Whether you’ve never gone more than 50 miles from home or have seen 50 countries, the question remains. Why travel? It is disruptive, expensive and sometimes very uncomfortable.
One answer is because the world is large and diverse. You go somewhere new and you experience unexpected things.
Back when it wasn’t clear that I would survive in academia, I felt that the thing of lasting value from my education was the travel. I went from Ohio to Michigan to California for my education. At Berkeley I took a tropical ecology course in Costa Rica and at the end of that I spent two weeks in Guatemala and Belize with friends. In all of these cases I had not thought much about my destination and so each time there were surprises.
For example, I got off the plane in California in September. The hills were golden. “Golden hills!” I said. “Ha! That’s dead grass!”
But you can become fond of hills covered in dead grass.
I had no idea Costa Rica had fabulous flowering trees during the dry season.
From this distance, my education was the benefit of my education. Pretty obvious. But I developed a thesis project from observations I made in Costa Rica and, this June, I coauthored a technical paper that was the direct result of those observations, 40 years later. There was no way I would have done that project without the trip to Costa Rica. The travel that happened during my education broadened my personal horizons dramatically. It also changed the direction of my life’s work. A quite unexpected outcome.
When I retired, for the first time I had the leisure to go where I wanted to go. Travel was a priority of that new freedom. There were places I wanted to see! When I know I want to go somewhere, I have an idea what it is like. Usually it is like that and much more.
As I get past the “must see” list, the question of “Why travel?” reappears. How many mountains do I need to see? How many history museums or battlefields?
There is no answer. I think experienced travelers slow down and savor the sights, smells, sounds and tastes of each place. Because places really are different. In color. In temperature. In humidity. In sounds. In smells. In language. In culture. In history. In plants and animals. In the stars of the night sky.
Some part of that list should strike a chord with everyone.
For me the unending attraction is to plants and the natural world. I like the gardens people build, but I like wild plants better. I like roadside plants, weedy pastures, windy grasslands, thorny deserts and tangled forests. And although those adjectives are familiar, the windy grasslands of Australia, the United States and Argentina are all wonderfully different, despite sharing the wind and the grass. Below is the grassland near me. What does yours look like?
It is a very big world and I have only seen a little bit of it. What I haven’t seen I think I know about, but experience tells me that if I go there, I’ll find it is not as I imagined. That is why I travel. To experience places for myself. And to experience surprise.