I find the great thing in this world is not so much where we stand, as in what direction we are moving: To reach the port of heaven, we must sail sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it,–but we must sail, and not drift, nor lie at anchor.
- Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. - The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table (1858)
Long before hyper-modern forms of travel enabled us to escape to a new life or a new world in the blink of an eye, the overwhelming desire to leave, to travel, to explore, boiled the blood of many men. Passion du voyage, reislust, mehetnék, λαχτάρα για ταξίδια, страсть к путешествиям, wanderlust; the words carry the same feeling in every language, but I believe it is the German word ‘fernweh’ that speaks most linguistically true. As heimweh is the word for ‘homesick’, so fernweh, then, is that same longing feeling for another, unknown place. It is a farsickness.
Perhaps the why’s of wanderlust aren’t as important as they once were to me. I’ve come to know the feeling as a part of me. At times it is quiet, waiting, letting me enjoy a place or people. At times it grows restless and I know it’s time to go. Even in those quiet times, though, I am aware of it like I am aware of the gasoline in my car. I know one day the tank will run dry and I must be ready. That readiness is something that’s grown over time.
As a child, the choice to stay or go was never mine. I remember times when my parents’ jobs would force us to pick up and head to a new city, and it was frightening. I didn’t want to leave my friends, my home, my school. I don’t know if the lust wasn’t in me yet, if I hadn’t come to understand it, or if I was blissfully ignorant because of my lack of control. Whatever the reason, those times ended with high school.
In college I took drives, many drives. The need to get away grew stronger all the time and I didn’t know what else to do. I packed up the car with snacks, if I had that much forethought, and started driving. The roads took me where they willed.
Once, I remember crossing the endlessly flat, barren terrain of Nebraska. A rail-road ran alongside of my car. Slowly I passed by a train, only to stop and fill up my tank and watch the train pass me by again. I think that is when I understood.
Every now and then we throw an old schoolmate over the stern with a string of thought tied to him, and look–I am afraid with a kind of luxurious and sanctimonious compassion–to see the rate at which the string reels off, while he lies there bobbing up and down, poor fellow! and we are dashing along with the white foam and bright sparkle at our bows;–the ruffled bosom of prosperity and progress, with a sprig of diamonds stuck in it! But this is only the sentimental side of the matter; for grow we must, if we outgrow all that we love.
Over the years, I’ve grown better at moving on. I’ve learned how to pick up any stray roots I’ve lain, organize my life and possessions, plot a course and set sail. It’s never been a sad thing, for me at least, to leave a place. I know I take so much from each stop on my journey, from each person I’ve met and story I’ve heard. The experiences fill me with joy and strengthen my faith, not only in God, but in human beings. It’s allowed me the distinct opportunity to share in the lives of hundreds of fine people, some of whom I will not see again. Regardless, they are a part of me now.
At times I look back on those people and compare myself, judging whether I’ve made any real progress or not. Like Mr. Holmes says, “…we cannot help instituting comparisons between our present and former selves by the aid of those who were what we were, but are not what we are.” It is not a point of pride, or a means of looking down on the others. The true comparison is against our former selves. When the wind changes, am I a better person than I was?
Wanderlust is not the why. It is not the how or even the what. It is a spark inside that calls for change, but it is the change itself that is the message. What do we want from our new place and people? Who does it serve? What can we do to make it better, make ourselves better? In all my traveling, that is the most important lesson I’ve learned. I know of no better way to prepare for the journey.