How to Travel with a Sense of Place

Aim for what C.S. Lewis called “quiddity” instead of Comfort Inns.

Ours is an era of travel. If you want to be cultured, broadminded, thoroughly educated, you travel. And escaping across the continent or overseas has never been easier. Day or night, the roads that crisscross the country are lined with lights. People are always going somewhere.

Recently, my husband and I took a road trip from Maryland to Tennessee. As the miles and hours ran on, I wondered what places—exotic, comfortable, or dingy—all those drivers around us peered toward over their steering wheels. I believe that many of us, whether we’re on a business trip or a vacation, don’t enjoy the journey part of traveling, although we look forward to the destination. Traveling can be uncomfortable; it means to be on the way to somewhere, to be in limbo. We are in a hurry to get done with that on-the-way part and to make ourselves feel as much at-home as we can while we’re en route.

On most American highways, you can’t drive through empty countryside. Every mile or so along the open road, you pass ugly signs in primary colors, pointing out the gas stations, chain restaurants, and hotels that dot the roadside for the convenience of the multitudes who pass. As we sped along the endlessly unrolling road through Virginia and Tennessee, I felt disappointed; the uniqueness of every new place we passed seemed diminished by this speed and these identical stores planted in concrete.

We are so eager to shorten the space and time between destinations that we seem to have sacrificed place—and our ability to be aware of the place we are in. C.S. Lewis, a great walker of the English countryside, writes in Surprised by Joy about the pleasure of experiencing the “quiddity,” the essence or flavor, of a place. If you stay somewhere—in a certain city, a house, a field, or a patch of woods—long enough with your senses sharp to its details, you will absorb this flavor. Those memories of the feel of your grandmother’s house, or a church, or a concert hall from childhood; the vivid colors, sounds, or emotions recalled by a sudden smell or story; these are your vital connection to a place.

Certain recent writers, including Wendell Berry, Walker Percy, and T.S. Eliot, have insisted on the theme that physical place matters, in the same way that time, the now moment, matters. It is easy to walk wearily around familiar places, blind to their details, never guessing that “Everything around you has a question inside it” (Tony Hiss, “Wonderlust”). People who do not know how to be somewhere, to embrace the present place and moment, are more than likely nowhere, and consequently more dead than alive.

But drawn by globalizing forces, we are trying to be at home everywhere and are in danger of losing awareness of anywhere. I think we have done this because we dislike the vulnerable feeling of homelessness; and to recognize a place for what it is means admitting one’s alienation, one’s position as a stranger there, both physically and spiritually.

But the person who is confident enough in the destination that lies behind or ahead should be able to find pleasure in the journey. You can learn to enjoy those reminders of what it is to be a pilgrim, a wayfarer gathering impressions, with home always as the point of reference. Part of the pleasure in traveling is experiencing the flavors of each place and savoring their difference from the flavor of the place you call home. It may even help you better distinguish from a distance the quiddity of home, which a pilgrim will treasure that much more when he or she arrives.

Is it wrong to travel and to accommodate travelers with 70 mile-per-hour speed limits and identical McDonalds and Comfort Inns scattered from Maine to Florida, helping them to ignore where they are? I only know that if any such thing as a home exists on earth, it isn’t found by smoothing away distinctions of place and abolishing the discomforts of travel. To be at home everywhere is to be at home nowhere.

This doesn’t mean you should avoid traveling. It means you should travel with awareness of place. Travel the rough country roads instead of the interstates; and travel with the reminder that to travel is not to be home.

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