Remembering to rest in our nests

As another season of summer travel fades like a tan line, our road trips receding into rolls of snapshots for the bureau drawer, Americans might do well to consider the experience of Jan Morris.

Ms. Morris, an internationally acclaimed travel writer, has been to the summit of Mt. Everest, the canals of Venice, the port of Hong Kong, the canyons of Manhattan, the castles of Europe, and dozens of places in between. After decades of crossing the globe, the septuagenarian has at least one regret. Put simply, she wishes she had spent more time at home.

"If I could have my time over again, I think I would choose to roam only my own small patch of country," writes Morris, a native of Wales. "Instead of exploring continents and empires, I would investigate ever more intensely our modest fields, hills and villages; rather than wild beasts of Africa, I would watch the herons on the river, the frogs in the pond."

Morris's second thoughts about travel shouldn't be taken too literally. One of the oldest human paradoxes is that wandering makes us homesick and staying at home gives us wanderlust. As a species, we can't seem to decide which is better.

In "Questions of Travel," the globe-trotting poet Elizabeth Bishop captured the quandary in verse. "Think of the long trip home. Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?" her tourist narrator asks. "What childishness is it that while there's a breath of life in our bodies, we are determined to rush to see the sun the other way around?"

In Bishop's poem, the sun shimmers like a coin with opposite but equal sides, inviting us to think of home versus travel as a classic balancing act. The enlightened soul, Ms. Bishop seems to say, seeks the golden mean between going and staying put, like a planet suspended in its ideal orbit. That kind of balance seems elusive in the modern marketplace, which perpetually promises greener grass far from home - for a hefty price.

In spite of anxieties about security and a flat economy, the United States boasts an annual travel business of $545 billion, according to the Travel Industry Association of America. There's no corresponding industry, however, that promotes the pleasures of home and hearth.

Yes, there's a great interest in home improvement, with Americans spending nearly $166 billion in 2001 to replace their rugs, renovate their game room, redo the kitchen, or otherwise beautify the family homestead.

All of this frantic nesting, though, creates the notion of home as a vividly imperfect place, a dwelling that offers not repose, but a restless round of hammering and painting in the pursuit of some perfect magazine ideal.

Little wonder, then, that the American road trip has become a cherished summer tradition; leaving home seems the only way to get any rest. And so, as Americans empty their luggage racks and return the sunscreen to the medicine chest for another year, now might be as good a time as any to embrace home with a less conditional love. It's a place that can quietly charm and soothe and sustain us, even when the gutters sag, the toilet runs, and the wallpaper lapses out of date.

"You may paddle all day long," the world traveler Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote. "But it is when you come back at nightfall, and look in the familiar room, that you find Love or Death awaiting you beside the stove; and the most beautiful adventures are not those we go to seek."

Danny Heitman is a freelance writer.

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