As my father dropped me off at the Amtrak station on the night of my departure, he asked me where I was going. After I told him, he asked me why, and my response was the same used by millions of people: Because it’s there. I have a lot of respect for my father, but he’s never felt the stinging bite of the travel bug, and so I don’t think he understood.
Our society currently stands in a bit of a paradox regarding mass transit and mass communications. It is easier than ever for people to get across the entire world in short order, but with the emergence of the internet, we have access to photographs of every place on the planet from every possible angle. So if one can see all of the wonders of the world – as well as nearly everything the planet has to offer that isn’t a wonder – why spend good money on an airplane ticket and lodgings to see a place you can see in ten billions photos called up instantly in a Google search?
There is a scene in the classic movie Good Will Hunting which sums it up well. Matt Damon and Robin Williams sit at the edge of a pond. Williams, who is playing the court-ordered psychiatrist to the extremely bright but troubled student played by Damon, is frustrated by the way things are going early in their relationship. To make a point, he tells Damon that Damon could read up all the information in the world about the Sistine Chapel. He could look at the pictures and do all sorts of things which could make him the world’s great expert on Michelangelo’s 15-year-in-the-making masterpiece. But, depite all of that studying, he would never be able to tell what the Sistine Chapel smells like.
With that one phrase, Williams nailed it. There are a lot of things to be learned about the world through book study, but all of the descriptions and pictures in the world don’t have any place next to personal experience. Seeing or doing something in pictures and words robs a person of the ability to create his own description of the sight in question. It deprives him of the right to say what he, personally, thinks of it. There’s a mindset to real experience, and if you’ve never been to a place or through an experience, then all of the statistics, words, and pictures are worthless to someone who’s been out there. It’s the reason why pilots need to log flight time with instructors, tradesmen learn their crafts from master hands before taking the reins themselves, and people don’t walk around acting like experts in foods they haven’t eaten or cooked themselves before.
Yesterday, I took the directions given by my friend Kevin to get into the city of St. Louis itself. My first stop by the Metrolink was to Laclede’s Landing, where I hopped off and made a steady beeline toward the St. Louis Arch. The Arch is the great icon of the city and its most recognizable symbol. Anyone who lives in the United States has seen it countless times through the assistance of photographs, caricatures, and any other device employed by the schoolbooks to tell you just why St. Louis is (or at least was) so important as a city. There was no reason for me to visit, at least not logically.
The Arch defied any picture or description I’ve ever seen or read of it. As I approached that stainless steel rainbow, I could get a sense of its true size by gazing up at the small holes along the curve which function as the observation deck’s windows. I walked up to one of the legs and placed my hands on it, getting a sense of its strength. I rapped my knuckles against it and was surprised to hear that the metal plates weren’t clanging the way we expect metal sheets to clang. The sound was instead a very solid sound which was didn’t reflect or bounce off anything. As I stood back a little and soaked in the sight, my head couldn’t get itself around the idea that it was a real object which I had physically touched just a few minutes before. The sun’s continuous reflections off the steel make it appear very surreal, like something out of a dream. I didn’t visit the observation deck yet, though, and I’m not sure if I’m going to get up there during this trip.
Without being there, I never would have been able to say those things. It’s why we travel. At least it’s why I travel, to confirm the existence of things I had only read about before and speak about it with the inarguable authority of authenticity.