• John Diamond-Nigh

Travel is X

A friend asked me recently, for purposes of a piece he was writing, to list three life principles that have worked especially well for me.

I started with travel. Just go. At my age (decrepitude tying its ribbons to me), I do, I need a pillow each night, and a roof of sorts, so the sweetest mode of travel is beyond my rusting agilities now, but I urge it on students and friends in their 20’s and 30’s. Call it the Forking Paths Traveler. My first taste of so traveling, while still in my teens, was a voluptuous zigzag from the bottom to the top of the British Isles. I hitchhiked by means of a vague gravitation, but never a destination in mind.

Starting each day with a cheese-and-apple picnic under a tree, I then put my thumb out. If it was too lovely for that, I walked. If by evening I ended up at Dylan Thomas’s boathouse, I rejoiced, but I might just as easily have ended up on a sheep farm (having been given a lift by the farmer) high in the Brecon Beacons of Wales. That in fact deserves telling: it was shearing time, and after being shorn, the sheep were ushered by sheepdogs, spurred by the farmer’s sonata of whistles, over a valley and up a mountain, so far away they vanished from sight. A marvel. Or I might find myself sleeping through a rainy night under a haystack. Or sitting at a table in the Bodleian Library, with portfolios of original William Blake drawings in my (gloved) hands. My luck: the director just happened to be passing by as I deposited my preposterous query at the front desk like a crumpled wrapper–could I possibly see . . .

Serendipity alone is a monumental lesson. How often did a cow in the road compel a car to stop and a door to open? Driver could be a member of parliament or long-haul trucker or IRA functionary, any one of whom might invite me to join his family for supper. Such were my days, swarming with firsts–all the ways people can live a life, shape a home, think a thought, produce a joy, enact an anger, tell a story. Just the word “the–how prodigiously different it could be from one mouth to the next. And then beyond words, how Welsh apple tart can tip you into completely pythian gibberish.

Among other lessons, kindness was the biggest. I stayed one weekend with a couple who both designed wallpaper. It had never crossed my mind that humans actually designed wallpaper. I thought it all was created back in the Bible, God’s way of doodling, trying out flowers, doing sudoku.

Teju Cole has observed that travel is about going there and actually having some kind of imagination about what life is like for people who live there. It’s more than Eiffel Towers and Brazilian corruption.

But it’s even more than that. Robert MacFarlane gives a nutshell synopsis of the great Finnish epic, the Kalevala. In the Kalevala, Vainemoinen is building an enchanted boat. But to finish it, he needs three words that will complete the task. “He looks for them first in the brains of swallows, then in the heads of dying swans, then the plumage of the gray duck, the tongues of summer reindeer, the mouths of squirrels.” All to no avail. The Lost-Words are not to be found. That, in turn, sets him on a dangerous voyage to find them–those three words that will help him finish his boat.

In short, taken out of your usual milieu, you come to understand that something deep, essential and unique to you is lost, a lost you will need the courage to find, a lost for which the quest was invented. Travel unveils that snake, that cup, that word, that stone–or so it did for me; a lost that may take a lifetime to find.

Would I travel for a year with a fractional chance of finding those three Lost-Words that, god knows how, had become essential to my existence? I hope I may always travel with that ragged and unguaranteed aspiration in mind.

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