My earliest form of sightseeing came in the form of pages. I sat often, under the incandescent light of my IKEA reading lamp, from the early hours of the afternoon late into the evening. Like many other kids, I read because the possibilities of the imagination seemed endless, and because for a long time, the realities of my world were more daunting than the confines of a predetermined story. Books took me to comforting unseen worlds on the backs of imagined tour guides.
I realized, in retrospect, that I never imagined myself as the protagonists in the stories that I read. As I delved into Harry Potter throughout my childhood, I imagined myself not as one of the iconic trio, but as the omniscient narrator, pulling the audience's attention towards nuances of the unraveling saga. I noticed seemingly irrelevant details, wondered at the author's word choice, and wished I had narrative superpowers in my own life to understand the thoughts and emotional undercurrents of my family and peers.
As I grew up and became increasingly restless with curiosity, I began chasing horizons on the saddle of a bicycle, wandering through forest trails and shallow creeks on Cougar Mountain. I yearned for the sense of adventure that the protagonists of my favorite stories possessed, yet longed to remain traceless in the world around me.
Travel has become a major cultural signifier, a phenomena enabled by the accessibility of social media and smart phone cameras. A quick scroll through Instagram will reveal photo after same photo—Fushimi Inari in Kyoto, Peyto Lake in Banff National Park, the Eiffel Tower in France, Times Square in New York, an elephant safari in Thailand. Photos at notable landmarks inform the world that we have arrived at a destination, that we have had the standard travel experience, that we are one passport stamp wealthier, that we are somehow more enlightened because of the places our bodies have been.
What does it mean to be somewhere? To go somewhere? Does physical presence bear some profound meaning? How does the act of existing in a place—a passive, meaningless act—compare to the active effort in understanding a place? If one enables the other, can you understand without going? Can you go without understanding? Can we only travel to places? Can we travel in books? Can we travel in people?
I drove from Orange County to Inyo National Forest last weekend, up highway 395, through Owen's Valley. The parched desert spanned to the horizon, the monotony broken only by the majestic, rolling peaks of the Eastern Sierras. Dust coated the entirety of my windshield, unabated sunlight searing my bare legs before the air conditioning could take effect. Power lines stretched endlessly along the highway, a persistent reminder of the comforts of modern life. In the middle of the sweltering desert, off an unmarked road near the town of Independence, lay Manzanar, a concentration camp where Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II. I came here to witness a site where 120,000 people from the west coast were once forced to live for three years.
Were those people travelers? Does travel require willingness?
I lay in a tent that night, under the vast starlit sky in the foothills of the Sierras, overwhelmed by beauty of the land and skyscape, overwhelmed by tranquility, overwhelmed by the vastness and unknown of the space above me. A breeze rippled the mesh of our shelter, and I snuggled closer to the warm, resting body next to mine. A brief smile danced across his lips and a reassuring squeeze reached my fingers, which were still intertwined with his. He remained unconscious, the contours of his face highlighted by the silver glow of moonlight. As I ran my fingers lightly through his hair, mesmerized, it occurred to me then that this was perhaps the first time in my life where a tender moment felt like mine alone. I was not a narrator, encouraging people to notice the beauty of sunset gradients or the magical light of golden hour. I was not a chronicler, recounting family stories for broader resonance. I was a protagonist in my own story, claiming my little piece of soul-touching tenderness in a moment that existed only for me—an experience of place, an experience of time, an experience of heart. Was travel simply a brief departure, an ephemerality, an ungraspable escape?
The next morning, we packed up our campsite and headed towards Onion Valley, embarking on an 11 mile, 2,600 ft elevation climb to Kearsarge Pass. I was exhausted from the sleeplessness of my restless mind, but eager for the physical challenges of a long, high-elevation hike. As we trudged along, switchback after switchback, my body went numb to my demands. I thought of other hikes I had done in the past year—in Jasper National Park, up Lion Rock in Hong Kong. I was looking for something then, to be inspired by jagged landscapes and unknown places. The most interesting parts of myself were the discoveries I could make and the stories I could weave alone on the trail. And if I created no stories, perhaps the most interesting thing was the fact that I'd been to those places at all.
What was the difference now? Was it that the conversational journeys that we traversed were as intriguing to me as the trail beneath us? Was it that the warmth of home—the comfort I sought in the mountains of distant places—was not found in a specific location, but rather in the gracious topography of another's mind? We wandered through the rocky cliffs of intellectual discussion, ate lunch by the calm lakes of shared experience, brushed by the tickling leaves of witty wordplay, and admired the puffy cloudscape of distant future dreams. We walked mile after painful mile; the impression of adventure lay not in the far-off promise of a magnificent view or a warm meal, but in the moving experience of a boundless, meandering journey through a shared, dynamic mindscape—a fleeting, irreplicable journey now memorialized only by a sense of lingering nostalgia.