Travel Bug: An Origin Story

by Keith Savage · 15 comments

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Doolin, County Clare, Republic of Ireland | January 2003

A narrow road knifed across the island from Dublin to the west coast. Old stone walls lined the road and kept back the moist, rolling green hills. Inside the car, our lips were buttoned by stress and exhilaration – our eyes blazed – as the force of each passing car blew the hair from our eyes. Winding through the hills toward the coast, we managed to find our way to the sleepy village of Doolin just as the feeble glow of the winter sun faded into dusk.

Despite the cold that riddled my body, my friend and I practically vibrated with excitement. Even the absence of a proprietor at the hostel did little to dampen our spirits, though the angry Russian man shouting at us hastened our departure to Gus O’Connors Pub down the street – pretty much the only street in tiny Doolin. The smell of earth, ice, and salt hung heavy in the foggy air. Fishing skiffs bobbed in the ocean.

Down on Fisher street, frigid gales screamed across the Atlantic, breaking the sea against the rocky harbor and sending glittering nets of water skyward. We clambered into the warmth of the pub, quietly thankful for the simple walls and fire that kept the howling wind at bay. The night passed away as we ate and drank pint after pint of Harp lager, laughing at our silly exploits and those of our new-found bar mates.

I was away, in a far off place, calling out “cheers” and “sláinte” time and again. And warm. Warmed by the peat fire, the countless pints, and the companionship of shared experience.


Few things about my first trip abroad were perfect, but the memorable night I spent in Doolin marked the beginning of a welcome infection that I carry to this day. I’m referring to that ubiquitous and run-down term, the so-called “travel bug.” You know, for as common as the term is, there are shockingly few definitions on the Web. The best one I could find was “the urge to travel.”

That is a simple and non-controversial definition, but might there be a more complicated, more interesting meaning? My travels abroad have been fairly localized to Western Europe, but with each successive trip I seem to be getting farther from that night in Doolin. On later trips I would casually mention this slow transformation to my wife, disappointment evident in my tone, and stare off across the plaza, lost in the attempt to recapture a feeling that burst into being one cold January night years ago. This was an important realization because, despite the illness and homesickness and cancellation of the latter stages of that trip, it was when I fell in love with the journey.

I had, in other words, been infected by the travel bug.

A broad word like “travel” has so many activities and meanings crammed into it that a good first step toward understanding the phenomenon was realizing that everyone probably has their own “strain” of the travel bug. What attracts me to traveling probably differs from what attracts you to traveling. This is also why it’s an incurable affliction – any “vaccine” would be only good for a single person.

Flashbulb memories from my recent trips popped into my head, and the shared pieces came together pretty quickly: my travel bug is the desire to utterly immerse my senses in the foreign. The taste of the food and drink; the sound of the music and patrons; the smell of the sea air; the warmth of the peat fire; the sight of the colorful little fishing village. Doolin brought all of these components together in an almost magical way. But, much like other illnesses, you can never predict when the magic will strike; you can only set the stage (or lick public keyboards, as the case may be).

Is my desire to travel now just a subconscious quest to relive the experience in Doolin? Yes. I don’t know. Maybe.

What is evident is that for me, the act of traveling entails two goals:

  1. Simply have fun
  2. Completely immerse myself in the foreign

The absence of this kind of total immersion won’t break my trip, but perhaps it’s the thing that compels me to keep traveling. I believe it’s this quest for immersion that is changing my travel style to a deeper, slower one since it’s been difficult to find Doolin-esque scenarios on my whirlwind trips.

Next time you’re planning a trip, give a little extra thought to what’s “bugging” you. Maybe you’ll find the cure that sends that bug into remission. I assume you’ve got the travel bug – how did you catch it?

Original photo by michaelgslattery via Flickr under Creative Commons
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SarahNo Gravatar April 13, 2010 at 10:21 AM

What an interesting question you pose. I’ve never quite been able to pinpoint the moment at which i contracted the travel bug. It’s possibly a hereditary illness for me. I really belive that your path through life can become apparent to you, if you pay close enough attention. If you love doing something, chances are, you’re supposed to keep doing it. I definitely have the travel bug, but I don’t think of it as an illness, more a guiding light to where I feel I’m supposed to be.

