The Importance of the Quest

by Keith Savage · 41 comments


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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


AndiNo Gravatar May 10, 2010 at 5:41 PM

What a thought provoking post! My quest is simple: to see as much of the world as possible. What’s so great is everything that comes along with that quest. All of the adventures, encounters, and knowledge! What’s your quest?
.-= Andi´s last blog ..imgp2629 =-.

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KeithNo Gravatar May 10, 2010 at 7:54 PM

Thanks for asking. To be honest, I don’t know yet. All good things in time.

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Nomadic ChickNo Gravatar May 10, 2010 at 3:09 AM

I agree with Gray, a collective consciousness seems to prevail amongst us! Even if a traveler is aimless, I would equate that to searching… what they are seeking may not be apparent. In agreement with Suzy, quests can be big or small. Overcoming shyness, conquering weak navigating skills, discovering the self, or simply engaging in cultures not of our own. Some kind of quest makes sense.

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KeithNo Gravatar May 10, 2010 at 7:56 PM

Yeah, what’s with the collective consciousness? Do we need some more travel bloggers in the pool or what? Talk about micro tribes.

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Cornelius AesopNo Gravatar May 5, 2010 at 9:09 AM

I agree with SpunkyGirl the term quest has a nice ring to it, it makes me think of the Greg Anderson quote “Focus on the journey, not the destination. Joy is found not in finishing an activity but in doing it.” I’m a little hesitant with defining my quest because it seems I try to put an end to it, but then again I haven’t reached that point in my travels that you are speaking of.
.-= Cornelius Aesop´s last blog ..New Brew Tuesday: The Battle of the Modelos =-.

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KeithNo Gravatar May 5, 2010 at 9:51 AM

I recently read that the most meaningful quests are those that are impossible to achieve, those that keep you searching forever.

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DaveNo Gravatar April 26, 2010 at 7:46 AM

I love this post, Keith – you have hit the nail completely and utterly on the head regarding the need for the quest. I was just saying to a friend over dinner the other day that the travel which seemed incredible and amazing, challenging and impossible several years ago seems almost mundane today, and how we’re always on the lookout for more and more ‘difficult’ places to go to to get that buzz back again.

To be honest I think the best compliment I can give is that I’ve been thinking about writing up an article along these lines for the last week or two … and now, I’m not going to. I’m just going to point people here instead. You’ve put my thoughts into words better than I could myself, and I thank you for it.
.-= Dave´s last blog ..Off the beaten track: New Zealand’s South Island =-.

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KeithNo Gravatar April 26, 2010 at 8:52 AM

Hi Dave – seems like a lot of us have had some form of this idea rattling around in our heads. That feeling of the mundane in travel can cause people to continuously ratchet up the excitement/danger/adventure of their current style of travel or switch the tracks and take on a different style altogether. I’m choosing to alter my style from whirlwind tours to slow travel.

I’m glad you enjoyed this post and I appreciate the compliments. Hope to see you around here again!

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SuzyNo Gravatar April 23, 2010 at 4:06 PM

I love relating travel to a quest. I think you are dead on. The great feat of travel is overcoming obstacles, big or small. The stories and changes that come out of those are my travel “quests”. I want to be changed by a place I go to or a person I meet along the way. I guess my quest is more of a search for changes in myself.
.-= Suzy´s last blog ..“Can’t” and Travel Don’t Go Together =-.

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KeithNo Gravatar April 23, 2010 at 9:26 PM

Nice way to put it. Much of this post is simply about constructing the mindset that will yield the most growth.

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CariNo Gravatar April 23, 2010 at 2:02 PM

Hi Keith! I like that you used the word “quest.” I feel like I am on a quest whenever I take a trip, whether it’s a day trip, a hike or a long vacation. You have to expect the unexpected as anything can happen and then learn from it. Last year my husband and I went on many hiking trips including a hike to Supai Village in Supai, Arizona. The hikes, especially the one to Supai, turned out to be a quest. I discovered a lot of things about myself that I did not know about. Being surrounded by so much nature and another culture taught me to take a step back and appreciate everything around me. I have learned to slow down a bit and go with the flow. I am from NYC so slowing down is a challenge. After the trip to Arizona I am even more open the whatever quests lie ahead. It’s very exciting! Thank you for your great post. I look forward to hearing more about your thoughts on travel.

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KeithNo Gravatar April 23, 2010 at 9:35 PM

Thanks Cari, nice to see you here. You bring up a good point: the unexpected is an important part of quests. It wouldn’t be much of a quest if you knew exactly how it would proceed, start to finish. It’s also the unexpected things that make the quest memorable and exciting.

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Carol @ trekdigestNo Gravatar April 20, 2010 at 7:28 PM

So much to think about. For me travel is about trying to get answers to questions. What is going on in the rest of the world? Is the world OK? Can I understand better why people do the things they do? Are there different ways to be, as an individual, as a society, as a country?

After decades of travel, did all of this make me a more tolerant, liberal, understanding person? I think so.

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KeithNo Gravatar April 22, 2010 at 12:12 PM

Hi Carol, so you’re on a quest for answers. I admire your drive to find them in the field and in the flesh rather than relying on media. As you say, the byproduct of this style of questing can be tolerance and understanding. Thanks for the comment!

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JoyaNo Gravatar April 20, 2010 at 12:40 AM

I never used to think of a quest before but rather loved the idea of just seeing what happens while I travel. Now I feel there is something bigger waiting for me when I travel whether it be a job or volunteer opportunity so I think my quest right now is figuring out what I want to do and where I want to go even if I am figuring it out at home right now. Great article.

