Exploration starts here. Right now, look at your immediate surroundings. You are experiencing a living landscape, with all of its components breathing, expanding, contracting, moving, colliding, and feeling. You may be cloistered in your room, staging your own rendition of Occupy Living Room; taking an internet break at work; or sitting nervously at a coffeeshop waiting for that date you met online.
It doesn’t matter where you are. Every place is important. A place may not look like much right now, but with practice your geographic imagination will explode with insight, illumination, and intrigue. Over time, you will become acquainted with every sidewalk crack, alley, roof, and block; the history of the streets and buildings; the stories, habits, and superstitions of the people; how air, water, land, and sun interact to create climate and weather; and so on. With a simple change in consciousness, you can travel through time and space without going far.
This entry marks the first of a series about the “Tao of Exploration,” the search for the sage-like qualities that encapsulate the spirit of the lifelong traveler. You will be challenged to rethink your life’s expedition, from experiencing those excruciatingly boring places you see every day, to the “culture shock” places that scare you at first, but enrich your worldview upon viewing them in retrospect.
To begin, the term “well-traveled” needs updating. Too often, it has been associated with foreign lands, exotic sites, sketchy situations, and a log of travel photos on social media comparable to the size of the Library of Congress. Vagabonds and explorers may tell captivating stories of their adventures. But being well-traveled should mean something more than the appearance of being interesting.
One dimension of becoming “well-traveled” includes gaining an expertise of a place or region. People who know an area really well have a strong sense of place and attachment to that location. “Sense of place” happens when one reaches a deep understanding and awareness of a community or area (Tuan 1974). To illustrate, one of my colleagues, Dr. Brandon Haddock, conducts geographic research in his home county of Douglas (lovingly nicknamed “Booger County”), pitted deep within the Ozarks of Missouri. Dr. Haddock can describe in vivid detail the historical and cultural landscapes of the region. He can to tell you where all of the best swimming holes are located, take you through the vast network of unmarked dirt country roads, and recount some of the long-held Ozarkan folkloric traditions and superstitions. Granted, Dr. Haddock has seen numerous places outside of his native Ozarks. But the stories that he seems to enjoy the most are situated in and around “Booger County,” Missouri.
A well-traveled sense of place can be found in the most unlikely of individuals. Townies are a great example. Townies are students who go to college in their hometown rather than elsewhere. “Townie” has often been associated with negative connotations. Townies are stereotyped as being stuck in the same place, living in their parents’ basement, and being segregated from the rest of the student body.
This perception undermines the potential of the townie to become a budding explorer. A recent study in the journal Population, Space, and Place (Holton 2015) found that townies at the University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom enjoyed numerous benefits that neither they nor their peers recognized at first. Because local university students belong to the same community, they have access to a first-hand account of how the landscape has changed, where all of the best bars are located, and which places hold the most meaning for them. Non-local students tended to have a more difficult time adjusting their identities to the dynamisms of a new city. Thus, it would be wise to leverage a townie’s situation by grounding them in a profounder sense of place and awareness.
Townies are not the only well-traveled individuals staying put. Last year, I spent two weeks at a monastery to escape the chaos of graduate school. Concealed by evergreens, the little monastery sits hidden at the bottom of a basin within the mountains of central Colorado. Nature and wildlife enjoy a harmonious relationship with the monks and the monastery. Monks make a vow to spend their entire lives working, meditating, and sustaining their livelihoods on this land. They rarely leave except to drive into town for supplies or visit neighboring communities. One senior monk I met began his spiritual journey at the monastery right out of high school!
As a result, these monks have garnered a seasoned and passionate connection to the monastery grounds on which they have vowed to live. Instead of searching the infinite corners of the world for meaning, they chose one spot on the map to begin and finish the remainder of their life’s journey—a journey where Point A and Point B overlap.
The truth is that monks and townies are not much different from everyone else. Most folks rarely ever leave their home country, much less their hometowns. Seldom will people venture outside of their state or province. The vast majority will never be able to dedicate six months vagabonding through Southeast Asia or backpacking around Europe. Jobs happen. Families happen. Bills happen. In the course of a lifetime, a select minority might be able to count the number of countries they’ve visited on more than one hand.
This reality is okay. Perspective is essential to being well-traveled—Cherishing the quality of experience and not necessarily the quantity of experiences. I have met plenty of folks who have been to incredible places and have little or no impression or remembrance of them. Just another vacation to the Bahamas… In such a case, the consciously aware monk or townie can be as well-traveled as world food connoisseur Anthony Bourdain, Lewis and Clark, or the Rolling Stones. Divergences occur when one considers the scale, attitudes, and the intentions of the “seeker.” Take note of the words from Passage 26 of the Tao Te Ching:
"The heavy is the root of the light. The unmoved is the source of all movement.
Thus the Master travels all day without leaving home. However splendid the views, she stays serenely in herself.
Why should the lord of the country flit about like a fool? If you let yourself be blown to and fro, you lose touch with your root. If you let restlessness move you, you lose touch with who you are (Structure altered for formatting purposes)."
In a way, becoming “well-traveled” bears a resemblance to a spiritual journey: Letting go of expectations, being present, and integrating who you are with where you are. It is easy for the world traveler to have a sense of places (plural). But that state of mind becomes a series of disconnected, meaningless experiences if they are not rooted in a strong sense of place (singular). Sense of place saturates our surroundings with our emotions, memories, and meanings. The act of place-making involves engaging, interacting, interpreting, identifying, questioning, and wrestling with our perception of the places we experience.
In closing, I have proposed four steps for people to become “well-traveled” from the perspective of sense of place. These suggestions are by no means exhaustive and may not vibe well for everyone’s distinctive path. Hopefully, one or more of them might enrich your life and blast your geographic imagination off into unexplored territories.
1. Place Meditation: Pick a place. It can be familiar or foreign. Beautiful or boring. Take a moment to become a part of your surroundings. Be aware of the smells, sounds, and the things happening around you. Take special note of how the place makes you feel. Let time change the landscape right before your eyes as you sit in place. Record your experience in a place journal.
2. Alternate How You Move: Challenge the way you get about an area. If you commute to work by car, take the bus. Take a cab a different time. Be eco-friendly and map out your own bike route. Or simply use your two feet. Change up your routes to make things interesting. Write and draw what you see and experience in a place journal. If you are on vacation, do the same.
3. Adopt a Block: Become an expert on a block or district within a community that interests you. Familiarize yourself with every nook, building, crack in the concrete, and alley. Photograph and take note of the area as it changes over time. Dig into the archives at the local historical society for more information. This type of awareness is good practice for getting the most out of the familiar and unfamiliar places we encounter.
4. Home: Exploration begins with the household. Entertain guests, have cocktail parties, host people for dinner. Explore through good food, drink, and conversation. You’ll soon discover new aspects about the people closest to you.
Holton, M. 2015. ‘I already know the city, I don’t have to explore it’: Adjustments to ‘sense of place’ for ‘local’ UK university students. Population, Space, and Place 21: 820-831.
Tuan, Y. 1974. Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and Values. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.
Tzu, L. 2009. Tao Te Ching. Translation by Stephen Mitchell. Harper Collins.