Some people say the best thing about traveling is coming home.
I say, you never do come home.
That is, if you have gotten from your travels what they best offer, you can never return to the life you had been living. You are changed.
Of course, the return to normal life, after weeks of living out of suitcases and eating out of McDonald’s bags, is a relief. Vacationing is hard work. You use all the hours of the day like each day is the last.
But an engine is not meant to run full throttle 24 hours a day.
At home, you can finally take your shoes off, sit back and watch Seinfeld reruns, knowing that you are going back to the office in the morning. It is like the rerailing of a derailed locomotive; you are back on track, you know where you are going and when. The schedule is published and you can consult your timetable.
And there is also something comfortable about being surrounded by all your things. They are familiar. Your books, your TV, your sofa — and most of all, your bed.
Home is where your family and friends are, too — or so it used to be before America decided to move every few years.
It’s like putting on an old pair of sneakers after wearing rented shoes for a week.
Yet back home, there is something you miss from the traveling. A kind of rush from not knowing what comes next, from having to pay attention. Travel can be exhausting, but it is also enlivening.
For the workaday life is a life that is not fully awake. Routine dulls the luster of the stones under your feet, turns the music of the blackbirds in your back yard to an irritating squabble.
Travel provides many other benefits. It makes you less provincial, for one thing. You can no longer believe that your local way of doing things is the only way. You may have been brought up on meatloaf and mashed potatoes, but only the most stubborn of us is not seduced by Brazil’s feijoada or London’s aloo matar. We learn that other nations may be more civilized than our own. Certainly there are many that are safer.
Travel also entertains. The scenery shifts, the menus shift, the languages shift. There is always something new to tickle our attention.
And travel can separate us from our problems, like a two-week bender. We forget office politics, forget project deadlines, forget our debts and trespasses. It is like halftime in the game of life.
But none of these things is as important as the power travel has to reawaken us to our own lives.
What travel gives us that our regular lives cannot is newness. Everything seems brand new; you can’t get enough of it. We may have mountains at home, but we don’t really see mountains until we drive through the Rockies or the Drakensbergs in South Africa. We have desert at home, or a river, but we don’t see them until we cross Death Valley in July, or see the moon glowing on the fast midnight current of the Rhine near Dusseldorf.
Our work lives are formed of clay and mud. Our travel lives burn with flame.
But if we have done our travel properly, we bring that flame home with us. And we are reawakened to our own lives; we can see it again for the first time.
It can be even more true if the travel has lasted too long. Twenty-five years too long. A lifetime of travel, and a later return to what was once familiar. The Ithaka you left is never the Ithaka you return to.
As I write this, snow has just left the lower heights of the Blue Ridge and hangs over the tops of the bowl-rim of peaks that form the zig-zag horizon just outside Asheville in North Carolina. Up on the ridges, the white remaining on the ground provides a visual relief allowing us to see the leafless trees as distant hashmarks inked onto the hills like pen-strokes, in a way we can never see it in summer, when the foliage softens the view and makes ever mountain furry instead of hairy.
Seeing that again this year is refreshed in a way it never was when winter was the ordinary slush of melting snow, greyed with soot and piled by snowplows into tiny cordilleras parallel to the curbs of the wet, slick streets. Coming back to the East after a quarter-century in the Arizona desert has allowed me to see the snow all over again as something miraculous, a world-state of the intensely beautiful.
And the ordinary light of day is rendered what it always is, extraordinary.