Travel is at its most rewarding when it ceases to be about your reaching a destination and becomes indistinguishable from living your life.
-Paul Theroux, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star
Above all, my dear Lucillus, make this your business: learn how to feel joy.
-Seneca, Letters to a Stoic
It was another one of those days.
By 12:30 that afternoon we had already carried our 40 lbs packs for 6 hours in the oppressive pre-monsoon heat. When we stopped for tea and some vegetables to cook for dinner, a few opportunistic locals took advantage of our situation and charged us 5x the normal price. After, we bushwhacked for an hour through the valley in search of a campsite.
We spent the next two hours underneath the sweltering midday sun staking out a herd of water buffalo. Their grazing pattern had cut us off from our packs after we had dropped them to canvas the area for a suitable campsite. Every time we attempted to reclaim our packs the herd’s matriarch—twice the size of a cow with a calf in tow and two black orbs for eyes that glistened with a horrifying, primal terror—immediately locked onto us and threatened to charge. Later that night we had fled our campfire when a demon moth descended on us out of the night. It was the size of my fist, buzzing as loud as a helicopter with bulging bug eyes that glowed a devilish red in the light of my headlamp. I was convinced it wanted my soul.
The previous two nights hadn’t been much easier. The night before we had regretfully become a small village’s evening entertainment. Despite searching out a secluded spot down a hill in an abandoned rice paddy we found ourselves quickly surrounded by chattering locals with a very different concept of privacy than us. They pointed, screamed and laughed at everything we did. At first we found it charming. Two hours later we were exhausted and pushed to the end of our nerves. We were relieved when the setting sun finally forced even the most curious kids to head for home. We could finally start cooking.
The night before that had been our first on the trail. It would end up being a 38-day journey across Nepal. Except for the 3 long days it took us to get into Nepal’s interior, the entire journey would be by foot. In those first three days we had traveled by jeep, car and bus on nauseating mountain roads (some were no more than dirt trails), navigated chaotic, smog-choked bus stations and overnighted in a cockroach-infested border town (they were MASSIVE).
Beginning our trek had been a relief…until we heard thunder. We raced to set up camp in a vast river gorge as we felt the first few drops of rain. The gorge was picturesque but it turned out, not a practical place to camp. The violent thunderstorm that rolled through minutes later transformed the gorge into a massive wind tunnel. Our tent was completely exposed. I was terrified I’d be blown away.
Why am I here?
One of the allures of travel is that it offers immediate answers to some of life’s existential questions. When I’m on a trek my purpose is mapped out for me. I have a clear goal: walk from here to there. It’s what I’ve come to do.
That’s why I am here.
Once I begin a trek, it becomes urgent I figure things out. Trekking is strenuous and all-consuming. I have limited supplies. I’m in an unfamiliar country. No one speaks my language. Food, water, shelter, the weather, the way—these are matters of survival, a puzzle to figure out. I have little energy left for anything else. Worries of tomorrow are replaced by the pressing needs of today. Everything feels significant.
When I’m trekking I can measure my progress in the time it takes to pull out my map. How I’m doing is easily quantified in days left, miles walked, and meters climbed. I feel the forward momentum with every step I take. I can see it too: landscapes, villages, fauna, flora—it’s all changing, reminding me that I’m on the move. When I look back at the trail behind me I can see where I started and how far I’ve gone. It’s incredibly satisfying.
It’s easy to get lost in these feelings of purpose and progress. It’s one of the reasons trekking (and traveling in general) is so addicting.
Never did I think so much, exist so vividly and experience so much. Never have I been so much myself —if I may use that expression— as in the journeys I have taken alone and on foot. There is something about walking which stimulates and enlivens my thoughts. When I stay in one place I can hardly think at all. My body has to be on the move to set my mind going. The sight of the countryside, the succession of pleasant views, the open air, the sound appetite and the good health I gain by walking, the easy atmosphere of an inn, the absence of everything that makes me feel my dependence, of everything that recalls me to my situation, all these serve to free my spirit. To lend a greater boldness to my thinking so that I can combine them, select them, make them mine as I will without fear or restraint.”
Problems arise when I begin to take my goal too seriously. When I forget that where I’m going is only meaningful because I chose to go there.
I’ve noticed a familiar feeling arises at end of every trek I take. Like a flame reaching the end of a matchstick, purpose and its hypnotizing glow of progress vanish back into the darkness as quickly as it had dispelled it. Meaninglessness and directionlessness creep in. I feel lost. I have no map to consult. The feeling can last hours, days, even weeks.
Where am I going?
I find that the difficult moments of a trek tend to also be the most truthful. Climbing yet another mountain pass from the valley floor, trudging for hours on a slippery donkey trail that heavy rain has transmogrified into a river of shit, watching my pack (with everything I own in it) roll off a ledge and free fall down a ravine, shoveling water out of my tent in a thunderstorm—in these moments it’s painfully clear to me that where I’m going doesn’t matter in the slightest.
What am I doing this for?
Trekking is always bringing me back to this question. Its demands are too brutal to ignore it for long.
One of the risks of travel is its temptation to substitute a destination for a purpose. That I’ll mistake what’s urgent for what’s important and allow myself to be lulled to sleep by an illusory sense of progress. That I’ll become satisfied with crossing places off an imaginary todo list. That I’ll forget to ask:
What am I doing this for?
Work. Relationships. Hobbies. I’ve been unhappiest in my life when the question has gone unasked for too long.
It’s incredibly comforting to feel like there’s somewhere important to be and that I’m on my way there.
It’s driven me before.