When you’ve traveled too long the only direction left to go is inwards.
When you travel for long enough, you eventually leave your past behind. It becomes another place that you might visit physically or just behind your eyelids on another bus journey someplace, as confused and indistinct as last night’s dream, real in the same way as the plot of a favourite book or movie, buried deep inside you like a thorn that may never come out. You look in the mirror and don’t quite recognize yourself, you’re a stranger to who you once were, a traitor to your ambitions, a convert to the winding designs of the road that take you anywhere other than where you expected.
Your life fills with places and people like the items that you stuff into your backpack, there’s only room for so many and you lose half of them along the way like odd socks. In the end it seems that you stand still and the earth passes beneath your feet, changing climate, economy, language, race, all of it like scenes of a movie and when you wake up tomorrow you have to wait a full five minutes before your brain works out where you are.
You carry none of the treasures that others strive to amass, the endless zeros in a bank account, the paper qualifications, the garage full of yesterday’s consumer goods, shelves lined with little luxuries. Yet when you sit down at a table with the right mood served up, your heart can suddenly open and out poor a wealth of experiences that leave your company in laughter or tears.
Unable to see yourself, to follow the incomprehensible trail you’ve followed like Pooh footsteps over the years, you can no longer even describe your life, the details running off the page and the words wrapping themselves up in images as beautiful as they are untrue. You allow others to make a legend of you rather than argue the point and then walk disguised past a doorway where you would have been more than welcome.
The countries you’ve seen pile up as smudged stamps in lost and stolen passports, random emails from the past re-awake a foreign affair, a forgotten crisis or a revelatory moment shared with a random friend picked from the casual flow of coincidental acquaintances. Remember me? when you don’t quite remember yourself.
Your body remembers. Smells bound up with days spent ill with fever, or stepping out of a bus and smelling mountain wood smoke, the sound of crows heralding tropical mornings, even the unapproachable stars reflecting back every place you ever stood and looked up, wondering why, how and where, where, where, will someone tell me where?
The time not spent in movement is spent waiting, hanging around for that bus, train or plane, killing time in unfriendly hotel rooms, drinking tea, watching other people live their lives, all the things they’re bound to, that they would never dream of leaving behind and feeling like another species, studying the human race through the microscope of your own eyes.
The journey, the way, becomes an unconscious flight from growing up, from the relentless pull of growing old, of jumping on the same bus as everyone else, the vehicle that is heading only in one direction and you’d choose any destination other than that one. Only when you look in the mirror and see the first grey hairs and lines around the eyes does it occur to you that you’re all traveling, no matter which way you go you’ll get there.
You might scramble, hustle, backtrack to cover your trail, send your inner compass spinning around until north is a subjective term. You might gorge on yet more new experiences, deeper thrills, higher highs, picking up the pace in order that you might never quite catch up with yourself.
But then you do. And suddenly there’s no longer anywhere to go, nowhere to be. Your bags spill open their contents onto the floor and you split open, your unfulfilled, junkie selves tumbling out, begged to be downloaded, decoded. It might be in the hands of a therapist navigating the treasure map where you buried your soul, three steps north and two to the south; it might be in the warm embrace of a lover or child, their heart melting the many masks you’ve learned to wear on the varied stages you’ve trod in the great human comedy; it might even be the long slow arguments of the waves on the shore somewhere, or a handful of earth between your fingers, as you laugh at the impossibility of ever outrunning your own shadow.
And when it happens – if it happens and you don’t go insane, get jailed, killed or die inside – then you learn what it means to be free. You continue to learn with each step you take, the journey now taking place on the inside, a voyage of exploration as you head off the beaten track and wind your way inexorably in.
And that’s when you really begin to travel.