Is Travel Heroic?

by Keith Savage · 21 comments

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I flicked on HBO a few nights ago for what will likely be one of the last times, and caught part of an episode of The Pacific. It was the episode about John Basilone, the hero of Guadalcanal who almost single-handedly held off 3,000 Japanese troops. But this wasn’t Guadalcanal, it was Iwo Jima, and, where other men cowered under the barrage of Japanese artillery, Basilone staggered through the fatal hail and rallied the troops*.

I was captivated not by the sobering amounts of gore, but by John Basilone’s pristine, almost sacred, display of heroism. In the midst of this scene, an unintelligible grunt of recognition escaped my lips. I recalled a poem I wrote many years ago lamenting the fact that our modern world leaves very little room for the heroics I subconsciously sought time and again in books, films, and other media. I’ll spare you the painful adolescence of the full text, but the snippet in the pull quote spoke to me.

can you imagine that feeling?
that forever has no power over you
that you are forever

I recognize a longing to “make my mark” in these lines. Perhaps there’s an uncertainty or fear about the legacy I’ll leave behind. What will I do, like heroes of old, to be remembered? And what does heroism really mean? One well-known dictionary defines it as “having or involving recourse to boldness, daring, or extreme measures.” Another definition focuses on courage, bravery, and self-sacrifice. A third equated a hero with being a positive role model. All of these definitions pointed to what I think I had already realized: “heroism” is a kind of umbrella term that collects many of mankind’s most admirable qualities. They are characteristics that we are meant to aspire to embody. Whether it’s Conan the Barbarian or John Basilone, there’s a thrill in seeing these heroic qualities on display, in witnessing such a powerful expression of our humanness.

In the myths and ancient tales of many cultures, heroes were those who went forth to find answers to the unexplainable. Their quests were fraught with danger, and boldness, daring, and extreme measures were necessary to succeed. I look at my situation or those of countless others walking away from office jobs in uncertain financial times to find something. Leaving a safe harbor and traveling the world with a head fully of fuzzy reasons: these are extreme measures. Bold actions. Daring plans. Is this not heroic?

OK, even if travel is heroic, so what? Does that have any effect on the traveler? It could. The perception of your trip in these terms can be empowering and increase your enjoyment and engagement in the present. Catalog what you’ve accomplished – actually write it down – and give yourself credit.

In a way, this post is the sister to the one I wrote about the importance of the quest. I am finding power in writing these mantra-esque posts; they help me realize the truth of the topic. And the truth is travel can be heroic. Take a minute and look back on your travels, on everything you’ve accomplished. Maybe you’ve been on the road for three years like travel blogger Gary Arndt. Maybe you cut off the dead weight of a job you disliked and created your ideal life like Christine Gilbert. Or maybe your job cut you off and freed you to travel and find a new path like Jeannie Mark. The point is that we don’t need to be John Basilone to be heroes. People everywhere are being courageous, brave, and self-sacrificing every day. It just takes a little attention. When I paid attention, I realized I wasn’t lamenting a lack of heroics in the modern world, I was lamenting a lack of heroics in my own life. Traveling Savage is changing that.

What do you think? Is travel heroic to you?

*Let me state unequivocally that while I posit war and travel share a heroic lineage, they are definitely not equals. All due respect to those involved in WWII and veterans of all wars.

Original photo by EssjayNZ via Flickr under Creative Commons

AkilaNo Gravatar May 14, 2010 at 3:27 PM

There’s another type of heroism as well that travelers embody — the type that Captain Cook and Columbus and Ponce de Leon and Neil Armstrong exhibited throughout the ages. They are, as you describe, people “who went forth to find answers to the unexplainable.”

Here’s the thing: I don’t want to be that type of hero. I don’t want to have to suffer through scurvy or disease or the pain of being cut off from my family. I don’t want to be heroic as seen by the eyes of the world. I just want to have fun. And, by having fun and being happy, I am a hero to my husband, my dogs, and my family because I ensure that they have happy and fun lives. So, in a way, I guess traveling makes us heroes on a small scale. I am perfectly okay with that.

KeithNo Gravatar May 14, 2010 at 3:33 PM

Hey Akila – truthfully, me either. It sounds romantic, but the reality is much harsher. It’s a wonder to know exactly what you want in life, too.

aelleNo Gravatar May 12, 2010 at 6:53 AM

Interesting idea. I have never felt particularly heroic for travelling. But I have been called a role model several times, and it always takes me aback a little. I guess if it makes others see me as a hero, then travel fulfills at least half of the definition?

KeithNo Gravatar May 12, 2010 at 9:42 AM

Hi Aelle, I like your point. The dissonance of how we perceive ourselves and how others do. I think this is often the case with people who are deemed heroes by a public at large but don’t consider themselves heroes.

KatyaNo Gravatar May 11, 2010 at 10:39 AM

I think it takes bravery to travel, and to give up what seems like the secure life to follow your dreams. So even though travel itself isn’t necessarily heroic, you are being an example that others can see, a role model, so that other people can know that there is another way to lead their life if they want to. Being brave enough to follow your own dreams. That takes guts.

nice post
.-= Katya´s last blog ..A Day of Reflection =-.

KeithNo Gravatar May 11, 2010 at 2:38 PM

Every day I need to remind myself of this fact. Bravery should never be in short supply because it’s within the power of each person to create it. Thanks for the comment!

JunoNo Gravatar May 10, 2010 at 7:45 PM

What a great idea! 🙂 what is heroic, really? I think someone who’s faitful to their life, that’s heroic. Travel, that is many of our dream, right? So many great blogs too. Everytime I read those articles, I inspires by all this great people. It’s heroic alright. 🙂 wish I could be one of them.
Great post!!!


