The Varieties of Travel Experience   /   Summer 2024   /    Thematic: The Varieties of Travel Experience

Adventures Close to Home

What Has Travel Ever Done for Me?

Phil Christman

Housesitting (detail), 2005, by David Arsenault; private collection; © David Arsenault, all rights reserved 2024; Bridgeman Images.

I went up and down

Like a demented train

—The Raincoats, “Adventures Close to Home”

Every so often someone writes an essay with a title like “Against Travel,” “The Case for Staying on One’s Couch,” or “Germans in Sweatpants: Why Going Places Was a Mistake.” Such pieces usually go viral, since they appeal to the two itches few readers seem able to resist scratching—the itch to be agreed with and the itch to be mad at a stranger. I always root for the writers of these pieces. I want them to win the impossible fight they’ve picked.

Why should I feel this way about travel? What has it ever done to me? Travel is one of those things one generally doesn’t attack in polite company, the world of letters excepted. Its wholesomeness is assumed. It broadens the mind. It makes us empathetic and, by rewarding our curiosity, encourages it to develop further. It teaches people the just-right amount of relativism —the amount that makes them easygoing in company, perhaps usefully pliable in exigencies, but not nihilistic. Only a fool or a misanthrope would criticize travel. Emerson famously did, in his essay “Self-Reliance,” but Emerson is Emerson, and any case he makes for or against anything is arguably negated by at least one of his other essays. That other essay in this case, as in every case, is “Circles,” in which he posits that any truth, as well as its opposite, are both contained on the single line that describes a circle.

Given travel’s salutary reputation, it is no wonder that I am biased against the whole topic. A writer is someone who resents being told that something is good for him, and that this is therefore why he must do it. It’s no wonder, either, if such people repeatedly fling themselves against this broad, smiling enemy, hoping to smite it.

The No-Fly Pledge

They never do, of course. As with so many topics that offer a tempting polemical target, there isn’t really a case to be made against travel as such. Any case that one could make would have to ignore so many distinctions, lump together so many unlike things—traveling, touring, wandering, socializing, visiting faraway friends, fleeing for one’s life, even simply doing one’s job—that it would reduce to mere trolling. Most of the time, antitravel writers simply take, as essential to the mere act of traveling, something bad but accidental, then make a great case against that. At best, they thus adorn the area around the target with a becoming and symmetrical display of spent fletchings. There the target sits, pristine and untouched.

For example: It is definitely true, as many writers have argued, that the way many people travel is ecologically destructive. But these same travelers could go to different places, and use different, less carbon-intensive forms of transit to get to those places. They could take the no-fly pledge. They could, if they wanted, simply walk for weeks along a picturesque road. They could even write a good book about it, as W.G. Sebald did after his walking tour of Suffolk—The Rings of Saturn (1995). That’s still traveling, and only a curmudgeon would complain about it. Certainly, no writer should.

Or, again: Many tourists are disrespectful of or even racist in their attitudes toward their hosts, and thus, tourism as such is questionable. But these same tourists could, if they chose, be humble, curious, and empathetic instead. They could tip better. They could stay away from places where a solid majority of the community has made clear that outsiders aren’t wanted (though such clear-cut cases are rarer than you’d think). They could avoid asking rude questions, keep the staring to a minimum, describe the people they meet in terms that respect their individuality instead of agglutinating them. All of this is perfectly doable, which is different from being easy.

Some tourists, notoriously, go to countries with lax legal systems or differing mores so that they can enjoy antisocial pleasures at other, poorer people’s expense. This is bad, but in the same way that all exploitation of the disadvantaged is bad. Sex tourists are creepy, but that’s because they’re sex pests who have gotten on a plane at some point. The touring isn’t the problem.

And so on. But “The Case Against Doing This Ethically Neutral or Good Thing in a Bad Way” doesn’t tempt as many fingers to click the repost button.

Being Realer—or Less Real

Similarly, the well-worn complaint that travel banalizes places—that, if too many people start to go somewhere, the place reconfigures itself in order to please the almighty tourist’s gaze—doesn’t take the absolute otherness of human beings seriously enough. For example, in “Consider the Lobster,” David Foster Wallace writes that tourism is good for the soul, not because it broadens tourists, but precisely because it constricts them, in a painful yet educational way:

To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all noneconomic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is as inescapable as it is painful: As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.11xDavid Foster Wallace, “Consider the Lobster,” Gourmet, August 2004,

“Better, realer, without you,” he writes. The first adjective may well apply, in a given case. (If it does, you just shouldn’t go.) The second is nonsense. Places and people can be made worse, can be farther from or closer to the best versions of themselves, but they cannot be made realer or less real. We could say, at most, that some of their realness is concealed, as realness notoriously tends to be. (Plato had a few things to say about that.)

