Last week, I wrote about our amazing time on remote and dazzling Kerrera Island. But there’s another side to that story: we were traveling for two weeks during that trip, and nothing else even came close to the experience we had on Kerrera. It was a fun trip and we saw amazing things — the aptly named Loch Awe, for example — but out of 14 or so days, only one really still haunts my memory.
I had similarly memorable experiences while exploring Ostia Antica, floating over the flooded Amazon rain forest, and worshipping at an Anglican evensong. These trips offered a chance to reflect on and evolve my worldview. They were slow and contemplative, and they left me (I think) a better person.
However, like the trip to Scotland, these brief adventures were sandwiched in the middle of longer trips that saw plenty of good days, but very few magical ones.
I’ve wondered a lot about this kind of powerful travel experience, and how to more actively create it. And I’m not sure it’s possible to force transcendence.
But after a lot of traveling and a few of these experiences, I think there are ways to increase the odds of great things happening.
For starters, one thing that all of these experiences have in common is that they didn’t happen on short trips. The trips to the Amazon and to the Anglican church were both in the middle of months-long journeys. The trip to Scotland was shorter, but still two weeks.
By comparison, the average American had only 16 vacation days in 2013. Worse still, the average duration of a vacation was only four days.
That’s abysmal for a lot of reasons, but in particular it makes it hard to get into a rhythm while on the road. If you have only four days until you’re back at work, are you going to spend one of those days staring into the ocean, thinking about the meaning of life? Are you going to get on a train to a place you know nothing about? When vacation days are so scarce, those are risks most of us probably won’t take.
Traveling is also a skill, but like playing baseball or cooking or whatever, it’s a hard one to develop if you only have a few long weekends per year.
And so it’s no wonder vapid resorts and simulacra-filled amusement parks are a default vacation — they offer a kind of maximum return on investment where the payoff isn’t particularly high, but the risk of failure is virtually non-existent.
All of which is to say that I think longer trips are more likely to produce powerful experiences because they give you room to try and fail at something until you succeed. We found Kerrera after riding up and down the West Highland Line — a lengthy rail journey through forests and moors — multiple times. We visited a whole bunch of unremarkable towns along the way. We failed to find anything remarkable over and over. But amidst all those failures, we found Kerrera.
The other thing that stands out from these experiences is that they were all, at their core, fairly ordinary. Kerrera is just a walk through some hills. The evensong I attended was just an ordinary middle-of-the-week service. Ostia Antica and my time in the Amazon were more “touristy,” but were pretty low key and off-the-beaten-path.
By comparison, I’ve never walked away transformed from an amusement park, or a tourist town, or one of the “sites” you might visit in a major city. Maybe it’s because these places are easier to get to. Or maybe it’s because you generally know exactly what you’re going to get.
In any case, though, it seems like one key to having powerful experiences is looking for the extraordinary amid the ordinary.
— Jim Dalrymple II