I remember my first "big" trip. Every born traveler probably does.
I was 7 years old, and my mom took me to Disney World over a long weekend in November when school was closed. I don't remember much about Disney World itself – except for Mickey Mouse ears with my name sewn on them and endless rotations through the "It's a Small World" ride – but I remember the adrenaline rush, the giddiness of taking off. And I remember the little wrapped packages of toys my mother brought along to ensure ours was a quiescent flight.
Today, when my travel companions consist of a book and a backpack, I'm generally the only witness to my pretravel excitement. And all I need to bring it back is a plane ticket. I try to live my life in a state of constant travel readiness by carrying sample-size shampoo bottles and compact towels with me wherever I am.
Sometimes, frustrated by my own habit of packing at the last possible moment, I'll think about giving up the transient life. "That's it," I'll e-mail friends, sitting amidst a heap of clothes and books I haven't been able to squeeze into my tiny bag. "After this trip, I'm never going anywhere ever again!"
They know me too well: They all laugh or respond with a disbelieving "Yeah, right!" One friend called me "the anti-white picket fence" because of my disinterest in settling down. Indeed, I began 2007 in a Bedouin tent in the Israeli desert and ended it in New Jersey. In between my travels, I lived in three cities and visited many more from Cambridge, Mass., to Prague, Czech Republic, and then on to Anniston, Ala.; Aberystwyth, Wales; and St. Andrews, Scotland. In some places I studied, in others I worked, and sometimes, I just traveled.
Everywhere I traveled, I learned. For instance, jetting off for a four-day trip to Prague after finding an airfare deal online taught me that I'm capable of more spontaneity than I thought. And after four years of feeling disconnected from Judaism in college, the members of the Anniston, Ala., synagogue were so welcoming that, during my three months there, I began making room in my life again for religious community.
I'll also never forget traveling in Wales with a friend I'd met in a Welsh class two years earlier. One night, we traipsed through the rain in search of traditional music only to find a charity concert put on by a high school band and a local choir. The elderly Welsh men and women in the audience assumed we, too, were Welsh. That was the only time that happened on our week-long trip, and it was a worthy reward for the year we'd spent struggling to learn the language.
But even as I flitted around the world, adding yet more destinations to my travel wish list, I kept remembering a piece of advice I'd read: Making a character move from one place to another is no substitute for actual character change. Motion does not equal growth.
I realized that I had fallen easily into the rhythms of a mobile life – the quick, compact packing, the preflight all-nighters, the map reading, the constant calculation of exchange rates. But I wasn't broadening my horizons on these trips so much as standing in one place and turning around in a circle, with hands over my eyes while I squinted at the same distant skyline.
I wanted to be a writer, but I was afraid of the challenges I'd face without the clear trajectories my pre-law and pre-med friends had, so I left my stories on my hard drive and traveled instead. I couldn't imagine the shape my life would take outside of school, so I enrolled in a master's program in history, telling myself it would be new and different because it was an international experience. Relocating and starting over seemed easier than fixing elements of my life that worried me.
Instead, I flew, I walked, I took subways, buses, and trains. I explored corners of Europe I'd never visited. But what I was doing, I finally realized, was running away from what I really wanted to do.
So I bought a plane ticket home.
I'm not exactly like Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz." I am – and always will be – eager to encounter new people and places. I hope my career as a writer involves plenty of travel. But I also need to remember to stop, close my eyes, click my heels, and think about where I really want to go next. Even with so much of the world left to see, sometimes the most important thing is knowing when to go home.