If you, existentially loathsome reader, were to visit New York City, as I did a few years ago—my wife was going for work and there were friends there I wanted to see—and if you were to walk around Times Square, as I did, lugging a suitcase among all the other out-of-town suitcase luggers, staying in (gasp) a hotel, and visiting, like the cliché you are, the Museum of Modern Art (why on earth wouldn’t you, what with all the paintings?), you would still be real, and these things would still be happening to you. If folks assemble their faces into a certain blandly friendly shape to meet your gaze and earn your dollar—my feeling was that New Yorkers mostly don’t do this, except for a conspicuous few who do it with such gusto and artifice that it becomes its own fascinating phenomenon—surely you, an adult, are intelligent enough to notice that this is happening, to account for it in your observations, even to grow curious about it.

In fact, you can treat this performance as information in its own right. Before every place was spoiled, assuming that there was such a time, we could go observe what we took to be the unselfconscious manners and ancient customs of the people there. Today, we can observe self-conscious manners and generic customs—each with its own little flutters of imperfection and telling gaps in performance. And these, again, are information. You can learn as much about people from thinking about the way they act themselves out for you as you can from analyzing their less artful, less premeditated moments. So I agree with Wallace that there is no “unspoiledness” to experience, but the curious and attentive mind can do just fine with spoiledness. Wallace certainly did, in several of his classic essays.

Thank U

We love, as well, to mock the privileged Westerners who go somewhere far away and realize one or two momentous, banal things about themselves, especially if these same people then have the temerity to make art about their epiphanies. Consider, to name two much-discussed examples, Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love, and Alanis Morrissette in “Thank U,” that song in which she thanks India. It happens that I, too, dislike that book, and that song. But to have an epiphany in Italy or India is no sillier than to have one in the woods or at work or on a walk around one’s neighborhood. Abroad, one is surrounded by billions of strangers who presumably have better things to do than serve as one’s backdrop, but that is also true at home, or even in the woods. (Look at all those trees! Do you, solipsistic walker, even know their species names?) Yet we dare to have interior lives anyway.

To fault an artist for noticing his own feelings and reactions is like faulting an athlete for paying so much attention to that silly ball when the weather is gorgeous and the field is green. It’s his job! Sometimes what an artist has to communicate is, precisely, “I had to go X number of miles, and surround myself with an infinity of diverting things and people, in order to think clearly about my own life,” which is, let’s be fair, funny, and in its own way a statement on human nature. I only ask that people do it well. Jessa Crispin writes, of Eat, Pray, Love and its imitators, that “the focus of attention is the self, and the beautiful locale becomes the backdrop of the real action, which is interior psychodrama.”22xJessa Crispin, “How Not to Be Elizabeth Gilbert,” Boston Review, July 20, 2015,  Crispin’s analysis is acute, as usual—this is definitely true of these books—but you could also say this about The Ambassadors. What’s wrong with Eat, Pray, Love is finally only that it’s not as well written or funny as The Ambassadors.

Agnes Callard criticizes tourism as pointless “locomotion.” (She does so, tellingly, only after distinguishing tourism from several more benign forms of faraway-place-going.33xAgnes Callard, “The Case Against Travel,” The New Yorker, June 24, 2023,“The single most important fact about tourism is this: We already know what we will be like when we return,” she writes. This is a hell of an assumption. I don’t really know what I will be like next week, at least not in every important detail. To judge by her other writing, Callard is also, and not infrequently, a surprise to herself; her ability to describe these moments in fine, perhaps unintentionally comic detail provides her work with much of the insight and entertainment value it possesses.

In disconnecting us from the ongoing and sometimes nightmarish dailiness of our lives, travel allows us to “do nothing and be nobody.” For Callard, this makes it a preview of death, the nothingness that will put an end to our quotidian boredom forever. “Socrates said that philosophy is a preparation for death,” she concludes. “For everyone else, there’s travel.” This is funny because, like many of Nietzsche’s witticisms, it is a melodramatic overstatement of something that is, perhaps, five percent true. When we disrupt our routines, we do not do nothing, or become no one; we do different things, we try on other selves. This is why we frequently come back from even rather silly jaunts, pace Callard, a bit different.

Elsewhere in her essay, Callard laments the pointlessness of her long walks through Paris:

I walked from one end of the city to the other, over and over again, in a straight line; if you plotted my walks on a map, they would have formed a giant asterisk. In the many great cities I have actually lived and worked in, I would never consider spending whole days walking. When you travel, you suspend your usual standards for what counts as a valuable use of time.44xIbid.

