When Traveling Becomes Escapism

by Matt Hershberger Dec 2, 2014

In 2009, I was living at home with my parents, I was unemployed, and I was miserable. Someone made the mistake of giving me a copy of the book Into the Wild, so I decided that I, too, was just going to drive around the country in search of adventure. I told everyone about my plans, and started buying equipment, like a stove that I could hook up to my car’s cigarette lighter. I invested in a better backpack and I started putting more money into savings. Finally, when I was a month off from my departure date, my dad pulled me aside.

“Matt,” he said, “this is a fucking stupid idea.”

I protested. Didn’t he want me to move out? Didn’t he think I should experience life?

“Yeah,” he said, “But you’ll be back here within a month. Because you have no money, and because you aren’t the type of person who wants to die in the Alaskan tundra on an abandoned bus.”

My dad, unfortunately, was right. It was a fucking stupid idea. Instead, I got a job working at a fruit shack, and found a place to live with a few other buddies. I resented him for a while though. “Why shit on a good travel plan?” I thought.

Travel isn’t always a good idea.

I’m not of the opinion that people who don’t have money shouldn’t travel. I do think that travel is something that really only relatively privileged people get to do, but I don’t think it should be that way, and I think that if travel is a priority for you, even if you’re poor, you should find a way to make it happen.

That said, me traveling poor was a horrible idea. In the three years prior to my dumb trip idea, I’d spent about a full year living abroad. The idea of sitting in my parents’ house on the outskirts of Cincinnati, where no massive festivals or parties were happening, where no sexy Australian girls were inexplicably flirting with me, was unbearable after all that jetsetting. So I decided to escape.

I’ve since had a few other travel schemes similar to the Dumb Trip, and I’ve learned to identify them relatively quickly. First, the plan usually has an incredibly short timeline, possibly because there’s a voice in the back of my head screaming “LEAVE! NOW! NOW! NOW!” Second, the plan is usually spectacularly ambitious. Perhaps it’s a motorcycle trip from Buenos Aires up to Houston at a time when there are no roads connecting Colombia and Panama, and at a time where I have no knowledge of how to drive a motorcycle. Or perhaps it’s simply a $2,000 plane trip to Thailand at a time when I’ve only got $200 in my bank account. If I manage to take a second to step back, I can usually catch these warning signs.

And it’s times like these that I have to accept that I have deeper problems than travel can solve, and that, like alcohol or sex, or drugs, travel is just something I’m using to avoid those deeper problems.

When you should stay still.

Most people, when they travel, find that they are discovering things left and right. They are discovering new cultures. They are discovering things about themselves that they never knew before. They are discovering that their stomach’s tolerance for tainted water is not great. Whatever it is, travel is a learning process, and this can make it therapeutic.

At one point, I booked some solo travel. I was living in London at the time, and I decided to head to Belgium for some Christmas markets. When I got there, I found that the portions of the trip I most looked forward to were ones where I was on the trains and could read, or when I could hole up in a cafe or bar and read. I spent maybe 50% of my waking time reading, and when I got back to London, I thought, “Well, shit, I could have easily done that in London and saved a ton of money.”

When you hit this point, you’re no longer traveling to learn. You’re traveling because you’ve got shit to deal with, and you aren’t letting yourself do it in your normal habitat. The idea of a “staycation” is starting to catch on with a lot of people, and in spite of being an absolutely atrocious portmanteau, it’s a good idea. One of the best things you can learn after spending a lifetime of moving is when to stay still.

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