a breeze from a new place, transport into an unexpected energy field. It was convincing on a subcritical level, like the magical tales of my childhood, and imparted the intense satisfaction of a child’s travel with the North Wind or on the back of a talking cuckoo into ineffable visions, knowledge. It came as a reminder of high skies — spring in the not-so-distant offing — and a precursor of high seas, later ocean sailing trips that taught me what “precarious” means.

Journeys take shapes particular as snowflakes, but their general concept is so indigenous to our nature that we perceive all existence in terms of motion from one place to another. Shifts in feeling are expressed as travel: “I used to hate him, but I’m in a different place now.” Seen from some vantage point in outer space, time may be one gigantic room where all things happen simultaneously, but earthlings can’t breathe out there, and here, where they do, things have a beginning in one place and moment, a middle somewhere else later, and an end . . . here, now. A song, a game, a phone conversation all develop from an opening gambit. An essay moves from one premise into another (this one—where is it going?). The journey may describe a circle, returning to the departure point, but the going out and coming back will have made a difference. The backyard is changed when the long-sought bluebird is found — finally — there; the bedroom and the marriage are new places after a siege of cancer. Or a conversion.

Not all trips are chosen. Travel’s likely to be uncomfortable, risky and unnerving compared to watching TV. There are those who lobby strenuously to avoid it. Even as earth revolved her way by the light of our brief candle the sun through expanding spaces already too big for us to imagine, people plant their heels, snub cyberspace, read the same paper, buy the same car, keep the same hours and trust to routine. Like Anne Tyler’s accidental tourist, if they must travel they choose places blandly indistinguishable from home. They trim their hedges to the precise height year after year and try to contain their children in the same way, see old friends on the designated evenings and rent old movies. Who hasn’t been there occasionally? But it can’t work for long. Ford stops making that car, the friends get old or go liberal on you, and as for the children . . . when you can get them off the Internet . . . If you hole up in the neighborhood, it changes around you till you’ve moved in effect, anyway, and without choosing your direction.

For the rigidly nostalgic and financially flexible, elective surgery expands Memory Lane into a freeway down which to race back in time to smooth skin and a try at youth all over again.

Hey, would you really want to do it over again? Youth?

Not really, not fakely, not at all, thanks. Besides, there’s something disorienting about minds going senile behind faces that look like Shirley Temple. Let’s move on. Or as they say now, get over it (but as me again another year, and I may be in a different place).

Moving on calls for a delicate balance between choice and serendipity. How much of a trip’s success is mapping and how much lucky drift, or just relaxing into being lost on the wrong road until a good restaurant turns up? Or a good story? Surprises are the grace notes, like the sudden goldfinch that lifts my Monday morning mind out into a world of wings. A Vonnegut character in Cat’s Cradle says detours and other glitches are dancing lessons from God. When dancing’s possible, why plod? A large part of moving on is simply having open eyes. And clean glasses. And some idea of what we’re looking for so we can be suitably thrilled by the thing that turns up instead.

I think of a trip to a supermarket one over-scheduled Christmas week with an encyclopedic list and a half hour max to shop, the tight-jawed triumph of my mountainous arrival at check-out, only to have the computer mutiny. While someone calmed its waters, the 20-something man waiting to charge my groceries noticed the Hopkins library card in my wallet and grinned, “All right, I go to Johns Hopkins!” He told me he was studying psychology and wanted to work with kids. Of his five close friends, three were in jail and two on drugs. “I coulda been any one of them guys,” he said, and beamed, “hey, good luck, now.” And he was, a small, refocusing journey.

Most of just leave looking for home. Not a house, where maintenance and labor-saving conveniences can become a life work, nor — God forbid, in most cases — childhood homes, but some place: an easel or a typewriter, a team, singing group, island, truck, job, poem, prayer, beloved—a moment—that allows us to forget expulsion from Eden or the womb or whatever it is that we’re missing and feel freely, completely alive in this here, this now.

