I have never conceived of myself as someone on a quest. My goals at home, work, and travel have ever been hazily defined and largely unspoken. Traveling abroad has yielded some of my greatest memories, and yet those trips were undertaken purely for the sake of visitation and in the name of interest. But as the glow of novelty fades from traveling, I’m forced to consider if there’s a deeper meaning to that still-present urge to travel. If, on a whim, I returned to Europe tomorrow I would surely enjoy myself, but I am equally sure that upon returning home I would feel a sense of vacancy or incompleteness. A sense of something left behind.
Strains of this sensation crept into my last couple of trips abroad. I can recall several occasions when Sarah (my wife) and I would vocalize how a spark or sense of excitement was missing. What originally motivated me to travel, escapism and foreignness, seems to be no longer sufficient.
My golden age of MacGuffins has ended.
The best way I can articulate this feeling is “lack of accomplishment,” and it doesn’t take a MENSA member to realize that it’s difficult to accomplish something that hasn’t been defined. Setting goals really isn’t my strong suit. The effusive lamentations of travelers stuck on “the Western tourist trail” seem like the search for a thing that hasn’t been brought to the fore of consciousness. That sounds dangerously possible for me. In the absence of a defined goal, the default behavior is to follow what’s pre-packaged, refined, and easy. It took reading several articles, blogs, and forums touching on this topic for the idea of this post to click for me: I need a quest.
But why quest? Why not goal, mission, or guiding principle? I chose the word “quest” because I like its inherent romanticism, literary connections, and etymology. I’m really sick of goals, too. Wikipedia defines a “quest” as (this would also make a decent travel writing definition):
…a journey towards a goal… In literature, the objects of quests require great exertion on the part of the hero, and the overcoming of many obstacles… Travel also allows the storyteller to showcase exotic locations and cultures…
Seeking is the heart of the quest. Sir Galahad sought the holy grail, Jason and his Argonauts sought the golden fleece, and Daenerys Targaryen sought her birthright, the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. Each of these historical and literary figures casts off from safe harbors in the name of their quests, which are powerful forces providing meaning, endurance, and the fortitude to persevere.
I make no comparison between myself and these heroes, but it would be foolish to dismiss the similarity of our impulses. I, too, am choosing upheaval over stability and I realize now that I am seeking something. I can’t easily describe it yet – it’s still opaque and difficult to discern – but perhaps it’s an intangible understanding. Understanding of others, of myself. A thing to bring peace of mind. Perhaps I don’t need a quest so much as to understand the quest that I’m on now. After all, something powerful must be compelling me to leave behind the things I’m choosing to leave behind.
In the context of solo travel, I think the quest can serve an important purpose. When you have a travel companion or group of companions, it’s easy to preoccupy yourself with the “fluff” of mundane yet enjoyable social activities. But when you travel alone, you’re often left to your own rumination. Little setbacks and imperfections in your plan are magnified with no one around to provide perspective or encouragement. A quest can help, and it doesn’t need to be grandiose or life-altering. What you’re after are those peripheral “powers” a quest imbues in you so that you can solider on in the face of inevitable obstacles.
Choosing a quest for your travels is akin to adopting a heroic mindset. This simple act can lend you strength in the difficult times and the satisfaction of accomplishing what you set out to do. If you’re traveling now, are you on a quest? Are you on a quest that, perhaps, you haven’t realized or articulated yet? Do you disagree with the idea of having a quest altogether? Share your thoughts in the comments – I’d love to hear what you think!
Original photo by howzey via Flickr under Creative Commons