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KeithNo Gravatar April 20, 2010 at 6:59 PM

Hi Joya – Quests can definitely start from home: that’s the case with me! Hope you find whatever’s waiting for you. 🙂

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AdrianaNo Gravatar April 19, 2010 at 7:54 PM

we should always be on a quest, traveling or staying in one place. it can be a simple one, but it´s good to have something to focus on, it can be a project, someone to love, something to care for, whatever it is, we must feel like we are on a path towards something.

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KeithNo Gravatar April 20, 2010 at 6:50 PM

Hi Adriana – yes, I think these are good words to live by. It can be easy to lose sight of the end goal in the midst of day-to-day minutiae.

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LeighNo Gravatar April 19, 2010 at 6:53 PM

I have never tired of travel but I also don’t think of it in terms of goals or quests or conquests for that matter (unless I need to get from point A to point B before dark when I’m hiking or biking). I’m as excited now as I have ever been to go somewhere . It’s curiosity that keeps me traveling. I want to know how my mental image of a place stacks up against the real thing, especially if I’ve been thinking about the place for a very long time.

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KeithNo Gravatar April 20, 2010 at 6:55 PM

Hi Leigh – Curiosity is what powered my first several trips abroad, but recently I’ve noticed an ambivalence regarding destinations. It’s had me worried but served as a good impetus to analyze my thoughts. Now I see that it was the routine our travels had taken – a “sameyness” – that was causing that feeling. Thanks!

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zoe zolbrodNo Gravatar April 19, 2010 at 4:18 PM

Sounds like by identifying yourself as on a quest you’re aligning with the whole “the journey is the destination” thing. It’s more about what can you learn along the way about yourself and others, more about curiosity and openness than about achieving some preconceived goal. I like @Claire’s idea that the quest can continue anywhere.

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KeithNo Gravatar April 20, 2010 at 7:05 PM

Yeah, I think you’re right. There’s no particular “thing” I’m looking for. It’s really the intangibles, the experience. Thanks Zoe!

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GrayNo Gravatar April 19, 2010 at 3:12 PM

OMG, Keith, you may not believe this, but I’ve been kicking around a guest post along these same lines. You were an English major, weren’t you? If not, you should have been.
.-= Gray´s last blog ..Shiny Travel Objects: April 18, 2010 =-.

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KeithNo Gravatar April 20, 2010 at 6:41 PM

Yep, English with an emphasis on creative writing. Strange how some topics arise communally across blogs at the same time. 🙂

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GrayNo Gravatar April 20, 2010 at 6:49 PM

I was a creative writing major, too. Clearly, you are still very much in touch with your inner creative writer. I feel like mine fell off the back of the truck on the highway about 10 years ago and I’m having to backtrack to figure out where I lost it. Yeah, it is interesting that so many bloggers come up with similar themes at the same time. It’s like we’re tapped into the same travelers’ collective unconscious.
.-= Gray´s last blog ..Shiny Travel Objects: April 18, 2010 =-.

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KeithNo Gravatar April 20, 2010 at 7:05 PM

I appreciate the compliment. I was actually thinking I needed to shake off the rust – the only thing my creative writing degree has done recently is hang on my wall 😉

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JoelNo Gravatar April 19, 2010 at 9:02 AM

I love the idea of a quest, although every time I hear the word the only thing that comes to mind is Monty Python and the Holy Grail and the screeching “WHAT is your quest?”

I’ve toyed with the idea of diving into the world of geocaching http://www.geocaching.com/ Creating a bit of a game out of travel by leaving behind artifacts and directions for future travelers (or seeking things left behind in the past). Necessary? No, but there is a fun element to it, particularly for people who are driven by tangible goals.
.-= Joel´s last blog ..Everything I need to know about travel I learned from The Doctor =-.

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KeithNo Gravatar April 20, 2010 at 6:43 PM

I’ve looked into geocaching a bit but have yet to try it. Some people really get into it and I can see how it would be fun. It’s the modern day “X marks the spot.”

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claireNo Gravatar April 19, 2010 at 7:23 AM

yea for wifey! 🙂 i think i am on a quest in life in general. A quest for adventure while I am learning about life and myself. But you know what? The adventure could be in China, but it can also be right here in good ole’ West Virginia. I think many people forget that travel is not just about getting on plane and having some exotic experience. I relate to the “burning inside” that Lauren mentions up above. I want to soak in as much of the world as possible, and I am not complete without my journeys (near or far) or my writings. The burning comes when I feel stagnant, like I am not doing enough to further my goal/mission/quest–which ironically, is not even completely defined. And that’s ok! It comes as we go. We don’t have to know everything up front. Kudos on traveling solo.

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KeithNo Gravatar April 20, 2010 at 7:03 PM

Ha, I might need to create a fan page for Sarah. I can relate to the feeling of stagnancy. I think there’s an element of boredom in there, too. Insightful comments – thanks!

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PoiNo Gravatar April 19, 2010 at 4:52 AM

Good post, is has got my thinking, what’s my quest?
Good to see your wife got her name in this one!

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KeithNo Gravatar April 20, 2010 at 6:39 PM

Haha, thanks Poi. Better late than never!

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Lauren QuinnNo Gravatar April 18, 2010 at 11:22 PM

I can totally relate to this, in terms of not having the words for something you feel burning inside. I think that as long as you keep searching, you’re gonna be just fine.
.-= Lauren Quinn´s last blog ..Travel and the Lonely Girl =-.

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KeithNo Gravatar April 20, 2010 at 6:38 PM

Thanks Lauren. I’m looking forward to the “haze” burning off.

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SpunkyGirlNo Gravatar April 18, 2010 at 9:55 PM

I think using the word “quest” is great in terms of travel. It brings a sense of adventure and intrigue…
.-= SpunkyGirl´s last blog ..I inherited crazy genes… =-.

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KeithNo Gravatar April 20, 2010 at 6:37 PM

I agree. I really like the power a simple word can have.

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