Why do we travel? What impels us to leave behind the comforts of home and endure the indignities of airports or the toils and snares of an interstate highway?
We travel because it is in our nature. Humans have always been on the move, sometimes out of necessity — hunting and gathering, or fleeing from predators, poverty and persecution. But much of our travel, particularly in modern times, is about exploring new places. Three faculty members in the College of Liberal Arts have examined the idea of travel in very different ways, discovering that often in the journey we learn more about ourselves than we do about our destinations.
“When you’re traveling, you are what you are right there and then. People don’t have your past to hold against you. No yesterdays on the road.”William Least Heat-Moon
Often our most rewarding travel experiences have no itinerary. Although a frequent traveler such as Peter LaSalle has seen his share of maps and timetables, his travels are often prompted by an interest in an author or book, and where it might lead him.
“I do this thing where I pack a small bag with enough clothes for a couple of weeks along with some books by an author I admire, and I reread the work ‘on the premises,’ so to speak, to see what happens,” says LaSalle, the Susan Taylor McDaniel Regents Professor of Creative Writing, who teaches in both the English Department and the Michener Center for Writers at The University of Texas at Austin. “It’s maybe rereading Borges’ amazing short stories in his native Buenos Aires, or the French Surrealists in Paris.”
LaSalle says sometimes there is much in common between reading and travel, a dreamlike sense of exploring in which one is always on the brink of discovery.
“In reading there is discovery, wondering where the words will take you next, and in travel there is a similar sense of that, wondering where your thumping Reeboks will take you next, let’s say, as you meander for hours upon wonderful hours through a strange city,” he says. “Lately I like to blend the two. And it’s not simply seeking an understanding of an author and his or her work, which is more the job of actual scholars, those who produce academic critical commentary. In my case, as a writer myself — of short stories and novels, meaning creative work hopefully employing the imagination, even in my essays — scholarly research isn’t at all my intent, for better or worse.”
To have that sense of discovery, however, requires a style of travel that is open to the unexpected, that listens to an inner voice rather than to a voice of a tour guide. So LaSalle avoids the touristy areas, stays in relatively “crummy” hotels, seeks out offbeat spots to eat, speaks the language to the best of his ability, and always tries to meet and mix with locals in ordinary places.
“I know that in my own traveling, exploring a new place, my senses are intensified, when everything around me takes on a fresh, focused too-clarity of things, as if in a dream,” he says. “And while it admittedly sounds a little strange, I do feel that in such a scenario there can be a moment when an inner voice seems to be directing my walking — spookily, almost somnambulistically — calling me on toward some spot where I somehow need to be.”
LaSalle writes about such experiences in his latest book, The City at Three P.M.: Writing, Reading, and Traveling, due out in December. These literary travel pieces include his visit to Rio de Janeiro, the setting for Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis’s Epitaph of a Small Winner. While exploring parts of the city associated with Machado’s work, LaSalle was seized with the urge to walk to the other side of the iconic Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf Mountain). It entailed a long walk on a humid day along an unfamiliar route that wound through areas rife with crime and misfortune.
It is worth noting here that the word “travel” is derived from “travail,” or as Albert Camus once observed, fear gives value to travel because it is an occasion for spiritual testing that can free us from our “instinctive desire to go back to the protection of old habits” and bring us “back to ourselves.”
So despite warnings that muggings were rampant, LaSalle took his walk, perhaps to get back to himself: “… it was as if suddenly the whole outing wasn’t merely a walk, and it was as if I was being drawn along, was moving toward something very definite even if I didn’t know what it was…”
Wending his way through areas of heartbreaking poverty, he reaches a wide, sun-baked boulevard, and then finally arrives at a square that is empty save for a statue of Polish composer Frédéric Chopin, bowed toward the sea.
“We need sometimes to escape into open solitudes, into aimlessness, into the moral holiday of running some pure hazard in order to sharpen the edge of life, to taste hardship, and to be compelled to work desperately for a moment at no matter what.”George Santayana
Then it hits him.
“It was just that overwhelming feeling, again and more than anything else in the world,” he writes, “that I wanted to be writing my fiction, getting back to it as soon as I could, in this case to somehow immediately dispose of the several thousand miles and many hours of an overnight jet hissing on and on through the darkness, then a change of planes in Atlanta and finally a taxi ride on the freeway back to my place in Austin.”
In a sense the journey takes LaSalle back to where he began, but not quite as the same person. A truth has been discovered.
In his essay, “Au Train de Vie: That Voice You Hear When Traveling” (featured in the Best American Travel Writing 2014, his second essay to be included in that series), LaSalle writes of a similar metaphysical experience in Paris. No, it was not at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, nor along the banks of the Seine, nor over a plate of foie gras at Maxim’s. It was at a shabby café called Au Train de Vie, near the Gare de l’Est.
