“A good traveller has no fixed plans and is not intent upon arriving,” is the ageless wisdom of Lao Tzu, the ancient Chinese philosopher who wrote “Tao Te Ching.”
But is this wisdom even pertinent to the tourism of today, or is the very notion of travel completely lost in this era of affluenza?
Perhaps the philosophical point of traveling is no longer applicable in an age where tourism has become one of the largest industries on the planet, and of course our economic life force here in this destination resort. We could venture to guess that for our most prominent guest pool here in our tourism-dependent town, the motivations for human movement, travel and exploration are of little concern when the pursuit of indulgent selfies and effortless, luxury leisure can be considered to be measures of success.
My own aching desire to travel has never been satiated, but the reasons behind its draw exercise my mind when I’m faced with the reflections of what it is to be a tourist during our peak seasons here in Snowmass.
I can’t help but notice or even feel the anxious energy often brought in by the type of visitors we attract during the weeks between Christmas and the New Year. Perhaps the price of privilege is the cost to one’s soul as an intemperate, quenchless thirst for more than can ever be satisfied. I’m certain that I’ve been that tourist at some time and place in my life, too. Clamoring to squeeze every last drop of fun out of the day, even if it killed me, cost me; Carpe diem, damn it.
Philosophers across the centuries have debated what travel means, what it provides to the traveler and how it affects the outer world the tourist penetrates. Travel, praised for broadening horizons, is sometimes seen as an extension of the journey of life. Philosopher George Santayana suggested, “What is life but a form of motion and a journey through a foreign world? On this basis, the journey is often seen as more important than the destination.”
Travel also is often considered a means of self-exploration, a source of stories, memories and experiences. As Michel Montaigne, French Renaissance philosopher argued, “This great world is a mirror where we must see ourselves in order to know ourselves.”
Many philosophers, particularly in the Age of Enlightenment, also saw the benefits of travel as strengthening human society through the practice of commerce and interaction. But could these great minds have ever imagined that one could circumnavigate the globe in about two days?
(LAX to LHR to DBX then DBX to SYD with Emirates, leave 9:30 a.m. local, arrive 6:30 p.m. local. Then SYD to LAX — 11:30 local to 6:30 local with Quantas. Horribly painful but yes it can be done.)
Others have questioned the very point of travelling. Ralph Waldo Emerson believed, “Travelling is a fool’s paradise. Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places.” And Ghandi cautioned against the damaging aspects of modern travel: “Is the world any better for quick instruments of locomotion? How do these instruments advance man’s spiritual progress? Do they not, in the last resort, hamper it? Once we were satisfied with travelling a few miles an hour; today we want to negotiate hundreds of miles an hour; one day we might desire to fly through space. What will be the result? Chaos.”
Those sentiments were spoken nearly 100 years ago, and tourism has really only become an active industry over the past 75 years. So what say they now?
The exponential growth of online resources, guidebooks and social media must-see and to-do lists have eroded the serendipity of travel. Instead of discovery, unknown adventures and unmapped journeys, we lose out on the art of getting lost.
If travel, like life itself, is about a process of gathering experiences, stories and memories, which is all we are really left with in the end, then rushing blindly from one place to another expecting only the best with 5-star itineraries pre-planned down to the scenic photo op doesn’t seem to make sense. Those, “OK, let’s take the picture so we can go,” moments don’t add up to the philosophical rationale for traveling in the first place.
And here we are, creeping toward homogeny, wealthy enough to see the world in a lifetime and spoiled enough to expect nothing but the best when we knowingly and willingly overpay. So how do we contend with the tourist who cuts the line in front of an 8-year-old, yells at an 18-year-old waitress, refusing her tip because the water had ice cubes not crushed ice, tantrums if there is a queue, and quite literally blames the ski instructor for the weather?
Perhaps we wait until mid January, enjoy first tracks, and forgive the angry tourist and his childish perspective for he knows not what the traveller could have seen. And we can pledge to travel blindly like a guidebook writer not a guidebook reader, perhaps even resisting the urge to post that quaint little place or breathtaking view that we stumbled upon.
After all, as Paul Theroux wrote, “Travel is only glamorous in retrospect.”
Let’s exchange a piece of my mind for a little peace of mind; after all, if we always agree what will we talk about? Britta Gustafson appreciates an open mind; share yours and email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.