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Why Travel?

Fall Line
posted: 03/17/2005

God knows it's been years since "getting there was half the fun"-if, indeed, it ever was. But in these days of heightened world tensions, draconian travel restrictions and seemingly endless hassles to fly the increasingly unfriendly skies, sometimes it seems easier to just stay home.

But then again, it always has been. Even pre-9/11, traveling was a pain. I've been doing it since I was little, starting when I first went to ski camp alone at age 7, riding eight hours in a rattling bus from Casper, Wyo., to Bozeman, Mont. It was scary but empowering, and felt like the start of a whole new life. It still feels the same way today.

As with most skiers, travel is one of the things that keeps me breathing. I love pulling into a resort I've never visited, looking up at the mountain, trying to assess the terrain and the personality of the place with my luggage still in hand. It's like a first date, with the adrenaline and anticipation of the unknown. How good or strange will this really be?

When I was a kid, I learned to love new mountains for their newness alone, the amazing sensation of racing around the bend of a run, not knowing what I would find. As an adult I've come to demand a little more, but it's still the buzz of discovery that keeps me motivated to move beyond my comfort zone. That said, as I grow older I sometimes find myself having to work harder to leave my hometown cocoon.

It was a lot easier, of course, when my parents packed everything for me and paid all the bills. And travel stayed simple through my 20s, as long as I didn't have many adult responsibilities-or a girlfriend. Now I pass on a dozen trips a year (while taking a dozen others) because I'm simply too harried and burned out to go. As I've gotten older I've gotten busier, pickier and-as I think about turning down the chance to golf and ski in Canada the way I did this year-clearly a whole lot crazier.

It's just that travel, in addition to being exciting, can also be exhausting and destabilizing. Every time I get back from someplace, I'm just grateful to be home-and instantly leery of my next departure.

Much of it has nothing to do with terrorism, wars or contagions. It has to do with just getting out the damn door. My wife and I went to Telluride last spring, a mere three-hour drive from our home, and almost talked ourselves out of it a dozen times-even though we had made a sizable, nonrefundable deposit. The trip wasn't a sure thing until we pulled into the hotel and actually checked in. And,of course, we had a great time.

But the obstacles to travel are always many. The mail that needs answering and the driveway that needs plowing. The stack of paperwork on the dining room table that calls for a little time and focus. The sweet prospect of some quiet domestic downtime. And who's going to water the plants?

At home, we have a house considerably larger than a motel room out of which to operate, a stocked kitchen, a garage full of recreational gear to employ, a bed unslept in by a thousand sweaty strangers-and on and on. Our house is, above and beyond all else, familiar.

But pursuit of the unfamiliar is one of the big reasons why humans travel, and always should be. There's a biological imperative in us to go forth and explore. It's embedded in our hunter-gatherer-wayfarer DNA and can be seen from time's distant beginnings, from Leakey's Lucy wandering Africa's veldts to the ancient Polynesians and Vikings plying the open seas in little more than wood skiffs, to you catching a cab for the airport. As planetary scientist Alan Stern has said about the reasons to visit other worlds: "We should go because exploration is part of what makes us human."

Of course, so is a survival instinct that tells us there is inevitably more trouble to be found beyond the cold side of our front door than on the warm side of it. Participating in the world is inherently more dangerous than just hanging out.

So why bother? Because traavel provides perspective, and perspective is the door to wisdom. There are always new adventures out there, new places to see and new people to meet.

My life would be paler if we had left Chamonix, as we had considered, right after a deadly avalanche during the violent winter of 1999. There's the whirl and grind of the ice on the Saint Lawrence during the tide changes that I would never have experienced, and the reasoned voices of dissent I would never have heard if we hadn't decided to go to Quebec, even though our country had just declared war on Iraq and the SARS virus was loose on the land.

There are unforgettable slopes in the Arlberg I would never have skied, brilliant blues on glaciers in Alaska I would not have seen, hill-tribesmen in Laos I would never have met, if I had listened to my nagging fears, my urge to play it safe and not venture out.

Maybe that's why some of the most memorable people I've met in my travels are guides. We're always looking for someone or something to help us make sense of the world. I still remember nearly every guide I've ever had in the Alps by name, including Jurgen Pirker, a large, enthusiastic, native of St. Anton in his 40s who moves like a happy ghost through those big mountains. Jurgen has taught me, among other things, that the region's best storms come from the north, how to tell a bad joke in German (I've now forgotten it in two languages), and why it's important to always ski hard (it clears the mind).

We travel because we can't always find good powder where we are. We travel because we want our kids to see the world. We travel because we can't get good falafel at home, because they have more vertical feet somewhere else, because we want to see if a draining bathtub really does swirl in the other direction, if the northern lights really do improve fertility, if the air is more sensuous, the ocean is clearer, the grass is greener, the mountains taller, the slopes steeper, the snow deeper, or a million other equally worthy reasons.

But we also need to travel. We need to know what's going on in other places with other people, up close and personal. We need to meet those people-whether it's in a boardroom in Tokyo or on a mountain in Chile-to get some face-time, learn about their families, have a drink together, grab a lunch, share a laugh, ride a lift, carve a turn and otherwise confirm all the reasons to believe in a common good instead of stewing over our differences from across time zones and cultures. These days, especially.

We need, most of all, to overcome our own inertia and our love affair with comfort to recognize our capacity to still be awed by the diversity of the world, instead of intimidated by it. Skiers won't save the world, but they can make it a better place, one run at a time.

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