Sometimes travel delays your life’s true calling

Cycle couple at Badlands National Park

Travel can be empty without connection: Badlands, South Dakota, 2011

I hate to say it, but someone should. Sometimes travel isn’t enough.

I know I have made travel, and the discussion of how anyone can do it, one of the central themes of the last 15 years of my life. And the world of magazines, blogs, and Twitter encourage me daily to maintain that. My identity dictates my focus.

But I also can see when travel, and the addictive pursuit of it, overtakes lives. The lessons one learns by traveling can be life-changing: the similarities between all people, the vast inequalities between societies, the deep psychic simplicity of rituals.

However, there comes a point when many people don’t give their own lives an opportunity to incorporate these profound discoveries of wisdom.

I can always spot the traveler who has been too long on the road. They linger for too many hours in the hostel common room. They surf too long on Facebook. Their eyes may gradually glaze over when confronted with a long list of potential new experiences to tackle tomorrow. They go slowly.

In short, they often show the same symptoms as someone who hasn’t been on the road long enough. For both groups, their inner voices are actually back home. The conscience knows what ambition does not, and if there is one thing that nearly every society has taught me, it’s that the natural state of most human lives is not conquest but ritual. And without the ritual of a daily life for comparison, the things one learns through travel would have far less meaning beyond mere curiosity.

I myself first felt this feeling of travel malaise when I was nearing the end of a nearly two-year backpacking trip. I was in Wellington, New Zealand, a city I have since returned to and come to adore. It was a Friday night, and everyone else in the hostel — nearly all of them had been on the road for only a few months — was going out on the town. But I found myself resisting. I wanted to stay in and read a book instead.

I heard myself say, “But what if I meet someone I actually like? I can’t have them. I’m leaving town soon.”

It was the first time I felt that the exposure to something new was not going to be enough. It was a rupture in my travel worldview.

I know now that it was a sign that after all of my meaningful discoveries, my heart was telling me that it was time to give meaning to the meaning.

Many travelers get that feeling, but many of them override it by seeking another destination with more discoveries. That works for a while because learning is never a waste. But they find the voice keeps gnawing, and as it does, it nibbles away at their resolve to remain in perpetual motion. Sometimes they start going back to the places they loved the first time around, not realizing that impulse could be a surrogate for building a ritual life of their own. Some of them head back out with a girlfriend or boyfriend, which may be why the world is crawling with traveling couples.

I had my Wellington realization more than a decade ago. Of course it didn’t stop my travels. But it altered how I approached them. I still go to new places, but increasingly, I find myself gravitating to places filled with people I care about, or to spots that I know to be my personal lodestones. Having seen nearly 100 countries, I now find myself reinvesting my explorations by learning and loving a few chosen places more deeply. More importantly, I invest in my true life back home.

Because of my recent apartment building fire, I have found myself needing to pass time outside of my home. My first impulse, being a career traveler, was to head to Thailand or Edinburgh or to spend some time writing in Tulbagh, South Africa, where one of my friends from past travels runs the sublime Cape Dutch Quarters retreat.

Although travel has always been like a companion in my life, I couldn’t pull the tigger this time. I have a book I want to write and other projects I want to see grow. This time, rather than unplug and absorb, I felt the psychic need to feed my learnings back into my ritual life. I will return to the road sometime. But right now, I feel like it’s not my purpose to discover, but to create.

Some travelers confuse this shift as a message that they have grown out of the need to travel. That’s not the case. The rewards of travel are not a function of age. After all, we have all been out there with old timers with more zest for exploration than the alcoholic Gap Year kid in the bunk above you. They can be, however, a function of where you are in your life.

I used to look at those Gap Year kids, those listless Australians gulping non-stop rum shots to impress girls and loitering for months in a single hostel without much resolve to pick themselves up and resume their lives. When I began traveling, I envied their open-ended itineraries. But after I felt my emotional rupture in Wellington, I saw some of them as avoiding the inevitable and necessary emotional connection to themselves. A new phrase came to my head:

“If you don’t put down roots, you can never grow.”