KeithNo Gravatar May 10, 2010 at 8:32 PM

Hi Juno! Perhaps you are one of them. Heroism often flashes at the most unexpected of times.

soultravelers3No Gravatar May 10, 2010 at 2:58 PM

Yes, I think travel can be heroic in the sense of being your own hero, following a dream, a quest. I think that is especially true of extended family travel, because you are not only taking your own life at risk, but that of your whole family, including a vulnerable child. BUT not as some vane stunt, but as a way to enrich your child and family forever.

If you do travel that most think is ” impossible” ( including you when you began to plan it) how can it be anything else but heroic? The not knowing and going anywhere is part of the thrill, the many challenges along the way ( from hospitalizations to getting lost in the dark, to winding up on some of the world’s scariest roads with a young child) can not help but strengthen you.

Serving others is also apart of the heroic theme that can come with extended travel. Feeding poor families and our 6year old giving a violin concert to 60 kids in the Sahara who had never seen a violin or meeting in person and taking tens of thousands of disadvantaged school kids with us virtually, were highlights in our open ended world tour.

We can all be heroes by just learning to say yes to life!
.-= soultravelers3´s last blog ..Camping Europe in a Motorhome RV: 5 Best Sites! =-.

KeithNo Gravatar May 10, 2010 at 8:36 PM

Thanks for sharing these experiences. Yes, if you achieve the “impossible” then there must be a heroic effort in there somewhere. I hadn’t considered the consequences of traveling as a family with little kids. Definitely more on your plate in that scenario. More for me to think on, thank you!

GrayNo Gravatar May 10, 2010 at 12:04 PM

Another thought-provoking post, Keith! I’d have to say that 99% of travel is not heroic, but then I have pretty high standards for heroism. That’s not to say travel isn’t worthwhile in so many ways, but for me, true heroism must really rise above and beyond (the self-sacrifice definition is closest to my personal definition, and honestly, I think travelers are enjoying themselves too much to be considered “self-sacrificing”). When I think of a hero, I think of people who will jump into a raging river or run into a burning building without a second thought to save somebody else in jeopardy. Or people who put aside their own welfare and happiness to serve others. Like I said, I have pretty high standards. 🙂
.-= Gray´s last blog ..Shiny Travel Objects: May 9, 2010 =-.

KeithNo Gravatar May 10, 2010 at 8:31 PM

Hey Gray, your standards are very high, but I think a lot of people share them. It could also be a reflection of your perception of travel. Maybe you find it easy and so how could it be heroic? I won’t deign to put words in your mouth – just another possibility of what we’d find behind the curtain of all of our opinions.

AndiNo Gravatar May 10, 2010 at 10:46 AM

I think that the most important thing is if you are a hero in your own eyes. If so, then you have lived a life less ordinary. I think that traveling is definitely heroic! It takes a lot of courage to go out and see the world and to not follow the social norms. Such a thoughtful post!!!
.-= Andi´s last blog ..imgp2629 =-.

KeithNo Gravatar May 10, 2010 at 8:25 PM

I agree, following a path other than the social norm is very difficult. Once you leave the beaten path, everybody takes a different route and each person needs to “clear the brush” that they encounter. Ultimately, to me, that seems very rewarding. A heroic effort? Yeah, maybe.

ToddNo Gravatar May 10, 2010 at 1:05 AM

Love the post. Personally, I don’t think travel itself can be heroic. But I do think that travel can help build heros by helping us to empathise with other people, circumstances and even wildlife. Dian Fossey was pretty heroic in her own way, and I suspect travel had something to do with that.
.-= Todd´s last blog ..The effects of altitude in a nutshell =-.

KeithNo Gravatar May 10, 2010 at 8:23 PM

I like your perspective, Todd. Nice to see different viewpoints on this subject. Perhaps “heroes” and travelers share some of the same core characteristics. Thanks for checking out the blog!

Nomadic ChickNo Gravatar May 10, 2010 at 12:17 AM

Indeed, where have I been? Saving babies and puppies from burning buildings, of course! What travel symbolizes for me is realizing dreams, which any rational human can relate to. Not sure if that makes me heroic or not… The illusion with corporate life we have (or had, in my case) is unequivocal safety. Travel is the great equalizer – fraught with unknowns. Let’s ponder that, every single thing about it is unknown – transportation, an actual bed, 3 square meals, people to talk to. In that sense, I would say travel is heroic. 🙂

KeithNo Gravatar May 10, 2010 at 8:14 PM

Just another day in the life of Nomadic Chick, right? 😉 “Realizing dreams” is a cool way to put it. Travel, which often involves bravely jumping into the unknown, I think helps us live life on our own terms. Fear is far off. Travel elevates us to a state of mind where it can be easy to be fearless. In some ways I’m quite jealous of digital nomads. They are free of many of the routines we assume in the daily grind that are founded on fear. Fear of keeping a job. Fear of making mortgage payments. Fear of paying for daycare. These same fears don’t disappear for digital nomads, but they somehow feel farther off.

Brendan van SonNo Gravatar May 9, 2010 at 11:07 PM

Hey, What a great post! I think you have brought up some great ideas, and also sentiments that I think that a lot of lifetime/part time travelers feel. I personally feel guilty at times when I travel. Especially when locals ask me, how can you afford to spend all your time traveling. I think, to answer your question, to be a hero in travel you need to travel responsibly. You need to treat other people you meet, their cultures, and their environment with respect. If you do that, you will always be a good ambassador for wherever you come from!
.-= Brendan van Son´s last blog ..Everything is bigger in Peru’s Colca Canyon =-.

KeithNo Gravatar May 10, 2010 at 8:06 PM

I like your take on travel heroism, Brendan. Being respectful of the land and the local people is important to me, too. Thanks!

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