I’ve been transcribing two boxes of travel journals I keep stashed under my desk. I’m far from finished (deciphering bus-bounced scrawl on coffee-stained pages takes time), but a clear pattern has emerged. Wherever I was making my entry – geographically or mentally – one key part of the journey consistently escaped record: the return trip.

This gap kind of surprised me. Travel writers often get asked about their dream choice for a one-way ticket anywhere. Many of us tend to tout the exotic first, but my answer is something you won’t see in 1000 Places to See Before You Die: home.

Home, I think, is the ultimate travel destination – and sort of the point of it all. “Home,” of course, can mean different things to different people.

First-generation immigrants or army brats may grow up less rooted to a specific place. Pico Iyer, whose stab at “Why We Travel” remains one of the most readily cited justifications for this crazy thing we do, notes how even though he was born to Indian parents, in England, and then moved to America at age seven, he doesn’t feel he can really call himself an Indian, an American, or an Englishman.

Perhaps I have a stronger sense of “home,” even if that definition has blurred for me in the 20 years since I left Oklahoma.

I spent my entire childhood in Tulsa, in one house (with a double-decker fort in the back), and have vivid memories of playing sprinkler Wiffle ball with my friends as the swell of cicadas buzzed in the summer heat. And so I still say “I’m from Oklahoma,” even if my home address – i.e. where I hang the hat, keep my stuff, watch the telly – has shifted from San Francisco to London to New York City and now to Portland, Oregon.

That sense of “home” that I carry around with me has played a huge role in my life as a traveler for two reasons. One is obvious.

We can’t really appreciate home until we leave it; travel is the thing that gives us perspective on where we’re from.

In The Future of Nostalgia, Svetlana Boym writes that “the vantage point of a stranger informs the native idyll.” (This is part of the reason why I remain skeptical of the “travel like a local” craze.)

With travel, we all have the opportunity to return home as strangers – just as nobody recognized Diggory Venn in Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native, or writer Ted Conover, who spent many months riding trains with hoboes, came back to Denver so ragged his sister didn’t know who he was. (I know the feeling: my mom didn’t recognize me when I returned from Guatemala with a shaved head and a long beard.)

Confounding friends and family is fun, sure, but the real point is not that we may look different, but that we may begin to see and feel differently.

Conover noted at the end of his book Rolling Nowhere how, once he had settled back into his Denver routine, he “would hear train whistles across town…that companions could not hear even if they stopped to listen.” His Denver had grown and changed.

Our curiosity and engagement are piqued when we travel, and that doesn’t just turn off when we return. At least it shouldn’t. I’ve found that if I hear someone swirling ice cubes around in their Big Gulp at a Tulsa 7-Eleven, I think of the rickshaw driver hauling a huge dust-coated chunk of ice in Saigon, and how I’ve noticed that we don’t have tangles of power lines tangled atop street corner posts the way they do in Quito.

The second reason: Though my travels have given me multiple points of reference that continue to change me and how I relate to the familiar, home lends perspective to the places I visit as a traveler, too. I think of it as a game I like to call “finding home abroad.”

I never wanted to be nomadic. (To me, experiencing only the different would be like a comedy without the straight man.) My plan, 20 years ago or so, had been simply to travel a lot and live abroad a few times. Now, while I travel, I imagine how my life would be in places I never seriously plan to live in. I check real estate listings in Montpelier, France, or Beijing, and love traveling with commuters however they travel wherever I am — on a combi-bus in Tuxtla Gutierrez, on a tram on the outskirts of Moscow.

Jorge Luis Borges wrote that James Joyce’s Ulysses returned home only so he could look back on his journey. Like a Polaroid picture, the meaning of our travel experiences often takes shape after the fact, once we’ve settled back into the familiar to reflect.

I find that this holds true even when I’m road tripping in the U.S. The Great Plains aren’t everyone’s favorite landscape; most see the flat, subtly rolling fields as justification for their reputation as America’s “fly-over zone.” But once I get past them, climbing up the Rockies or navigating the dense forests of Pennsylvania, I start to appreciate the – don’t laugh – majesty of those big skies and distant horizons.

This reminds me of a cheeky little writer, Xavier de Maistre, who took to his sleeping quarters during the French Revolution as a home-bound Magellan. His resulting “travelogue,” Voyage Around My Room, is only partly serious. As Alain de Botton put it in The Art of Travel, de Maistre is simply trying to “shake us from our passivity” – to get us to engage with the places we think we know so well.

In the same work, De Botton goes on to note that “The pleasure we derive from journey is perhaps dependent more on the mindset with which we travel than on the destination we travel to.”

That’s a mindset that can only form abroad – like a muscle built from exercise — and that finds its greatest purpose once back home.

Robert Reid has written a couple dozen guidebooks for Lonely Planet and regularly appears to discuss travel trends on national television. Follow him on Twitter @ReidOnTravel.

Comments

  1. Anna
    October 11, 2013, 6:22 pm

    While I still believe that I would be happiest to live as a nomad, with no one place being home, I do love the statement that ‘home’ gives us a chance to reflect on our experiences – good point. Also, I’m almost done reading de Botton’s ‘Art of Travel’ for the first time and I love it! I just happened to pick it up in a library and it’s a gem!

