I’ve written many times here about my extreme reliance on travel to enrich and deepen the inner experience of life. As a painter with an expected sensitivity to changes in landscape and terrain, experiencing those radical shifts in venue is part of my ongoing creative process.
Of course fascination with what happens when the body and the self are relocated is available to everyone. In his review of a new book by Tony Hiss, In Motion: The Experience of Travel, William Dalrymple contextualizes that power of travel from a broad base:
The conviction that traveling in general, and walking in particular, can bring inspiration and even enlightenment is a very ancient one, and it exists in many cultures across the globe. As the old adage, taken up by the wandering scholars of medieval Europe, had it, “Solvitur ambulando” (“It is solved by walking”). In the sixth century B.C., the Indian saint Mahavira is said to have received enlightenment while walking, and the idea is still current. I recently met an itinerant Jain nun who told me: “This wandering life, with no material possessions, unlocks our souls. There is a wonderful sense of lightness, living each day as it comes.” For her, journey and destination became one, thought and action became one…For Hiss, travel and especially walking can bring a sense of heightened awareness of the world, a kind of sensory exhilaration he calls Deep Travel. As he makes clear, such travel need not involve an epic journey; a simple visit to the bagel store at the end of the street can bring it on. What it awakens is a latent, childlike sense of wonder at the world around us.
Nevertheless it is long journeys that bring out the possibilities of Deep Travel most strongly, removing us from our familiar comforts and security, taking us into new situations, alone and vulnerable, our minds open to the world and its sensations, bringing about an enhanced sense of perception. Such travel can also allow us to rediscover parts of our own selves that are normally obscured by the humdrum routines of daily life. Hiss quotes Pico Iyer’s observation that travel allows us “to tap parts” of the self that are “generally obscured by chatter and routine,” and also to realize how subjective our certainties can be. “The first lesson we learn on the road,” Iyer has written, “is how provisional and provincial are the things we imagine to be universal.”
Dalrymple is not terribly enamored with the way Hiss has constructed his exposé, and I am interested in his assessment since I have found his own writings quite fascinating, like Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India. But here he gives a shout out to a writer whose work I have heard praised but have not yet read. Another add to the stack…
The exhilaration of the open road and the feeling of connectedness to the natural world that it can produce, is, after all, a common human experience. Simply expressed, it has produced some of mankind’s greatest writing. The Swiss travel writer Nicolas Bouvier explores this territory in his youthful masterpiece, “The Way of the World,” where he conveys as well as anyone the raw intoxication of being on the road. “Deprived of one’s usual setting, the customary routine stripped away like so much wrapping paper,” Bouvier writes, makes you “more open to curiosity, to intuition, to love at first sight.” Thus traveling “outgrows its motives. It soon proves sufficient in itself. You think you are making a trip, but soon it is making you — or unmaking you.”