Carried away

The smell of old books hung in the warm stagnant air within the spacious tent. Book hunters coursed silently, each stalking his own particular quarry, along the sagging, overladen tables.

My own quest was at the section marked "Travel," and at the end of the table I came upon him, a middle-aged, black man of apparently modest means with the composed, unharried face of a man who had made friends with time and peace with himself.

He was seated, a small carton of books beside him from which, at intervals, he extracted a volume; pensively leafed through it; then, somewhat hesitantly, placed it in one of two piles before him. His problem was a familiar one: the bittersweet indecision of culling a few books from many coveted.

"Having a difficult time?" I commented as he caught my eye watching him.

"Never gets any easier," he answered.

"I see you found something," I continued.

"Sure did. A book on Madagascar." His voice held a note of delight. "Ever since I was a kid the name has always fascinated me. I've read everything I could find about it." He smiled. "Guess I'm probably the armchair traveler's authority on Madagascar."

Reluctantly setting aside the unchosen books, he arose and started toward the cashier, then paused, turned to me and said, "You know, one of these days I expect to go there."

The words both charmed and intrigued me. They were a statement of fact, not fancy. The assurance in his voice precluded any doubt that one day he would see his island, serene in its far off setting of tropic sky and sea.

Madagascar . . . Madagascar . . . . In the receding figure I saw a small boy with spirit still captive to the singing syllables, and eyes fixed upon an island ever constant on his mind's horizon.

To the true traveler a journey is really of two parts: an outward moving in a physical world of strange landscapes and alien peoples, and an inward journeying of the mind as it probes virgin areas of thought and expression, establishes new values, rediscovers forgotten truths. So the two parts complement each other to expand the traveler's boundaries of experience and surmise, and, it is hoped, create within him a sense of his universal citizenship, his oneness with humanity.

At times I think of my armchair traveler. Did he ever, I wonder, make landfall of his island? If so, did the fabric built of a lifetime's dream stand unimpaired under the weight of reality, and unblemished in the revealing light of truth?

Perhaps it was of secondary importance whether or not he achieved his journey's end. In a sense he had already found a richer El Dorado: the retaining of the secret of youth which is the lot of those who steadfastly hope and dream in defiance of the adverse, eroding tides of the days and years.

Out of boyhood's fancy had been shaped a dream, fragile and insubstantial as a blown bubble, an ever present, heart- comforting promise of a world beyond the rim of daily, often wearisome rounds.

Armchair traveler he might be, the printed words of books his guides; yet I chose to believe that in the mind's wayfaring he had traveled far upon his journey; that he had known that enlarged freedom of being; that singular joy of heart; that enrichment of the spirit which is the true reward of those who live by faith in their questing.

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