Indeed, you do. Yet in the (surely fewer) great cities that I have lived and worked in, I spent whole days walking, especially early on, and do not regret that use of time. Surely walking does not require a defense? Coming soon, from Agnes Callard: “Against Drinking Water.”

Travel and Dysfunction

So the antitravel position, broadly conceived, doesn’t seem to work. Yet I feel a sour satisfaction, as I have said, whenever someone decides to take travel down a peg. Partly, this is because the cases for travel are often sillier than the cases against, and I think it’s important to question them. If, for example, travel broadens the mind, why are at least some of the best-traveled people the worst blockheads one has ever met? If travel increases tolerance, why did it not have exactly that effect on so many of history’s conquerors—monomaniacs who could not let stand any place that failed to give back their own image?

During the George W. Bush years, one of the folk sociological theories by which those of us to the left of center tried to explain to ourselves why our country kept making such poor choices was a lack of travel among the citizenry. Only ten, or fifteen, or twenty percent of Americans owned a passport, we told each other, in shocked and disapproving tones.55xPhil Gyford, “How Many Americans Own Passports,” January 31, 2003,  No wonder Americans were so insular that they couldn’t anticipate that it would be a bad idea to start the Iraq War (whose architects were all very frequent fliers). Later, the same argument resurfaced to help account for rural America’s love affair with Donald Trump, who seems to hold rural America in contempt, though in fairness he seems to hold everyone in contempt. If only rural Americans spent more time in Peru, or Pakistan, they’d be better at spotting an incoherent phony.66xPatrick Thornton, “I’m a Coastal Elite From the Midwest: The Real Bubble Is Rural America,” Roll Call, November 10, 2016,

Now, I can’t absolutely prove that this theory is wrong. There is, to my knowledge, no pocket universe where we can run a controlled experiment in which the citizens of 2016 Iowa are allowed to vote for president again after two weeks in a Brazilian favela. I simply resent the idea that expensive, exclusive experiences, such as international travel, are so essential to a person’s moral education that we must appeal to the lack of them to explain our obvious political dysfunction. Education as such must cost somebody something—the commonwealth, the parent, the student, or all three. Learning Sanskrit, let alone scanning tunneling microscopy, takes time, and probably a teacher, and equipment. But kindness, as the saying goes, is free, and anyone can learn it. For the same reason, though I love the academy and want to make its benefits universally available—going to college probably saved my life—I bristle at the idea that college graduates or frequent readers are necessarily more empathetic than other people. I have encountered plenty of blowhards who didn’t go to college, but I have also, once or twice, encountered blowhards who ran colleges. Education is good in itself, and so is travel, if a person enjoys and benefits from it. But to imply that they are necessary conditions for personal decency is just snobbery.

So I like to see a little of the stuffing knocked out of travel’s reputation. I think the overvaluing of it is a species of privileged self-congratulation. Lots of people can’t afford to travel, and only do it because it suddenly becomes a matter of life or death—if we grant that the refugee or asylum seeker is also a sort of traveler. And then some of us are just constitutionally bad at it.

Underwhelmed in Egypt

My experiences with travel can be summed up quickly. After college, my parents schemed with the best-off of my relatives to get me to Europe, as a reward for a job well done (finishing college). I tried to talk my parents out of this generous conspiracy, because I didn’t think they could afford it. I was unsuccessful. I probably could have gotten out of the Europe trip if I’d tried harder—although I’d have had to refuse it with such energy as to appear ill tempered, perhaps ungrateful. That I didn’t really have the stomach for.

In those days, I thought—though not consciously, because it’s too irrational a belief to survive scrutiny—that I could pay for any ambivalence-inducing choice I made with a kind of guilt tax. During this trip, from thinking in this way, I managed to have a depressive episode. I always did have a poor sense of timing.

About two and a half weeks into this Continental grand tour, 9/11 happened. I was on one of the first flights back to the States. Of course, I spent much of the flight mentally priming myself to, at the first sign of a box cutter, jump up and behave obstreperously. I hoped others would join in with me. With any luck, we could prevent the thing from going further. At worst, we’d die like the United Flight 93 passengers. It was a weird time. Not long after, many Americans would be unable to look at a dead animal without thinking “anthrax?” Also, we invaded two sovereign countries with at most half of one good reason.

