All unpleasant journeys are unpleasant in the same way; all pleasant ones are pleasant after their own fashion. Or so a clumsy paraphrase of Tolstoy might read if it were applied to the subject of travel, about which anyone who has ever planned an itinerary, packed a bag, or braved the torments of customs has a personal prejudice. While the primary ingredient for disappointment in leisure travel is universal—the frustrated fulfillment of one’s whims—the definition of a successful trip is as individual as one’s retinal imprint.
I have a college friend, for instance, who has never not traveled. In some souls a restlessness arises—an awakening to the notion that, no matter where one is, there is always someplace better to be. In school, this friend would suddenly and mysteriously vanish, leaving no clues as to his fate. Friends and acquaintances would frantically phone, authorities would be contacted, and, in one case, his landlord, at the instigation of the police, unlocked his apartment so that it could be examined for evidence of foul play. Invariably these episodes of panic were allayed by the appearance of a postcard from Corfu, a midnight phone call from Madrid, or, on one occasion, the arrival in a brown unmarked package of a menacing totem from Angkor. Abetted by an ample trust fund, my friend seemed then to flicker spectrally in and out of the more mundane existences of his acquaintance with enviable frequency. (This could explain why his degree was nearly six years in the earning.) After college, his amblings assumed a more purposeful bent: He studied Russian in Russia, some abortive program in France, and, finally, a year of classical Greek in Greece—an experiment that paid off, insofar as he now teaches that subject, along with composition, at a private school in Southern California (a position selected to lend him an air of responsibility while still affording him nearly three months of the year to wander).
Despite the academic veneer of his later treks, I suspect my friend’s true motivation was a love of motion, the exchange of one landscape for the next, rather than a desire to commune with any culture. As a traveler, I’m of the opposite type. This admission is not necessarily a felicitous one: I embark with the heightened expectation that something profound will reveal itself to me and, to prepare myself for the epiphany, arm myself with books by the volumes to assist in deciphering the nuances of my experiences. I’ve wandered the Doge’s Palace, I’m ashamed to confess, with my nose pressed into a copy of Henry James in search of a description of a certain chamber, neglecting in these professorial pursuits the original object of my exploits. Of course, there’s the equally myopic traveler who, on departing, is whisked from car to plane to car again, only to arrive at a well-appointed and secluded resort chosen for its exacting resemblance to home. In this way, said traveler undertakes a pampered regimen of dining, poolside lounging, perhaps tennis, a little golf, without ever leaving the premises, oblivious to the Aztec temples, medieval fortresses, or tribal burial grounds beyond the gates.
Better, perhaps, to be one of those travelers with the somewhat earthy gift for immersing themselves in any place or moment, without the safety net of itinerary or guidebook. Such carefree explorers need neither the exhilaration of wheels or wings, nor a mess of historical facts, to extract the vital juices from a trip. These fortunates seem always to discover the most unusual forms of shelter, meet the most eccentric characters, and have the most exotic adventures simply (or so they say) by opening themselves up to what’s already there.
Still, I distrust this breed of vacationer: Their anecdotes are too well rendered, their serendipitous encounters too serendipitous, their free spirits too free. Besides which, I’m not the volcano-climbing, peyote-imbibing sort. Just as I am not a compulsive peripatetic, neither am I inclined to cocoon myself behind the walls of a resort, however sumptuous. These modes of travel, as gratifying as they might be to others, would frustrate my bookish whims. And so I leave my fellow wanderers to make their journeys pleasant in their ways, while I remember to pack my Henry James.