What is Travel?

plane, wing, travel, history

The answer to that question depends upon which century of human history the asker is speaking from. Academicians, with their books and records and ‘archives’, claim that we are living in an era of the ‘post-colonial travelogue’, that is, people (Europeans (mainly British)) once penned stories of exploration and discovery that explicitly condoned and/or endorsed a colonial foreign policy, and now they don’t do that anymore. To summarize: travel writers are no longer copy writers for a system whose flow chart reads, claim land -> exploit natives -> extract resources. No, instead, travel writing has evolved from the instructional character of Medieval texts; to the romantic, colonial discourse extending from the enlightenment to the 19th century; to the modern, ‘subjective’ tales of contemporary travel literature. Exteriority has been eschewed for interiority, the inner journey, the quest for self-discovery, for reconciliation regarding the near innate guilt felt for centuries of colonialism.

That is a rough, and by no means adequate explanation of the history and historiography of travel writing for almost a thousand years. It’s just, I’ve been diving into the scholarly literature recently and it is a fascinating world, so I’m trying to fit it into a one-off blog post. What is a travel story? On its face, travel implies movement, and implicitly movement from the familiar to the exotic or completely unfamiliar. That certainly isn’t false, but it doesn’t have to be true. You can travel within your city, you can meet new people and experience wildly unfamiliar environments less than a mile from your own home.

For example: most New Yorkers have never set foot in an abandoned subway station, or a maintenance tunnel. If travel is about the unfamiliar, and by extension the act of discovery, then there are infinite dimensions for that activity to play out. Over time, over space, between people, comparative journeys, revisitations, introspection. I lived in the staid, sleepy city of Greensboro, NC for 3 years, and spent the majority of my life living near it, but I continuously discovered new things, new people, unconsidered views, underappreciated streets and neighborhoods while rambling around within its borders.

So this suggests yet another thing about travel: it is attitudinal. A traveler is always looking for new things, whether those things reside in a different hemisphere, or a 9 iron away. It must be pointed out that escapism features prominently within any discussion of travel. This is true, many people rove around as a form of escape from something (bill collectors, illegitimate children, criminal histories, existential malaise, chronic restlessness, whatever), but that doesn’t violate the proposition that travelers are seekers of novel situations.

As fun as dissecting and analyzing the complexities of the idea of travel, it also fun, as hell, on its own, intrinsically, and that fact shouldn’t be overlooked or buried under the arcane offspring of philosophical and socio-historical vocabulary.

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