At 22, and more than two years after my last international trip, I’m finally starting to understand the draw to American travel.
I’m embarrassed to admit that for the better part of my adulthood, I haven’t been able to fully appreciate America and all the travel opportunities it holds. But just this year, because of Covid, I’ve been forced to slow down and focus my gaze a little bit closer to home. I’ve had no choice but to rethink what travel means, how it feels, and why I can’t seem to get enough of it.
I think a big part of this comes from the trips I have been able to take this year: to Chicago, Washington, D.C., and West Virginia. In each of these places, and for the first time in my own country, I’ve gotten back this feeling I’ve only ever felt when traveling abroad.
It’s the feeling of elsewhere.
Since I was a teenager, my sights have been set on elsewhere, like I was looking through a camera lens that would only allow me to focus on the horizon instead of what was under my feet. This outlook was necessary for a while. It provided me an escape to see things beyond what I knew and realize how much the world had to offer outside of my hometown bubble. But that camera has had to refocus, and I’m coming into a lot more clarity about who I am as a traveler.
To me, traveling is a decision to be open-minded and take in what you don’t know—to be clueless without being ignorant. Elsewhere is when the air smells different and sidewalk chatter sounds unfamiliar and every one of your senses wakes up. These little things make you feel small and anonymous, and appreciate how little you really know. Because being somewhere new makes you realize how lucky you are to have that chance to begin with.
Feeling elsewhere is a good thing because it means you’re stepping outside your comfort zone. It makes you ask questions about yourself and others. Elsewhere is a place, but it’s also a state of mind. The best way I can describe it is like a zoom-out of your daily experiences—a decision to turn off autopilot and be present.
Maybe this elsewhere feeling is really just choosing to live in the moment.
For my own sake, I understand why it took traveling away from home for me to figure this feeling out. Traveling brings you out of yourself and challenges you to change any and all perspectives. Sometimes, it can even surprise you with versions of yourself you never would have met without certain moments—moments where your surroundings were unknown for the first time.
It reminds me of a quote by the author, Azar Nafisi:
“You get a strange feeling when you leave a place, like you'll not only miss the people you love, but you miss the person you are at this time and place because you'll never be the same again.”
Even though this feeling is brought out by the places we visit, I think we still carry it around with us wherever we go.
I’ve always been a “stop and appreciate the moment” kind of person. I’ll drive through a place like the Blue Ridge Parkway—which I’ve seen hundreds of times—and still try to make myself “take it in.” This year has shifted things, though. I’ve stopped pressuring myself to be present and just learned to let it happen on its own. I no longer have to tell myself to “stop and appreciate,” because now I just do.
I will always be eager to experience the burst of energy I get from feeling like I’m elsewhere—it’s one of the reasons I crave travel so deeply—but I’ve settled into the feeling itself, and that makes it easier to find wherever I go.