KeithNo Gravatar April 13, 2010 at 11:30 AM

If I wanted to continue the illness metaphor (which I don’t), I say the travel bug is a symbiotic parasite. 🙂 Interesting view about some greater power pushing you to keep doing what you love to do. I like it.

LeighNo Gravatar March 30, 2010 at 10:18 PM

I feel like I’m in Gus O’Conner’s pub when I read your post…and I was last May. You absolutely capture its essence.

Travel bug – how do we get it? why do some people never get it? A natural curiosity? Someone who sparked our imagination when we were young? I think it was little of both for me. In Grade 3 I had a teacher who got us drawing maps of Saudi Arabia(of all places) and a light went on – that’s when I figured out that we live in a much bigger world. None of my other family members ‘caught’ it though. I think fear of the unknown and fear of not speaking the language prevent many people from venturing very far. I’m just glad I got the bug especially since it has defined who I am as an adult.

KeithNo Gravatar March 31, 2010 at 10:44 AM

Hi Leigh – I’m glad my memory is still tracking seven years after my trip to Doolin. Very interesting story, thank you for sharing. And I agree with you – fear of imagined consequences kill so many of our ideas and ventures before they’re given a chance to grow. It’s the work of the “lizard brain” as Seth Godin and other authors put it. More on this topic later.

LorraineNo Gravatar March 28, 2010 at 9:23 PM

Though I’ve never been to Doolin, you perfectly captured the essence of the town and your experience of it. The writing is superb! You also captured my own feelings in your statement, “Completely immerse myself in the foreign.”

KeithNo Gravatar March 28, 2010 at 9:42 PM

Hi Lorraine – I appreciate the kind words! Hope you stick around these parts 🙂

floretaNo Gravatar March 26, 2010 at 5:22 AM

you’re an excellent writer! i love this. may have to bumble out my travel bug post 🙂
.-= floreta´s last blog ..Head Lice =-.

KeithNo Gravatar March 28, 2010 at 9:26 AM

Thanks Floreta! I’d love to read your travel bug post.

GrayNo Gravatar March 25, 2010 at 10:05 AM

Bravo, Keith. I love your intro here, it captures the sense of place so well. I am not sure I would call the travel bug an illness so much as an addiction. It seems as though we keep traveling to recapture that feeling you describe, the way people with other addictions return to their habits to recapture whatever high they get from it. We get our high from travel.
.-= Gray´s last blog ..Freestyle Dining on NCL’s Epic: Perfect for Solos? =-.

KeithNo Gravatar March 25, 2010 at 11:03 AM

Using an addiction metaphor is another good way to interpret the travel bug. Does that make us junkies?

GrayNo Gravatar March 25, 2010 at 12:46 PM

Yes, but shhh….we won’t tell anyone. 🙂
.-= Gray´s last blog ..Freestyle Dining on NCL’s Epic: Perfect for Solos? =-.

JoyaNo Gravatar March 24, 2010 at 11:01 PM

I love this post. I stayed in Doolin as well and I think I actually went to the same pub you did seeing as how it’s the only one in town. I loved it there. It was in the middle of nowhere but that’s what made it even better. My friends and I just enjoyed sitting and talking with everyone there for hours.

KeithNo Gravatar March 24, 2010 at 11:06 PM

You’re right, the isolation and feeling of being somewhere different were enhanced and made enjoyable by the coziness of the village. Ireland’s slowly coming back toward the top of my travel list. I may just have to tour the west coast and stop in Doolin.

ayngelinaNo Gravatar March 23, 2010 at 10:10 PM

What a great post, love the imagery.

I caught the bug when I was 16. I was from a small town of 5000 people but my mother chose to send me to France to 5 weeks to learn French. I can still taste the tart sliced tomatoes with basil vinaigrette to start dinner and the hot chocolate for breakfast. Needless to say it changed my life.
.-= ayngelina´s last blog ..My Trio of Travel Secrets =-.

KeithNo Gravatar March 23, 2010 at 10:41 PM

I believe it. I’ve always regretted my decision to not study abroad while in college. Good luck on your RTW trip – it’s coming up fast!

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