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Travel is meant to be epic

In the Bible, the human journey begins with an expulsion. God's chosen people are also those condemned to wander. Not only wander, but wonder: Why are we in exile? Where is home? Can this rupture ever be repaired?

"Gilgamesh," the Icelandic sagas and "The Odyssey" are all about the itinerant life. Yet these characters don't see travel as we moderns do. They embark on journeys of mythic significance -- the literature of travel in the premodern era did not recognize travel for leisure or self-improvement.

Today, our approach to travel is defined not by archetypal imagery but, rather, according to our own mostly prosaic trips. Literature, to be sure, still produces grand quests; likewise, there are still many people whose journeys are precarious and momentous on an epic scale.

For the most fortunate among us, our travels are now routine, devoted mainly to entertainment and personal enrichment. We have turned travel into something ordinary, deprived it of allegorical grandeur. We have made it a business: the business of being on the move. Whatever impels us to travel, it is no longer the oracle, the pilgrimage or the gods. It is the compulsion to be elsewhere, anywhere but here.

St. Augustine believed that "because God has made us for Himself, our hearts are restless until they rest in Him." We often think of restlessness as a malady. Thus, we urgently need to reclaim the etymology of restlessness -- "stirring constantly, desirous of action" -- to signal our curiosity toward what isn't us, to explore outside the confines of our own environment. Getting lost isn't a curse. Not knowing where we are, what to eat, how to speak the language can certainly make us anxious and uneasy. But anxiety is part of any person's quest to find the parameters of life's possibilities.


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