(Image: Drea Knufken)
Have you heard of that Amtrak Residency for Writers? It’s pretty cool. You sit on a train and write for 2-5 days. The constant movement of the train lulls your mind into a writerly state. You’re free of that metaphysical silly string of daily life: sticky obligations, sticky family, sticky friends, sticky work. Nothing to tug you away from the keyboard but circadian rhythms and nature.
Travel grinds life down to its fundamentals. Food, water, a place to lay your head, the shapes of new things in fresh places. That sense of presence is an awakening.
Here’s the thing I recently learned. Travel only works as a creative catalyst when it contrasts with something you’re used to. If you were to live on an Amtrak train, I bet it would get boring. I bet a suburban house would feel like a thick-walled cave and inspire creativity—and then get boring again. And then the train would be exciting.
This need for contrast seems indulgent. It clashes with an impossible standard I hold for myself, a standard constructed out of some vague and ancient definition of virtue. “If you were enlightened enough,” the voice in my head tells me—it is wearing a cassock, by the way, like Neo from The Matrix—“you would be fascinated by small things and not have the need to run around the planet until your feet hurt.”
I heard somewhere that enlightened Buddhists will find fascination in buttoning their shirts in the morning. What is it that is so fundamentally satisfying, then, about seeing as many places as possible? Is it the outcome of a busy and greedy mind, one that measures progress in the form of number of experiences? Or is there really something transformative about it?
Both, I’d venture. The happy medium is somewhere in between. All the great prophets have spent time traveling; so have the most annoying braggarts.
I think I’ll adjust my enlightenment standard to read something like: “Don’t visit a city just to ‘do’ that city. Let the city or place do something to you.”