“It was as if I had to go there, or more so, as if a voice was telling me to go there again because it was where I was supposed to be, where I, well, I needed to be right then and at that time of my own life in Paris,” writes LaSalle.
And so he returns again and again to sip his strong coffee and take in the scene, the open railway yards against a huge Paris sky, and although he is seated at a little table, he nevertheless continues his journey, “a soothing and even transcendent silent excursion into the evening …”
For LaSalle, travel becomes both a physical and metaphysical experience: “And aren’t we all travelers in our dreams, wandering alone and solitary, constantly being drawn to a place where we should be, for the larger perception we should have, a voice often urging us on …” he writes, noting that the café is also perfectly suitable for such a dream journey “because dull gold letters on the tattered red awning out front do announce it as ‘Au Train de Vie,’ meaning in this case not just the idiomatic French term for ‘lifestyle’ but nothing less than — with a crisp pun when taken literally — ‘the train of life,’ all right.”
“My progress brought me to a corner. I breathed in the night, in a most serene holiday from thought. The view, not all that complex, seemed simplified by my tiredness. It was made unreal by its very typicality.”Jorge Luis Borges
We are travelers in our dreams, but dreams also inspire our travels. How many of us buy a travel book, or scroll through various destinations on Travelocity and dream of a journey to a new and exciting place? Sometimes we book a flight and off we go, but often we settle for traveling vicariously, whether we are reading about travel or watching Anthony Bourdain eat and drink his way across the planet.
In terms of Anglo-American and European history, travel for pleasure is an idea not more than 3½ centuries old, dating back to the days of the Grand Tour enjoyed mostly by the upper classes. It was not until the early 19th century that those of more modest means could afford to travel, and with more people traveling came a demand for books and articles on travel, as well as an expanding pool of people who could write about their travels.
Kirsten “Kit” Belgum examines how improved travel technologies coincided with advances in publishing and a growing demand for news about the world. She is fascinated by travel as something we react to, and what it says about us as a society.
“The world shrank in the 19th century — it shrank in part because travel got cheaper and quicker, but it really shrank because of how information about the world and travel got disseminated,” says Belgum, an associate professor of Germanic studies who explores the topic in her upcoming book, Geographical Imagination or How the World Shrank in the Nineteenth Century. “The rise of the steamboats and railroads coincided with the rise of a burgeoning middle class and advances in print technology.”
Belgum has examined many types of travel writing, from John Quincy Adams’ observations of early 19th century Silesia, to a German geographical magazine founded in 1862 called Globus, a precursor to National Geographic magazine of two decades later. As an early work of its kind, Globus attempted to introduce German readers to the world.
“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things: air, sleep, dreams, sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.”Cesare Pavese
The first issues were tough for Globus editor Karl Andree. Working alone and challenged to find enough information to publish a weekly travel magazine, he would frequently borrow text and images from other sources, resulting in mismatched images and composite articles that sometimes contained misleading reports.
For example, Andree repurposed illustrations he had acquired from a French periodical devoted to travel, Le Tour du Monde. The illustrations originally accompanied an article about Baron de Wogan’s travels in Nevada and Utah, but Andree used the illustrations for an article about California and Oregon. He also borrowed from the French text, leading to further confusion.
According to Belgum, this transnational “borrowing” in early travel writing was not uncommon. In his Letters on Silesia (c. 1800), John Quincy Adams himself borrowed descriptions and even social insights from an earlier work by Johann Friedrich Zöllner (Silesia was then under Prussian control; today, it is mostly in southwest Poland).
She writes that her point is “not to indict travel writers for instances of unacknowledged borrowing, but rather to highlight the complex and interconnected nature of writing about foreign places in the modern era.”
Further, these writings also provide insights into how writers and readers perceived themselves in the world, since accounts of a foreign land “might provide a challenge to one’s own national culture or they might be part of an attempt to fashion a personal or national agenda by using the foreign place as a negative foil,” Belgum writes.
“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.”Robert Louis Stevenson
“We never see anything for what it really is. We always have our filters on, our spectacles, and our own motivations and agendas,” she says. “What fascinates me is not so much what any specific traveller does, or what any specific traveller writes, but almost more what a society makes of it, what kind of hay you make out of a person’s description, characterization, how long it lasts, when it gets challenged.”
Belgum says it’s “this whole idea of changing reality. Travel is culture in contact, societies in contact, germs in contact … it’s what has made the world we live in today, a world that would be unrecognizable without all of this travel.”