  2. Sally
    Cupertino, CA
    October 13, 2013, 3:39 am

    What a powerful statement. Its one that doesn’t get mentioned but felt by, i am sure, thousands of generations across the word. Sense of belonging has deep meaning and in everyone, one that I have trouble explaining to my teen. your post is eloquently put. thanks for sharing.

    God Bless. Peace.

  3. Cynthia.
    China
    October 14, 2013, 10:51 am

    It’s a pleasure to encounter ur journal.
    “The pleasure we derive from journey is perhaps dependent more on the mindset with which we travel than on the destination we travel to.”
    I just couldn’t agree more.
    And if convenient for you,I’d love to ask about some basic questions about ur life as a traveler+writer:
    How’s everything going with u when traveling so long distances away from home? (I’d always dream about my global trip in my future)
    Have u felt desperate for companion?
    I just want to explore more about how people feel while going on such a long trip :)

  4. RL
    home
    October 14, 2013, 2:59 pm

    While I tried to enjoy this article and see the truth in it, I was bogged down and lost by all of the references. I gave up dizzy about half way through. 1000 Places, Pico Iyor, what this person I never heard of wrote about his identity crisis, Svetwhatever Boum, Conover, Venn, Hardy, all about riding the rails (HUH??), Someone Borges (huh? Lucretia?) Joyce Ulyses, and then when I think I can’t take anymore I get something about Xavier and de Bottom and de Master and a bunch of other cr@p I never heard of and can’t prounounce.
    Gosh this article started out so promising and I had hopes of it getting interesting (like reference to the ‘travel like a local’ craze and how travel enriches our own envrironment) but I got bogged down and boggled by too many literary references and places I never heard of.

  5. Burcu Basar
    Istanbul - Turkey
    October 20, 2013, 8:20 am

    Amazing article. I especially like how you explain home sets perspective for the travels. I just got back from a nine months travel journey and I think the journey will not be completed until I spend equal amount of time at home and get a chance to reflect on my travels from the perspective of my home. Great writing and thank you (http://www.facebook.com/burcubasarblog)

  6. Maida
    November 21, 2013, 9:57 am

    Thank you so much for this lovely article. I’ve been questioning my own belonging, my travelling and the “longing for a better life somewhere else” and this article just struck a chord. Lovely thinking (and feeling) on what home means and what travelling is. Thanks again!

  7. gloria
    The Sunflower State
    November 21, 2013, 10:59 am

    The changes one seeks in travel can be found in ones own back yard-Try gardening and experience the seasonal changes that take place in a years time. One can feel a part of the whole by staying in place.

  8. Jamsur
    Esquel - Chubut - Argentina
    November 21, 2013, 1:46 pm

    About his feelings on the ‘majesty of those big skies and distant horizons’ the author must not feel ashamed: he is in good company. One famous line from Charle Darwin reads: ‘In calling up images of the past, I find that the plains of Patagonia frequently cross before may eyes.”

  9. Fabian
    Germany
    November 21, 2013, 2:28 pm

    Living not in home since 2 continents ago and what i can say is that the feeling arriving to my city is amazing, is just that big flash of smells, images, friends, weather… Everything fits perfectly, that is the feeling of home…

  10. Suzanne Fluhr
    Philadelphia
    November 27, 2013, 1:51 am

    So, how do you define “home”? Is it where you literally hang your hat? Or more like where you hang your proverbial hat? Or is home where your heart is? Can home be another person? I’m “from” Philadelphia, but I’ve also been home in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Bogota (Colombia), San Miguel de Allende (Mexico) and a little town in Wiltshire (England). I think that through this cogitation, maybe I’ve answered my own question—-it’s about the quality of connections and those can be with people. places–and maybe, things (just to complete the noun definition ;-) Our travel blogger 20 something year old son just got back from a 6 month trip to lots of places. By the end, he was sick of traveling. He wanted to be “home”.

  11. Jackson
    Chicago, IL
    November 29, 2013, 8:02 pm

    Leaving Kansas several years ago has made me aware of my need to see the open big sky of the Great Plains. Studying abroad in Florence Italy, a wise woman with experience with Kansans told me with the first 10 days, I would do well to visit Fiesole to have a horizon to view. The woman pointed out Kansans “get a bit restless after not being able to see the sky for some reason.” I had no idea I was that way. Maya Angelou’s essay Passports to Understanding wonderfully conveys the value of traveling elsewhere.

  12. Pascaline
    London
    December 4, 2013, 8:35 pm

    I really like your article! I still can’t put a finger on my “I am home” feeling but i think that home is when you’re fully comfortable with the place you’re in, when you really understand the people living there and their lifestyle. To me Home is not a town or a country its just a place where i feel at peace with an easy access to nature and where my boyfriend is.

  13. conniecockrell
    United States
    December 21, 2013, 2:58 am

    Some of the same thoughts I had when I traveled. Many thanks for both reminding me and for expressing them.

  14. Susie Milligan
    January 12, 12:54 pm

    Home is where you want to be when you are tired. Where someone cared about you and made you feel safe. Home isnt geography, its feelings.