Simply being able to travel is a great privilege from which we should learn
I don't remember when I first began ruminating on the question. My thinking on the quality of daily life has evolved over time. I do remember, as a teenager, observing what worked (and didn’t work) for my parents. They had moved a half-dozen times over twenty years, uprooting my three siblings and me, to follow Dad’s promotion opportunities with a large construction conglomerate. The company provided a good living and work that my father professed to love - until, one day, it didn’t.
He’d been one of the youngest executives promoted into successive positions, but when the company sold to an even larger, international conglomerate, he became a victim of the downsizing that was so popular in the 1990s. Then in his mid-fifties, he found himself unemployed. Soon after, he lost a significant portion of my parents’ retirement in the dot-com bust. Too young to retire, he struggled to start his own consultancy, falling into what we now recognize as depression. After he died at 68, doctors remarked that his depression likely triggered the early dementia that took his life. To me, he was a real-life Willy Loman of “Death of a Salesman.”
I wondered out loud why we would subject ourselves to a lifetime of preparing for the day after retirement, a day which, for many like Dad, never came. I cursed the system that robbed him of the carefree time he’d planned for in his post-work life. I vowed to live differently.
But when I thought more deeply about it, I realized that this unfortunate story wasn’t the whole picture. My parents were always adventurous and happy in their way, and a quick inventory of better times was easy to assemble: Raising four kids they adored and showered with learning opportunities and their own time; good friends in each place they lived - friends they kept in touch with and, no matter how long they had been apart, could start right where they left off with a cocktail and raucous laughter; projects like the farm in Appalachian Ohio, where we often camped on weekends, where Dad planted a vineyard and Mom kept up with us kids, poison ivy and all. Mom went back to school at 40, becoming a home healthcare nurse working in downtown Detroit. Her experience changed her, adding nuance to my father’s simple, myopic “bootstrap” conservatism. After that, she joked that their votes canceled each other out.
Having good friends and being able to pick up where you left off is one of the true joys of life
In addition to the family, friends, and good work, Dad’s do-it-your-self-reliance brought him both endless happy moments tinkering and a good command of the properly hurled expletive. He learned to fly, built a boat, made wine, planted gardens, learned to cook with a wok, and designed the family home. I followed in his master-of-none footsteps and learned why making something with your own two hands was so satisfying.
With all of that, they still found time to travel with us. Twice, we loaded into the family truckster and headed west from Ohio, taking in the sod houses and teepees of the prairie, the crows and juniper scrub of the badlands, and the thin and piney air of the mountains, all the way to the gusty, cold Pacific. We sang, bickered, slept, and told jokes all along the way. We learned to get along in close quarters and not to hold a grudge. We longed for home but relished the adventure, too.
Dad became scoutmaster in our local troop, where I learned to properly pack a backpack and administer back-country first aid. Once I got a taste of wilderness, I couldn’t get enough. The pain of hauling a heavy pack up a rocky trail was an investment that paid in epic vistas, close encounters with wildlife, cozy campfires, satisfyingly sore muscles, and reams upon reams of stories. Learning how to live out of a backpack was a revelation in simple living. It’s slow travel, close up, and it’s as spiritual as anything I’ve ever experienced.
After I left home, I spent some years developing that philosophy of how to live, taking on a chunk of the Appalachian Trail, moving West for a spell, and finishing a degree in music (why study something “useful,” right?), before moving West yet again. I met a fierce, beautiful woman who had come to a similar conclusion about life. On weekend hikes in the Cascades of Washington, we debated and dreamed about what it might actually mean to take the road less traveled.
It most definitely made all the difference. We quit our jobs and lit off on a year-long, round-the-country road trip. We were living large in a Toyota long-bed pickup, the road lacing together countless wilderness adventures and new acquaintances. After one particular ten-day backpacking trip, we pulled into Flagstaff and stopped at the first coffee shop. Munching on bagels, we surveyed the town with a critical eye, noting what was there that might make a good daily life. Tasty bagels were a very positive sign. If someone cared enough to bother with the quality of the bagels at the coffee shop, there was a chance that they cared about other things we cared about, too. We began to make a mental list of what we would want in the future place we might settle. A strong, local farmers’ market was important, as were independent, creative businesses like restaurants, breweries, and small, natural grocery stores. At one point, we realized that one way to guarantee many of these accouterments was to choose a college town. College towns, for the most part, also delivered good public schools, a never-ending variety of cultural and sporting events to attend, and interesting neighbors.
That trip laid the foundation for our eventual decision to move to a college town in Appalachian Ohio where we raised our two fierce, beautiful girls. It was a 20-year experiment that would test our hypothesis; an exercise that has largely run its course. The results are in: I am happy to report that it is quite possible to create good daily living, which, over many years, becomes a good life. Where you spend those individual days has a disproportionate impact on happiness, so it pays to choose that place wisely.
Among the many daily benefits of living in our small college town is the low cost of living, which allows us to travel widely and at length. It’s worth noting that travel helped us find home. Home, in its simplicity, made more travel possible. It’s one of those chicken-and-egg problems that are good to have.
That travel has brought new horizons, fresh experiences, and a real-world education outside of school for our girls. They learned how to thrive in less-than-ideal living conditions, and I like to think that the time we spent every summer in our small pop-up, a-frame camper, without running water and electricity, gave them a unique perspective on the world and set them up to weather life’s storms.
Traveling with our girls has taught all of us a lot about life - Portugal, 2014
That’s the most important thing travel has taught me: to learn from a shift in perspective. A castle is just a castle unless you are able to ingest and process the stories of the bygone era in which it was a backdrop. Once, in Bellinzona, Switzerland, I was part of a conversation between two Swiss people, one of German ancestry and one Italian. As they discussed the history of the stunning castles and ramparts that bisect the valley leading to the easiest north-south passage through the alps, one said to the other, “This is the place where your ancestors slaughtered my ancestors,” and they had a good laugh. The conversation made me aware of just how far human society has come in the quest for peace and prosperity.
With a modicum of scientific knowledge, a road cut through a hillside, exposing layer upon layer of mineral deposits, becomes a window into deep time. On a regular day, we humans may have a difficult time thinking in terms of hundreds of years, but mindful attention to the strata of rock, laced with tiny fossilized shells, can be fodder for both imaginative flights of fancy (seeing the ancient sea that once covered what is now the hilly woodlands of southern Ohio, for example) but also for the beginnings of an understanding of what it means to say “millions of years.”
Very occasionally we experience this with another human being, glimpsing, however briefly, their view of the world. A few steps in the shoes of another human can shake foundations and bring core beliefs to heel. The more people we meet and the more people with whom we break bread, the more likely we are to not only understand others but to also understand ourselves.
Through that process, I am sometimes horrified and dismayed, sometimes humbled and reoriented. A new perspective answers questions, filling the cup of knowledge while, at the same time, enlarging the cup so that it can never be filled completely. This is the promise of travel and the reason to leave our comfortable coves and moorings to explore foreign ports. If we can retain the child-like sense of discovery no matter where we go, the universe expands with us. It’s a state of mind. While I know it sounds overly grandiose, I'm earnest when I say: It’s where I learn how to live.
What profound travel experiences have shifted your perspective and taught you something about life? Let us know in the comments below, and subscribe so you don’t miss a thing.