The Varieties of Travel Experience   /   Summer 2024   /    From the Editor

The Varieties of Travel Experience

Introducing Our Summer Issue

Jay Tolson

Photograph by Il Vagabiondo via Unsplash.

In his last book, The Unnamable Present, an extended reflection on our secular age, the brilliant polymath and publisher Roberto Calasso declared that the modern secular person “is inevitably a tourist,” including those, he explained, who venture forth only in virtual realms. “If he is not traveling on business,” Calasso continued, “if he is not a migrant, Homo saecularis can only be classified, at each border crossing, as a tourist. And this disturbs him.”

Tourists or not—and most people would prefer to consider themselves not—travelers today typically seek meaning and purpose in their voyaging. Whether it is young students seeking to broaden themselves through foreign study and travel, the elderly ticking off what has almost become a retirement rite of passage, fitness buffs hiking the length of Hadrian’s Wall, or even more traditionally religious people fulfilling a spiritual obligation through pilgrimage or hajj, today’s travelers, tourists, and pilgrims—and even those voyagers in virtuality—attest to an almost universal craving for movement away from the ordinary and familiar into the novel and strange. “We travel,” the novelist and diarist Anaïs Nin once noted, “some of us forever, to seek other states, other lives, other souls.”

If travel has become a distinctively modern form of the quest for the transcendent, the varieties of travel experience—to echo the title of William James’s classic work, The Varieties of Religious Experience—may even lead the traveler to encounters with one or more of what James called the “four marks” of the mystical: ineffability, in that the traveler experiences what cannot be put into words; noesis, in that travel leads a person into a state of knowing that provides access to higher truths; transiency, in that the traveler’s altered state lasts only as long as the journey; and passivity, in that the traveler feels seized and guided by a “superior power.” As with mystical experiences, the traveler need not go through all of those revelatory encounters on every journey, but a certain heightened awareness of oneself in relation to one’s surroundings, human and physical, is a common consequence of the defamiliarizing effects of travel.

Taking travel in its many variations and permutations, including our reasons for writing and reading about it and even the reasons for challenging its vaunted virtues, our authors wrestle with a certain ambivalence about the adequacy of travel as a source of meaning and self-making, an ambivalence that Calasso himself identified:

If tourists are viewed with a certain embarrassment and a hint of disapproval, it is humanity that looks at itself and suspects it has lost something. It doesn’t know exactly what, but knows it is irretrievable. Someone has suggested that democracy has extended to everyone the privilege of access to things that are no longer there.

Partly challenging such pessimism in her essay, “On Pilgrimage and Package Tours,” Tara Isabella Burton offers a surprisingly strong affirmation of an often-mocked variety of tourism that emphasizes the importance of the destination over that of the traveler’s experience. “If there is a spiritual good to be found in modern travel,” Burton writes, “we would do better to identify it not in the act of travel but in the specificity of place traveled to.” Going in a very different direction in “A Cosmopolitan Revelation: The Rick Steves Way of Travel,” Anne Taylor provides a sympathetic, but not uncritical, examination of the lofty ambitions of America’s most influential travel guru, who, from the earliest days of his career, “sought to teach travel as a kind of road to civic transformation.” For his part, in “Over There: Travel and the Imperial Self,” Jonathan Clarke casts a gimlet eye on many of the alleged benefits of foreign travel. “In glamorizing foreign travel,” Clarke notes, “we sometimes neglect the near at hand. Some of the best traveled Americans, it must be said, know their own country least.”

While viewing travel and travelers more charitably, Phil Christman, in “Adventures Close to Home,” gets at the nub of why travel seems superfluous to his own search for self-understanding: “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.”

Reckoning with the way charges against travel are often levelled against writing about it, Clare Coffey’s essay “A (Partial) Defense of Travel Writing,” suggests that the greatest limitation of the genre is, paradoxically, its strength: “I would say that travel writing’s unique virtues are tied up in the nature of travel. Travel writing, like travel, is all about the negotiation of partiality—how a partial and limited perspective can expand and communicate, while remaining incomplete.”

But it is precisely the all-too-human limitations of the individual traveler that the newest form of travel—and its boosters—promise to leave behind. “Recent technological advances in two related fields—virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR) and artificial intelligence (AI)—presage an even more profound transformation as we humans migrate away from a physical and natural world experienced by our movements through it into immersive computer-generated virtual realms presented to us via headsets, wearables, and, eventually, computer-brain interfaces.” So writes William Hasselberger in “All Aboard for Virtual Utopia?,” a tightly argued and passionate critique of the hyping of virtuality—and of the even more dangerous denial of virtuality’s potential to further diminish human life.

The Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik in 1957 gave rise not only to the Space Age (and a new arena for US–Soviet competition) but also to what Isaac Ariail Reed calls the “Cold War Fantastic,” as a crop of imaginative writers asked “not only if the human imagination had been stunted in the age of the thinking machine but also what would happen to human fantasy in the age of space exploration, nuclear fear, and renewed utopian ambitions.” In his essay, “Space Travel and the Cold War Fantastic: The Case of Robert Sheckley,” Reed examines the work of a leading American science-fiction author to find answers to a question of both historical and current significance: “But how can exploring the creative output of this period inform our understanding of our own moment in history, one characterized by both techno-optimism and cultural pessimism?”

If sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, as Sigmund Freud apocryphally said, sometimes a road trip is just a road trip. But sometimes, as Matthew B. Crawford shows in “California Road Trip,” a jaunt down distantly familiar routes can bring back memories of cherished places and experiences, reconnecting us with the sources of who we are—and of what we might yet become: “I have been reading novelist and essayist Paul Kingsnorth’s chronicles of his visits to the holy wells of Ireland, as a way into the meaning of memory and place and holiness,” Crawford writes. “For me, a road trip down the coast of California likewise has an aspect of pilgrimage to it. I don’t use the term flippantly.”

However fulfilling or unfulfilling, travel usually beckons with the promise of what might happen. As the philosopher Martin Buber put it most succinctly, “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.”