Sam Holstein

The Point of Travel Is Coming Home

Ask anyone in the west what they want out of their life, and I’ll bet you $10 one of the things they say is “travel.” If they don’t say travel, it’s only because they don’t have the money. Traveling currently occupies a spot of honor in our culture, something about which we testify and glorify whenever we get the opportunity.

The real value of travel, though, isn’t the people you meet or the cultures you experience or the sights you see. It isn’t anything you do while traveling at all. The real value of travel is in what happens when you come home.

The human brain does a lot of amazing things, most of which scientists understand very little. One of these things is sensory filtering, a process by which the brain sorts out what sensory information to pay attention to and what sensory information to throw away. To explain how this works, allow me to quote neuroscientist Alex Korb, author of The Upward Spiral:

Every sense you have has a sensory cortex devoted to it. You have a visual cortex and an auditory cortex and so forth. These lower-level sensory cortices are under top-down control. The prefrontal cortex can tell the lower-level cortices what to ignore and what to pay attention to. It’s like a chief of police telling the department, “Ignore speeding tickets; catch drug dealers.” If you spend your brain’s resources looking for something particular, you’re more likely to find it…

…for example, when looking for your car keys, the reactivity of your visual cortex is enhanced. Maybe that doesn’t sound spectacular, but it’s like the feature on new cameras that highlights faces. Whenever a face enters the picture, the camera puts a little square around it and focuses on it.

Our prefrontal cortex tells our sensory cortices to ignore things we see routinely in favor of things that are new and novel. This is sometimes known as hedonic adaptation, commonly known as “getting used to things”. This was a great evolutionary development for the survival of our species (after all, it is more important to notice a tiger you’ve never seen before than a tree you’ve seen every day) but has a downside: most of what makes life beautiful and valuable is hidden in things we see every day.

My readers should know I’ve never bought my dream house, married, or had children1. But there is beauty in my life I’m in danger of growing used to. The creeks and forests along the country roads where I live, my disabled brother’s mischievous smile when he asks me to play with him, the way my erudite best friend laughs when he’s been caught being clever. These are the things that make life meaningful — yet every day, I am dangerously close to overlooking them.

The thing about traveling to is that you’re forced to pay attention. When you leave your home environment, your prefrontal cortex has no routine to fall back on. Everything is new, and you’re forced to process it all. You must pay attention to the present moment because you have no other choice.

As if that weren’t enough, in the middle of this maelstrom of new sensory input that is forcing you into the present moment and your defenses are lowest, you’re hit with it. The beauty you came to see.

In most people, this produces a feeling of being awestruck. The present moment — this, this mountain, this scene of beauty, is the only thing on your mind.

For most people, it doesn’t last long. They whip out their phones and immediately start taking pictures or saying “oh my god, how beautiful” over and over to the people around them. But for a split second, they had it.

The trouble starts when people misattribute that feeling of awestruckness to the mountain. The mountain didn’t make you feel awestruck. The mountain isn’t anything. It’s a big pile of rock, for god’s sake. It’s a pretty neat geological irregularity, but that’s really about it. Compared to the faces of the ones you love, it’s nothing. What made you feel awestruck is that, for a split second, you were experiencing the present moment for what it was.

Imagine what life would be like if you brought that feeling of presence back home. If a random pile of rock is that amazing, how much more so is your own home? Your friends? Your lover?

The problem is not that these things are not awestriking, but that when we are at home, the prefrontal cortex blinds us in the name of functioning. I’m glad it does — if we spent all day wandering around in a daze, struck dumb by the beauty of our lovers, we wouldn’t get much done. But the prefrontal cortex is so good at its job that we forget how to access these experiences in the first place.

What makes travel so important and useful is that, no matter how bad you are at attending to the present moment, travel can force you to do it. When you’re ripped from your home and smacked in the face with all the beauty the world has to offer, you’re forced to attend. Once you know what it’s like to attend, you can bring that home. That’s what happened to me; when I took my first #vanlife road trip to the Smoky Mountains, I had a grand old time driving up and down the mountain range and taking fantastic photos. Compared to my regular old life in regular old Ohio, the beauty was breathtaking.

When I headed for home, I expected to be headed back to regular old Ohio. I thought the beauty was in the mountains, and now that I was leaving them, I was saying goodbye to it until I could visit next time.

That’s not what happened. As I left the mountain range, the beauty of the mountains transitioned to the beauty of the endless forest of northeastern America. By the time I hit Ohio, those cornfields which had previously struck me as so endlessly fucking boring had a dignified grace, swaying gently in the sunset. (When there are no mountains in the way, the sunset can be truly amazing.) When I pulled into my parent’s driveway, the boring suburban street I’d grown up on was gone. In its place was a welcoming home, surrounded by a beautiful lawn and rich old oak trees and a neighborhood full of company. For the first time in my life, I thought it might be nice to live in a suburb.

With every place I’ve traveled, this sensation has become more profound. When I visited the ocean for the first time, I returned home to find the air of my native Ohio refreshingly light and easy to breathe. When I visited Colorado for the first time, I returned home to find regular old grass and tree leaves had transformed into a lush verdant forest with more shades of green than the eye could see. When I visited the Pacific Northwest, I returned home to find a forest so endless and so densely packed with all kinds of trees, plants, and undergrowth that it seemed impressive that anyone had bothered to build homes here at all. Things I had never paid attention to, things I had never known to pay attention to, were made clear to me because I visited places where these things weren’t.

Yet the world is the same as it always was. It is merely that you see it with new eyes.

Sharon Shin

From what I can tell, this is not what most people get out of travel. Most people behave more as if travel is a drug, that moment of being awestruck it’s high. To them, beauty is not everywhere, but only in a handful of mystical, hard-to-reach locations. Their very human desire to experience beauty is reduced to an endless cycle of saving up -> traveling -> coming home -> saving up -> so on and so forth.

This cycle is broken for the same reason trying to find meaning through consumer purchases or sex or any other external thing is broken; there is no arriving. You can never reach the end. If this is the only way you can access the beauty of the present moment, you are reduced to a hamster on a wheel, endlessly running but never getting anywhere.

If you want to live a life full of beauty and wonder, you need to recognize that beauty and wonder are already right where you are. There is nowhere you need to go and nothing you need to do. Everything you need is already in your line of sight. All you need to do is learn how to see.

  1. But I have been responsible for dependents and lived with a romantic partner, so I am not totally in the dark.