Since second grade, I wanted to travel the world. Back then, I wanted to be a teacher in China. Later, I wanted to be an Egyptologist. Sometime in middle school, I became enamored with Europe and wanted to see the likes of Barcelona, Rome, and Paris. At 14, I learned about the Peace Corps, and that became my ultimate goal.
For a long while, travel was my passion, my pursuit, my life dream. From my grounded, stateside, never-been-on-a-plane, never-seen-the-Alps, never-seen-the-Pyramids, never-seen-Canada perspective, travel was adventure, it was purpose, and it was fulfillment. Nothing else would really matter if I could stand on a savannah, dip my toes in another ocean, hike the Italian countryside, or watch the sun set on the other side of the globe.
For a good portion of my life, all that was just wistfulness, imagination, and yearning. But last year I began pursuing this dream I had harbored since being a kid. I honestly thought no one really understood my desire to ***see the world*** (which deserves all the italics, all the asterisks, and probably three exclamation points). Forever I had wanted to do these things, but I had made no tangible steps toward achievement. Fear, money, fear, and practicality held me back. But then I booked a ticket, and I went.
I haven’t stopped going. I can now stay I’ve stood in a desert. I’ve partied in Berlin (the highlight probably being when I devoured a Bavarian pretzel at 2 AM). I’ve been to the southernmost point of America. I’ve seen a handful of the thousands of places there are to see. And it’s been awesome. There’s adrenaline, exhilaration, sleep deprivation, a sense of personal strength and victory, and especially a sense of euphoria when the sun, the caffeine, and emotions hit just right while you’re standing in a cobblestoned town square.
“This is me, I’m really doing this, I’m really here,” I’ve thought to myself more than once while somewhere far from home. “I’ve done it.”
But on my last two trips, I’ve begun to be nagged by a quiet, but discomforting thought: So what? Perhaps it’s because I keep going and it feels flippant (it’s not), and also maybe it’s an extension of too many adrenaline rushes, and adrenaline eventually runs dry.
Back in January, wandering beneath the live oaks of New Orleans, I wondered this first: “What is the point of travel?” This question goes beyond experiencing other cultures, *finding yourself*, and just having fun. All these things are great. But I am someone who values my productivity and, yes, probably even judges myself and others based on it. And travel is not traditional productivity. Sure, you can check places off, but you can’t say you made a profit, planned a fundraiser, or finished your dissertation when you’re training between German towns (but I did check my email!). Which, again, is all dandy, but can you do it forever? Or is travel, ultimately, just a vacation? I feel like it is more, or should be more, and it is more to me—but I also felt empty on that Monday afternoon in New Orleans’ Garden District (maybe also because it was Monday), and I felt a similar emptiness a couple of months later walking through the English Gardens of Munich. Here I was, living life (whatever that actually means), seeing this new place and infatuated, but so what?
I asked a similar question about life in general a few months ago. Perhaps all this is just my quarter-life (let it be a quarter and not a midlife!) existential crisis, but I really don’t feel like I’m having a crisis. Rather, I feel like I’ve found my stride in life – between juggling grad school, friends, volunteering, no sleep, and travel (“drowning” may be more apt than juggling). Nevertheless, I wonder, once I make it to Switzerland (which is the top of my theoretical travel list), what then? Do I move there? But I’m not traveling to find a home?
I’m also not traveling to find myself. Because I know myself. I wrote about that a few months ago, which seemed to rub some of my friends along a cheese grater (that is to say, the wrong way), but personally, my globetrotting journey is not soul-searching one. That should not shortchange those who are soul-searching. I’m looking for something…different? More?
Finally, I realized, that’s it! (Because this is an essay, and I have to pretend life’s episodes have tidy endings – right?) I’m not looking for myself necessarily, but I am looking for something bigger than myself. And this didn’t come to me while sitting on a rock looking at the Mermaid in Copenhagen or smoking weed in Amsterdam (I didn’t actually do that, prospective job employers; I’m dead serious, everyone).
I had this epiphany following a journey to see Burg Eltz—this magical castle in Germany’s Mosel Valley, a couple of hours south of Cologne. I had seen this castle for years (aka two) on my Instagram feed. When I discovered I was geographically so close to it, I had to go. I might write about the adventure to see Burg Eltz in greater detail later, but the summary is, I un-boarded a train at the emptiest station ever (they didn’t even have machines to buy tickets) and then walked an hour up a mountain, by myself, passing only one other person until I arrived before this castle of my dreams as the sun slid behind the mountains. Thankfully, there were three German teenagers nearby taking photos, and I asked them to snap a photo of me (one of them was on crutches, so they weren’t going to steal my phone). On my way back to the train station, back to civilization, away from my dream castle, I thought about how I was in the middle of the German wilderness, seeing castles and the countryside, on my fourth foreign undertaking in a year. I hadn’t found myself; I had become myself. I was on an adventure.
And that’s it: Travel isn’t emptiness. It’s adventure. And adventures don’t have ends. They just keep going.