Travel - the new test of freedom

A travel brochure arrived in the mail late last week, 20 glossy pages filled with postcard-perfect pictures of the English countryside.

"Explore and enjoy," the cover headline beckons. Underneath those words, tempting images fill the page: Hedgerows crisscross gently rolling pastures. Chalk cliffs hug the southeast coastline. Purple flowers line a woodland path dappled in sunlight.

What a way to whet an Anglophile's appetite for travel. Yet, what strange timing, coming at a moment when once-friendly skies temporarily seem hostile in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, and when travel is widely regarded as inappropriate or foolhardy, or both.

Still, the same day the brochure arrived, President Bush flew to Chicago to urge Americans to pack their bags and head for the airport. Speaking at O'Hare, he reassured the public that air travel is safe. He also outlined a plan for heightened airport security.

"Get on board," he said, adding, "Fly and enjoy America's great destination spots."

For now, many people are still taking a wait-and-see approach. Armchair travel is flourishing, as once-peripatetic Americans settle for the vicarious pleasure of reading travel magazines or watching Rick Steves, the genial host of the PBS series "Travels in Europe," wend his way along the Cinque Terre in Italy, visit a château in France, and cruise Germany's Mosel River.

Stay-at-home travelers are also finding this a good time to read the adventures of travelers in centuries past. These brave spirits ventured abroad long before cushy hotels pampered guests with chocolates on the pillow, before ATMs dotted foreign streets, and before jets made globe-trotting an egalitarian possibility.

In a book to be published next month, "Ladies of the Grand Tour: British Women in Pursuit of Enlightenment and Adventure in Eighteenth-Century Europe" (HarperCollins), historian Brian Dolan tells of one young woman, Mary Berry, who took her first trip to the Continent in 1783.

Writing from Rotterdam, she expresses the enthusiasm travelers of every generation can feel: "I have always looked back to those three weeks as the most enjoyable and most enjoyed of my existence, in which I received the greatest number of new ideas, and felt my mind, my understanding, and my judgment increasing every day, while ... my imagination was delighted with the charm of novelty in everything I saw or heard."

The current stay-at-home mood is also prompting some travelers to reconsider an intriguing question: What is travel, anyway? A mere escape from the humdrum of jobs and daily responsibilities? A rewarding form of education and enrichment? A test of courage and independence?

The answer can be all of the above, depending on the person and the trip, the motives and rewards.

All through the 1980s and '90s, Americans roamed the world with unflagging zeal. The nation's unofficial motto appeared to be: When in doubt, go away. Parents backpacked babies and toddlers to the far reaches of the globe. Other energetic types, deskbound during the workweek and bored with the predictability of comfortable lives, exulted in the challenge of dogsledding in Alaska, rafting in Tasmania, and exploring in Antarctica.

Risk? Danger? The more the better. Adventure travel became a huge niche market.

Still, travel, however frequent or far-flung, offers no guarantee that a traveler's perspective will automatically be broadened. Nor does the absence of travel limit a stay-at-home to a narrow viewpoint.

"I have traveled a good deal in Concord," Thoreau wrote in "Walden." Similarly, Emily Dickinson, whose poems reflect astonishing breadth, seldom left her home in Amherst, Mass.

At the other extreme is Robert Louis Stevenson, whose attitudes more closely resemble those of restless 21st-century wanderers. "For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go," Stevenson wrote. "I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move."

As Americans accept the certainty that air travel is forever changed, as they adjust to soldiers in airports and sky marshals on planes, they will again share Stevenson's pleasure in the verbs "go" and "move."

Gradually, as each traveler, in his or her own good time, decides to venture out of town or out of the country, planes and hotels will fill. The lure of glossy brochures and new maps, the desire to return to a favorite spot or explore a new destination will prove irresistible - and enriching.

It will also reinforce the fact that we're all part of a global community. As Rick Steves noted on his website after the Sept. 11 attacks: "Travel is still a huge unifier, perhaps more important than ever."

Equally good advice comes from Sydney Owenson, Lady Morgan, a 19th-century Englishwoman with a penchant for cultures beyond her own. She wrote: "The world is a very good world, but you must seek it; it will not do to neglect it."

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