I've learned more about the world from regular trips to the library than on any escapade abroad. Bonus: No passport or airport stop-and-frisking required.
If anything makes me feel like a stranger in the strange land that is modern life, it’s a resolution I made after turning thirty: I will fly only when exceptional circumstances arise. I’m an oddity over here in my one-woman no-fly zone, as is glaringly obvious on the dating site I’m on. Forget about loving dogs; “must love travel” is the sine qua non for today’s single person. If a user hasn’t listed “passport” as one of the six items he can’t live without, then he’ll surely proclaim he’s looking for a “partner in crime” who wants to “see the world” with him. Otherwise, he’ll post pictures of himself atop a certain Peruvian mountaintop. (“How come it seems like all the women on this site have the same pic of them on Macchu Picchu?” a man wrote to ask me recently. “Does OkCupid have a photographer up there?”)
Some moiety of my reluctance to fly has to do with the sheer ludicrousness of it: Air travel regularly entails a level of absurdity you’d otherwise find only in a banana republic or Kafka novel. In January alone, U.S. companies cancelled 49,000 flights and delayed 30,000, affecting 30 million travelers who racked up $2.5 billion in related expenses—presumably for hotel rooms, cabs and emergency phone sessions with shrinks in order to maintain basic sanity. (The irony is that all those fossil-fuel-guzzling 747s help to ground themselves, by contributing to global warming.)
But more than any of that—and more too than the fact that airports strike me as dystopian metropolises in terms of sprawl, noise pollution, pedestrians, automobile traffic, stop-and-frisk policies, preponderance of fast food joints, resemblance to strip malls and infuriating bureaucratic nonsense—I made my resolution after noticing a discrepancy between what I hoped to learn during any trip abroad and what I actually discovered.
When I did fly frequently, in my twenties, it wasn’t “enjoyment” that I was after. (Truly relaxing vacations, for me, do not involve planes.) It wasn’t “escape” either. What I wanted was education and experience: some sense of the peoples and cultures of different places. But during a number of trips to Europe, while traveling largely on my own, I was disappointed by how familiar the cities there seemed, with their Starbucks, their H&Ms, their teenagers in skinny jeans slouched over their phones. Wherever I was able to befriend some locals, I had great adventures, yes—but they frankly weren’t all that different from the escapades I’d have in the U.S. cities where I’d lived.
Perhaps you’d argue that I was “doing it wrong”—that I didn’t travel to places remote enough, maybe. It’s true that a trip I took to the rain forest in Belize affected me powerfully. Looking up at trees that seemed to reach straight through the clouds to the heavens—one-thousand-year-old giants—I felt not only their transcendent majesty but my own insignificance in a universe vast in space and time. (An insignificance not unlike that I felt every time I set foot in an airport, come to think of it.) All the same, visiting places as exotic as the Amazon left me somewhat troubled by guilt, as if I’d participated in a kind of Tragedy of the Common Vacation Spots; simply by being in those pristine places, I’d played a role in degrading them. (As David Foster Wallace put it in Remember the Lobster: “To be a mass tourist … is to spoil … the very unspoiledness you are there to experience … to impose yourself on places that in all noneconomic ways would be better, realer, without you.”)
Perhaps you’d argue that I haven’t gone to places gritty enough—and I’ll admit that I’m too much of a coward to do anything like traveling to the favelas of Rio with Habitat for Humanity. Risking possible death via plane crash is about as much danger as I like to court when traveling. Moreover, neither do-gooding nor dare-deviling was my goal as a traveler. Gaining knowledge was—and traveling no longer seems like a very efficient or effective method for educating myself.
Frankly, I’ve learned far more through regular trips to the library. (“Our minds travel when our bodies are forced to stay at home,” to quote Ralph Waldo Emerson in Self-Reliance.) Over the last few weeks alone, thanks to a terrific philosophy course on CD—“The Meaning of Life” by Smith College Professor Jay Garfield—I’ve learned about texts as diverse as The Bhagavad-Gita, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols; about spiritual leaders like the Dalai Lama and the Native American medicine man Lame Deer; and about belief systems like Confucianism, Daoism and Jainism.
Sure, knowledge gleaned from books is less visceral than seeing the ruins of Greece or the temples of Sri Lanka—but is it less worthwhile? No. This Garfield class alone has been an aid nonpareil as I continue making my way up the Sisyphean mountain of life.
And here we get to the heart of the matter: My real motivation as a traveler was existential, though I didn’t understand that. I suspect that’s true of most people—and yet I also wonder how many frequent fliers are in a state of existential flight, rather than on a quest for meaning. The rage for traveling—along with smartphone OCD, consumerism, workaholism—strikes me as one more distraction that muffles the inner voices that ask the most difficult but also important questions: Who I am? Why do I feel so lonely? Am I living an authentic life, in keeping with my values? Will I be okay with death when it comes?
None of this is to say I’ll never fly again. If I ever have a plausible chance to live in a foreign country (or even a very different state, like Hawaii or Alaska or Montana), I’ll jump at it. Until then, though, I’ll leave my passport at home—and carry my library card with me.
Maura Kelly is the author of Much Ado About Loving: What Our Favorite Novels Can Teach You About Date Expectations, Not-So-Great Gatsbys and Love in the Time of Internet Personals. Her essays and opinions have appeared in publications like The New York Times, The Paris Review, The Atlantic, ELLE and The Guardian. She is working on a novel.