For many of us, this is why we travel. We travel to enrich the soil of our lives back home. But the lure of learning, paired with the emotional intensity of meeting fantastic people and having to condense the arc of a relationship into a few days, can be so seductive, so addictive, that we forget.



12 Responses to “Sometimes travel delays your life’s true calling”

  1. Malerie Yolen-Cohen

    I loved this, Jason. I didn’t spend my life traveling full-time, but I did move around a lot through my late teens, 20’s and 30’s until I had kids. Yes, if you don’t put down roots you can never grow – but the most content people I know are the ones who have developed both roots AND wings – that happy medium between homebody and wanderer. As I watch my kids enter their 20’s, I’m proud to have passed along my travel-bug to them. They are both comfortable in the wider world, curious, interested and as a consequence, interesting. As you may remember, I drove cross country by myself (documenting Route 6) for six weeks. I haven’t furled my wings just yet. But I’m happy – now back home – to curl up with my laptop and the tons of material I collected putting a guidebook together and appreciating the New England foliage. I love your quote – we travel to enrich the soil of our lives back home. Beautifully put.

  2. taylor

    im so glad i just read this. i spent the last few weeks struggling with the fact that i have been home for almost a year doing nothing but trying to leave again. i now have a job i love and a boy i am just now realizing i could love and a ticket to south america in january that no longer feels like what i want to do. i know i want to travel again (and youre right, i am already thinking of ways to take him with me) but reading this suddenly made me realize how true it is, that we do need a home and we do need roots to grow. and i am happy to spend the time here with the people that mean the most to me and wait for the right placeto come, and not just leave because i am too scared of standing still. thank you.

  3. Anna

    A friend I met on the road sent this to me, and I’m so glad. My husband and I (one of those traveleing couples) have been feeling less and less joy in travel and more and more interest in home. This really explains our place – we want the roots of home, to see our expanded selves operate in our own enviornment. We have debated going home vs staying over and over. Thanks for articulating this mental travel space so well.

  4. Lou

    I really enjoyed this post. I’ve only been travelling for a little while but already I’m finding it hard to pack up and move on from a routine or a group of friends I’ve met. We are creatures of habit and ritual definitely gives meaning to our lives. Great read, thanks!

  5. Ruth

    Thanks for this travel guide through the lessons you’ve learned on the road. You’re still offering tips for how to travel well, and perhaps more importantly, how to travel wisely.

  6. Rachael

    This is a beautifully written article, almost poetic in places and full of wise words. “We travel to enrich the soil of our lives back home” should be added to the repository of travel quotes – it’s brilliant, pure genius.

  7. Stephen Cook

    Great post Jason. I remember being in some hostels where some of the travellers were almost residents and didn’t want to talk to the wide eyed guy who was excited about that particular place.

    Also guilty as charged with the travelling couples comment. As I approach my 40th birthday in 2013, me and the wife (she’s not as old as me…thankfully) are selling up, leaving our careers and heading off, probably for a long time. I’m blogging about the whole process from decision to leaving and looking back at all my travelling experiences. I’m officially hooked on blogging.

    Good luck with all your endeavours!


    • Jason Cochran

      Stephen! Stephen! You think 40 is too old to travel or something? Aw, man, just you wait until you get out there again. I think you already know you’re going to reconnect with what’s important and indelible in life. Bringing your wife with you is a great way to make sure these experiences really stick. Thanks for leaving me a comment.

  8. Lynn S

    Thank you for your insightful article! I’ve linked to it on my blog, where I talk about my own personal experiences with travel. I find I might not stay gone for longer than a couple months, but if I don’t get gone at least a couple times a year I get antsy! To me it’s all about striking the balance between home and away, between the stretching of travel and the stability of home.