Sunday, July 03, 2011


What is travel for?

Martha Gellhorn, in "What Bores Whom?", travels to Israel in 1971 when she is in her 60s. This woman traveled all over alone, and reported on wars and conflicts, starting with the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. She was also, fairly briefly, married to Ernest Hemingway, which must have been a war and conflict in itself.

Gary Cooper, Martha Gellhorn, Sandra Shaw, and Ernest Hemingway

In Israel, she goes to a Red Sea resort town, and ends up surrounded by hash-smoking hippies hanging out in an abandoned water tank. She writes of them: "In their view, the were traveling to find themselves, rather as if oneself were a missing cufflink or earring that had rolled under the bed. They admired those among them who meditated in the lotus position for a fixed period of time each day. Like I mean he's really into meditation. The meditators were closer to finding themselves. I couldn't imagine any of them ten years hence, having never known such shapeless people."

Breathe. Photo by Beny Shlevich

I like her description, because I have always thought that travel is overrated in its ability to be life-changing. Some people are capable of extreme change, but most are not. Their selves are not "lost" so much as eternally absent, and no amount of travel will help them "find" anything. People who can change can generally change without going anywhere.

It reminds me of the constant misinterpretation of Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken." Almost everyone reads this poem as the narrator having done something brave and taken "the road less traveled by," but I would argue that Frost does not mean that at all. Here is the poem:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
and sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
and looked down one as far as I could
to where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
and having perhaps the better claim
because it was grassy and wanted wear;
though as for that, the passing there
had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
in leaves no feet had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I --
I took the one less traveled by,
and that has made all the difference.

In describing the two roads, he first says that "the other" had a better claim "because it was grassy and wanted wear." From this description, we get the idea that the second path is less traveled. However, the narrator admits that this perception is not really true: "though as for that, the passing there/ had worn them really about the same." Then, "And both that morning equally lay/ in leaves no feet had trodden black" [emphasis mine]. The paths are identical, they lay "equally," and neither has been "trodden black." There is no difference in the two paths, so the narrator's choice is arbitrary, not brave.

The "turn" of the poem (like a turn in a sonnet) comes in the last stanza, where the narrator envisions a future time when he or she will be telling the story of choosing a path. In this imagined future narration, the narrator will "sigh" and then, in an act of self-aggrandizement, say "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I --/ I took the one less traveled by,/ and that has made all the difference." The repetition of "I--I" emphasizes the future narrative egoism that the narrator envisions.

In the moment of choice between two equal paths, the narrator knows that, at some point in the future, he or she will want to tell the story of the choice in such a way so that the listener will be impressed. Saying, "Yeah, I chose one path for no real reason" is less exciting than saying "I took the one less traveled by" and then claiming that this choice has been the turning point for the formation of the narrator's life. The act of retrospective importance is not to be sneezed at, but I would argue that the vital point the poem makes is that we must realize that the importance is retrospective, not actual, not present. Only in the future does the path taken become "different."

Similarly with travel. Outside of the exceptional person capable of profound change, travel is generally not formative. But in our recollection of the past, we often point to important trips as "moments" when everything changed. We want to remember travel for its alleged formative nature; we do not want to acknowledge its lack of actual formative influence.

Our lives change incrementally. Travel is not in and of itself transformative. The road was not less-traveled.