That includes the State of Texas. It took just one letter, and a book inspired by it, to cause thousands of Germans to pull up deep roots and move to colonial Texas beginning in the 1830s. It was part of a vast migration of millions of Germans and other Europeans to the United States, a migration that James Kearney says not only dramatically changed Europe, but also changed the U.S. “in ways so profound that you can’t even itemize them.”
Kearney is a rancher in Colorado County who is partly descended from those early Texas Germans. He is also a lecturer in Germanic studies and editor of a recently published translation of one German’s impressions of colonial Texas, Journey to Texas 1833, by Detlef Dunt.
In an introduction to the translation, Kearney (along with co-editor Geir Bentzen) writes that Dunt read at least one letter by early settler Fredrich Ernst, who wrote letters to friends back in Germany “about the opportunities and easy lifestyle awaiting them in Texas.” Dunt decided to go to Texas and see for himself.
In writing those letters, “Ernst became part of an epistolary pattern that lured settlers across the Atlantic for several decades,” writes Kearney and Bentzen.
The same forces that coincide in Belgum’s research were at play here: Advances in printing and greater mobility, plus lack of economic opportunities, got some Germans thinking about making the big leap across the Atlantic. The catalyst was land, and in Texas, there was much of it.
“Texas was one of the great land giveaways of all time. A married man of good standing could get a league of land, 4,428 acres — that’s an enormous amount of land — only the grand duke of Oldenburg (in Germany) had that kind of land,” says Kearney. “Just sign your name and get it surveyed and its yours.”
“To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.”Aldous Huxley
If the land alone wasn’t enough of an incentive, Dunt’s book promoted many other aspects of life in the U.S. and in Texas, offering detailed descriptions of everything from the price of shoes to the wide availability of tobacco (“here it is provided by nature …”). Although Dunt admired the native flora and fauna, he did encourage German settlers to bring their own seeds and other plants “to have familiar creations growing around them (and) lessen their feeling of being so far from home.”
Dunt also made cultural observations, noting that in America “generally there is more work than play,” and “When it comes to community or group singing … their popular tunes actually sound barbarous.” During a stay in New Orleans, he wrote that he “felt sorry for the poor Negroes when I saw them being herded like cattle for work early in the morning.” (During the Civil War, German Texans from Central Texas and the Hill County were mostly Unionist or neutral in their political views and resisted conscription by the Confederate Army, sometimes violently.)
But for the most part, Dunt painted a positive picture of life in the U.S. and especially Texas, telling his readers that in return for moderate physical work, they will find “a carefree existence and an honest living.”
“Dunt’s book extolling the virtues of Texas life amplifies Ernst’s letter. It motivates a lot of people to make that unbelievably difficult decision to pull up stakes and try to make a new home,” Kearney says, adding that after Dunt’s book, more than 50 other books about Texas were published for German readers in the 19th century. Some German settlers wrote novels for German publishers, including the 1867 novel Friedrichsburg, written by Friedrich Armand Strubberg and translated into English by Kearney in 2012.
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”Henry Miller
“I argue that this is the first Western written by a Texas German, an old-fashioned melodrama set against the backdrop of colonial Fredericksburg,” says Kearney. “Strubberg is the precursor to Karl May.” May was a hugely popular German writer of the late 19th century best known for his Old West adventure novels. Unlike Strubberg, May never visited the Old West.
But May did visit in his imagination. And isn’t that what much of travel really is — what we imagine it to be?
Belgum recently taught a course, Voyages that Changed the World, in which her class looked at how the stories of four journeys — Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus, Charles Darwin and Apollo 11 — have changed through time.
Some in Europe celebrated Columbus’ exploits; others, such as the Spanish historian and friar Bartolomé de las Casas eventually condemned the “conquest.” In the U.S. Columbus has been commemorated for centuries as the discoverer of the Americas, but now he is also vilified as a brutal exploiter and killer of indigenous peoples.
As for Marco Polo, some scholars have questioned whether he even made it to China. Others point out that, even if he did, some of his account is clearly fictional.
Either way, his stories changed the world. Columbus carried a copy of Polo’s travels with him on his voyage west from Europe, thinking he was going to the Spice Islands described by the merchant traveler. Instead he landed in a new world and created a new reality.
The statue of Chopin that Peter LaSalle discovered on his walk in Rio was a gift from the Polish residents of Brazil to their new country. It was a gesture from a group of displaced people, trying to make sense of a new land, of their new reality.
The statue didn’t matter much to LaSalle:
… all that did matter while I stood there was that again, as on the walk in Paris, I had ended up where I hadn’t expected to have ended up. In other words, a rather random walk had taken me to a place — and a scene — I surely never expected to have come to, but it was, I fully knew now, a place where I very much wanted, and even needed, to be.
And this, perhaps, is the hope of all travelers. To end up where we need to be.