“Wanderlust” is quite possibly my favorite word in the English language. I love the way the word sounds, I love that it combines a verb and a noun that at their roots seem to both be about looking for something, and I love how strong of a word this is–someone wants to travel so much that they desire it in a powerful, needful, almost sexual way.
I’ve been thinking about travels, travel writing, and the need for travel a lot lately. Only months ago, I was fortunate enough to vacation in a remote part of Jamaica with my parents; I have yet to mine the depths of that trip for story inspiration, but I imagine it will come back to me one day in a rush of memories and meaning. My flash fiction “Boy Named Rome,” inspired by the unexpected negative qualities of the Eternal City (and with a nod in its title to my favorite short story, John Cheever’s “Boy in Rome”), was recently featured on Tin House’s Open Bar blog. My travel/personal essay “Embark,” about a trip my ex and I took to Anacortes, Washington is forthcoming from Port Cities Review.
I hadn’t been travel writing much lately, but suddenly it seems that the combination of venues looking for this type of writing and my unshakeable wanderlust makes me long for it again. I think that travel is a powerful tool for changing people because it opens us up to new ideas, cultures, and experiences. A lot of the changes that took place in my development as a young woman occurred because I studied abroad in college. You learn a lot about yourself when you leave your comfort zone.
Reflecting on past travels and hoping for more in the future, I leave you with this, my manifesto on travel writing:
For the Wanderers
In John Cheever’s essay “Why I Write Short Stories,” he writes of Americans, “We are not a nomadic people, but there is more than a hint of this in the spirit of our great country—and the short story is the literature of the nomad.” These nomads, these wanderers, these people standing on train platforms—always leaving—or reverently clutching plane tickets, what do we know of them? They are the guests at our dinner parties with stories of the nightlife in SoHo, who compare every meal afterward to that gnocchi in Florence, and they say, “Yes, I understand” to everything you share with them, and you believe that yes, they do understand everything because they have been out there, they have seen the world, shaken hands with many people, learned how to say “shit” in five different languages, and if they have seen beyond this country of ours, then they must have brought this wisdom back with them.
How do the nomads, the explorers, bring their stories back when they return to their homeland? How does one put into words, capture the picture, of the hidden lake atop Ireland’s tallest pass? “It was gray…it was ghostly…when the wind drifted across the top of the water you could just swear that you felt it up your back like there was something moving across you…and then we bought ice cream cones from a van on our hike back.” Those waiting at home for a postcard or a phone call, how do the wanderers help them to see what they saw, how do they form the words without giving up and throwing out a trite, “You had to be there”?
We are the new nomads. We are deeply rooted in this country, in our hometowns, in our parents’ houses. But we feel the stirring in us like all nomads before us, like Hemingway and Fitzgerald in France or Cheever in Italy. Yes, we have homes, yes we are American, but no, we do not feel the permanence that many do after graduation, that desire to “settle down” and lay our roots in the ground. We have slipped free from these roots that our parents and our teachers and our bosses told us to bury now. Bury now and stand still. We want to visit fishing villages in Jamaica, to spend forty-eight hours in Las Vegas and not gamble, to discover if the Mediterranean really is that blue.
We want to walk, to wander, but not without purpose. Our purpose is to discover the stories worth telling and to bring them back with us, like souvenirs, like sunburns, like photographs that we look back on in the hope of discovering again the feelings that a new place evoked in us. If the short story is the literature of the nomad, then travel writing is the literature of the new nomad. The travel essay is the language of the next generation of wanderers. We speak it like our native tongue.