Ask anyone who travels why he or she does it, and you’ll get answers that usually revolve around the theme of seeing something new or experiencing something different. I think I travel for the opposite reason: to see and understand the familiar—my own home—a little bit better.
I came to this conclusion when I was on an airplane, 30,000 feet above Amsterdam. I was reading a book by nature author Barry Lopez, in which he’d been asked what advice he’d give to would-be writers. He said there were three things, one of which was “to get out of town,” meaning to get away from the usual so it could be all the more appreciated upon your return.
That struck a chord with me. It had taken me a long time to fall in love with travel, to like “getting out of town.” I had never even stepped foot outside the United States until I was in my late 40s and had rarely ventured beyond my county line in southern Wisconsin. Then, in one, two-year period, I had the opportunity to travel to New Zealand, Newfoundland, Patagonia, the northernmost isles of Scotland and Churchill, Manitoba, Canada (twice).
While I was blown over by New Zealand’s rugged, wild and wet West Coast, I came back home to relish the delicate, feathery and intense green that jumps out at you from a fern-filled forest floor in a Wisconsin spring rain. I stood before Chile’s Mount FitzRoy and marveled at the way the sunlight paints the peaks pink and gold on a summer morning, and then returned to my home state to see the unbelievably vivid, burgundy color of the cascading waters in south-central Wisconsin in June. And after searching for the northern lights in the sub-Arctic on a February night, I have subsequently hiked several Wisconsin trails in the deep of winter and found towering, snow-covered pines and a wintry solitude like nowhere else on the planet.
So by taking Mr. Lopez’s advice, I can honestly say that within those 24 months I started to appreciate my home ground all the more. I came to believe that my backyard held some of the most beautiful places on Earth. But I wouldn’t have known that unless I had traveled to those other beautiful places on Earth.
In the following weeks, I hope to bring you stories about how travel has guided us all to finding our own, true places in nature and how transformative discovering our real “natural habitats” can be. In the meantime, I’d like you to ask yourself why you choose to travel. Then post your answer below. We’ll talk about those reasons in future columns.
Which brings me to the other two things Barry Lopez advised would-be writers: write from your beliefs; and read, dear reader, read.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,