Mark Twain is said to have written, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
Long ago, when I was a new teacher, my principal, a retired Navy officer, waxed avuncular one day. “If you’re going to teach,” he said, “you’ll never make a lot of money; so you’ve gotta decide whether to spend it on things or on experiences. You can’t have both.”
That notion has stayed with me for over half a century. Now and then I still yearn for something I can’t afford, or even buy something I can’t afford. But experience, especially gained through travel, is different: You pay for it up front – at least you should – and afterward it’s part of your life, enriching it as long as you live.
Mark Twain was America’s most famous traveler of the 19th century, and he never missed a chance to share his impressions. He was expert at picking out the foibles of European society; but he also made fun of himself and other Americans. In The Innocents Abroad he writes, “In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language.”
Domestic American travel has become more comfortable – and blander – by the ubiquity of chain franchises, with their familiar but predictable amenities. It’s hard to find much excitement beyond an occasional night in an airport. The broadening experiences begin when we strike out on our own.
Mother and I always get away for our anniversary, on Halloween. It happens to come at the beginning of low season rates in hotels everywhere. We love Gettysburg, with its haunted battlefield. I walk the deadly mile from Seminary Ridge to the Union lines, trying to imagine what it was like.
And who knew that in France, a few miles from the Mediterranean, there are limestone canyons laced with thousand-year-old trails zig-zagging up and over the cliffs, while down in the valleys are streams full of rainbow trout?
Or that in Montana there are herds of wild bison and millions of prairie birds returning to the high plains? That in Iceland, only five hours away, volcanoes and hot springs are as common as sugar bushes in Vermont?
Kipling says it best: Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!
This is Willem Lange back home in Montpelier, and I gotta get back to work.