My father never had the “urge for going,” as songwriter-singer Joni Mitchell calls it—the desire to travel. I place the blame for that fact squarely on the shoulders of World War II. As a young man, my dad was sent—compliments of the U.S. Army—to France in the bottom of a transport ship to take part in the D-Day invasion. It was the first time he’d ever been abroad. From then on, traveling just didn’t have a positive association for him. Besides, he’d ask me, why should he want to leave home when what was dearest to him—his family—was here?
And so, when I was growing up, my family never went “away on vacation” as my friends’ families did. Perhaps that’s why as a child I was drawn to reading books set in wild, far-off places I assumed I’d never see, books such as Benedict and Nancy Freedman’s Mrs. Mike, published in 1947, which takes place in the blizzard and grizzly bear regions of northwest Canada, and tales from authors who made location as powerful as any protagonist in their stories—such as Jack London in his Klondike adventures, John Steinbeck in his California novels and Robert Louis Stevenson in his South Seas fiction.
Since I’ve become an adult, however, my work as a nature-travel writer has taken me all over the world: from the sub-Arctic down to the Galapagos at the equator and Antarctica at the bottom of the globe.*
There’s something I’d like you to think about on this dawn of 2019. As always, this year I hope you’ll dream of new adventures in unfamiliar places and actually go there. But I’m going to ask you to journey a little farther, a tad further and a lot deeper than that.
The outdoors misses you
Whatever you call them—bucket lists, dream vacations or travel resolutions—we all have ideas of places that we either long to see or would love to revisit. However, I’d like to turn that notion on its head for 2019 and ask you to mull over this question: what place do you think yearns for you or hungers for your return? I like thinking about this brainteaser, because it gets at the kind of traveler you might imagine yourself to be or hope that you will become.
And it’s a new way to think about our travels: not from the perspective of what we’ll gain or take home from the places we visit, but what we give back to them by our presence for a few hours, days or weeks. Perhaps we can contribute to their keeping their environments healthy, to the well-being of their wildlife or to the sustenance of their local economies.
The inspiration for this thought came from an advertisement I saw for the insect repellent OFF! The print version of this ad simply said, “The outdoors misses you.” With all of the environmental harm that we humans have managed to inflict on it, however, I wondered why the outdoors would ever miss us. I began to think that we needed to give it some good reasons for doing so.
I do see progress and hope in this direction. Signing Palau’s visitor’s promise, in which travelers vow to “tread lightly, act kindly and explore mindfully,” is one good example. Going on Natural Habitat Adventure’s unique Safari America: Yellowstone Country, a zero-waste adventure—the first of its kind—is another. I’ve decided to believe that Palau and Yellowstone would welcome such visitor “friends” again—and miss them when they’re gone.
A better goodbye
While my father was a homebody and was never bitten by wanderlust, surprisingly he did teach me at least one thing about travel. And although he may have taught me this lesson in regard to a school, a workplace or the home of a friend, it turns out it’s a great travel motto, too. He said, “Leave a place better for your having been there.”
I don’t know if I’ve done anything big for a place—yet. But I hope some of the very small acts I’ve managed on my travels make some places miss me just a bit. I hope that Yosemite National Park—where I traveled to witness my son’s marriage in an unnamed meadow—benefits from my yearly contributions to the Yosemite Conservancy. I hope that Yellowstone National Park can use my symbolic bison adoption to help in our national mammal’s protection and conservation. And I hope that the Aigus Field Center in Scotland, where I bought several books, will be able to continue on in its efforts to rewild the Highlands, with the minor help of my purchases.
On this New Year’s Day 2019, I hope that you can think of lots of places that miss you. If you can’t, please make sure that during your travels this year, you leave those amazing destinations better for your having been there, whether that’s in very big or very small ways.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,
*Some material in this essay was adapted from my book, “Travel Wild Wisconsin,” University of Wisconsin Press, 2013