In grad school, I accompanied my then-girlfriend (now my wife) to Egypt, where she gave a talk at an academic conference. We looked at the pyramids. I willed myself to have insights about them and came up short. This sort of effort was part of the reason for the depression I’d felt in Europe. Everything seemed older than me and worthy of more interesting and deep thoughts and emotions than I believed myself able to generate. We Americans train ourselves not to react to our own cities and landscapes this way, although there’s no reason not to. Why not feel overwhelmed and defeated about the Mound Builders, the old-growth forests, even gorgeous, sordid Washington, DC, with its cherry blossoms? On the other hand, maybe it’s good for me that I don’t. Those feelings are exhausting.

A few years later, early in our marriage, we somehow got on the radar of the people who sell time-shares. We definitely could not have afforded one, but these people kept calling us, offering an incredibly cheap multiday vacation on any of several lovely islands where the sunsets are known to be spectacular and colonialism is known to be ongoing. The catch, of course, was that we’d have to sit through an excruciating sales presentation. So we went a couple of times. The sales presentations were awkward, but there wasn’t much to think about—math did all the arguing. I kept hoping we’d be offered a trip to St. Lucia, where a friend of mine lives. In the absence of that opportunity, the trips seemed wasteful—so much carbon expended just to read on a tropical beach instead of a closer, less famous beach—and the food was bad, since much of it was shipped from elsewhere and tasted like deep-freeze. So much for luxury vacations. We stopped answering those calls.

We used to travel regularly to El Paso, the nation’s loveliest, friendliest, least pretentious city, a place where I could happily spend the rest of my life if I had good work to sustain me. My wife’s family lived there. I would take long walks in the city, superintended by mountains like benevolent gods, rarely encountering another person and never encountering an unfriendly one. This earthly paradise, by the way, represents the social anomie and breakdown that the foes of Latin American in-migration fight so hard to spare us. (One person, motivated by these concerns, shot up an El Paso Walmart in 2019, killing twenty-three people. Nothing is so threatening to radical evil as a good example.)

The only thing that interfered with my enjoyment of this city—besides the knowledge that climate change is going to do unspeakable things to it—was the fact that I had to climb into a plane to get there. Every aspect of the flying process feels like a planned insult to human dignity—the lines, the security dramatics, the cramped seating, the fact that you’re trapped. After my father-in-law died in 2019, and my mother-in-law moved to Michigan to be with us, I vowed that I would thenceforth fly rarely—only for an emergency or a paycheck. My immediate family is within driving distance, luckily.

These days, the places I go to probably seem to the loveless eye a lot like the place I just left. Just other midwestern towns. If Amtrak went more places and was easier to use, I would visit them all, or so I tell myself. But my aversion to travel is a bit more deep-seated than my hatred of flying, I suppose—for in fact I visit hardly any of them.

My daily life always feels like a riddle that I haven’t cracked. When I was in England, that ill-fated trip, one of my favorite things to do, on days with no plan, was to take the bus to Salisbury Cathedral, at which I had already stared, and stare at it all again. What I’m probably talking about is something that the vocabulary of psychology would cover well enough with terms like “high-functioning,” “spectrum,” “fascination with routine.” I’m trying to describe the inside of it, though, not the outside. The simple fact is that I don’t have to go anywhere at all in order to feel that nothing makes sense, that nothing is as I expected it to be. I am confronted by so much novelty just in being alive that I am dependent on routine to nail any of it in place, and then those routines can stand endless tinkering, to make room for me to learn more and more, so that the world won’t seem so incomprehensible—that old illusion. Of course, learning more just illuminates further the infinity that you don’t know.

Even at that, I don’t really travel much except at other people’s instigation. I never feel I am done seeing what’s around me. I’m always playing catchup to it. So why go anywhere? Outside my window there is a tree stump that puts forth threatening little shoots, as though reminding us all that it intends revenge against the deck my neighbor has built next to it. If I travel, I might miss some twist or turn in that saga. The raccoons that used to visit us at night last summer, whose ranks were thinned by an outbreak of distemper that rendered their dispositions heartbreakingly sweet and pliable—one day one of them walked right up to my mother-in-law’s dog, who, thank God, had had her shots, and patted her on the head, as though conferring an interspecies blessing—may return, or at least their healthy descendants. In the house is my wife, whom I see every day and whom I still worry that I’ll never see properly, or enough.

Here I am, having an epiphany in the middle of my silly quotidian life. I am as absurd as Elizabeth Gilbert, or Alanis Morissette. I am realizing something obvious—that the quality of attention we bring to things is more important than the freshness of the things we bring attention to—and I had to go to so much trouble to do it. They had to visit Italy, and India. I had to live my whole life, and write this whole essay. Perhaps we are doing the same thing, at different points on the Emersonian circle.