“You can’t go home till you know who you are,” says a voice on an inspirational tape, suggesting that the road home is inward. If so, it’s inward by indirection. The current passion Carolyn Myss calls “woundology” — identifying old wounds, boring airline seatmates with them, dining out on them till they’re indispensable — won’t do it. Socrates didn’t ask his disciples how they felt about themselves. He asked about poetry, music, governing — subjects that drew them out of themselves into close, difficult scrutiny of the human world, and, like him, they found out who they were in their fascinated engagement. His genius was to engage them on that level—appealing through logic and the sketching of paradox to an inner process deeper than logic, subliminal like the driving forces of homing salmon, migrating geese and butterflies — of all lovely creatures whose courses are clear to them.

Like the woman who asked, “How can I know what I think till I hear what I say,” I’ve learned most about who I am while struggling to rouse 17-year-olds out of comfy pizza-and-TV padded havens, tempt them into places only beautiful and challenging language can take them: ambiguities that set them on inward journeys of their own as they make the tribal ones together, swinging car keys, house keys, in nervous hands. I’ve learned from sailing. When a gale turns the sky and sea into indistinguishable moving particles, I have one inkling that quantum physicists aren’t just whistling “Dixie” and another about my own center of gravity. Night skies over a swinging mast say everything about the harmonious majesty of “out there” and the fortunate miracle of “in here” and their being part of a whole, holy.

Not that it’s been reliably delightful. I’ve prayed for snow days and dry land as fervently as anyone alive. Still, I wouldn’t change a line of the story so far; not the scary parts, not the wrong moves, not the dumbest ones. Learning isn’t painless—how to know the feel of a right path without having taken some wrong ones? Where’s gratitude without panic? Journeys have never been stress-free, certainly not in the Middle Ages when the word emerged, meaning either a day’s work or a day’s travel and not much to choose between them, what with unions and climate-control devices in short supply.

To qualify as a journey, a trip must still entail those elements of hard work and risk. Even when it looks effortless, there’s the instant a trapeze artist lets go the sure thing to grope through thin air for flying opportunity and is sundered from support. That’s the moment of vicarious terror that brings cheers for his elegant catch and new arc into another death-defying suspension.

And death-defying is the key word. Greek heroes had to cross the Styx. From Odysseus plying the wine-dark, dangerous seas to Joyce sounding the intoxicating deeps of language; from Chopin’s and Wharton’s rebels to Morrison’s survivors, stories celebrate those who have — or mourn those who haven’t — gone to meet a death in themselves, a ritual winter that peels free something of their mysterious living core and clears the way for spring. Dostoevsky had to kill the seductive rationalist rage that produced Ivan’s “Grand Inquisitor” before he could come to the affirming faith of the Karamazov brothers’ completed story.

The pattern’s power may derive from earth’s cycles or from the implacable mystery of our before and after. Like the sparrow in the Anglo-Saxon Bede’s story, we fly into the lighted room — this life — for a brief moment bounded by darkness. We come trailing clouds of glory—or bewilderment—that plunge us into paradox; to live most intensely at death’s edge and approach our inmost essence only by breaking free of the self. Thinkers, mystics, freedom riders, great actors, great parents—all know something. They’ve had to grow up and grow wise enough to kill, as Joseph Campbell says, the dragon whose every scale is “shalt not” and transcend both the ego and the prevailing culture to find out what’s really going on. Their journey seems to need doing again about twice a week and never gets easier. It takes phenomenal courage to let go in midair — of the flying bar, of a parent’s inherited expectations — but what’s the alternative? A slowing trapeze, a drop into the night, the flight home missed.

A trip brings its rewards — a break in routine, new menus — but your average week in Florida fades from mind like a ’50s movie musical; even France can get misty as trophies lose their exotic immediacy. A journey is etched in specially lit scenes sharp enough to smell. It becomes part of bone structure like the old fissures and new knobs real life leaves there. Each journey’s a kind of pilgrimage, but, like Chaucher’s high- and low-lives, we find the destination mainly a framework for stories along the way, for the tolerant and pragmatic acceptance of fellow travelers, noble and questionable. For unexpected delights. I never met Buckminster Fuller, but on the island where I hoped to find him I learned to distinguish between comfort and happiness. I return there certainly, yearly, like a homing seal, to regenerate something important. Chaucer to Kerouac, we’re on the road, like it or not. If we can keep a light hand on the rein, allow life to stumble, pick itself up and move at its own most natural gait, we may find ourselves — every now and then — at home.