Tim was restless. You could feel it, not necessarily in the way his eyes darted off to the side sometimes, in the way he played with a beer can when he talked. It was more in the way he called, texted, went out every night—in the way he told long stories of hapless nights in China, Uzbekistan—suddenly animated, alive, like something in him had sparked.
“So,” I leaned back, running my fingers over the frayed straw matting we sat on at the Phnom Penh night market, “when you gonna put your notice in at work?”
He grinned. “Maybe another month.” He’d been hoping to hold out a year, but after one month, he’d confided, he’d known he wouldn’t last. He’d missed the open road, having traveled for a year and a half prior; he’d only stopped because he’d run out of money.
I smiled slyly. “You just can’t sit still, huh?”
“I guess not.” He leaned in. “You know how they say some people are scared of making changes, of leaving their jobs and their houses—how they get stuck? I think I’m the opposite of that.”
I laughed. “Like fight or flight?”
His eyes flashed and he slapped my shoulder. “Yeah! That’s me!”
It’s a topic that’s been blogged about a hundred times over—“Is long-term travel escapism?” There’s invariably a lede that includes some anecdote of a well-meaning but hopelessly untraveled relative asking, “You’ve traveled for so long—what are you running from?” The blogger insists “Nothing!” and usually go on to assert, in some form or another, that they’re doing to opposite of running—they’re finding themselves, living a fuller, richer and more challenging lives than their working stiffs back home.
Which is all well and good. And which I used to totally agree with. I’d nod into the glow of my MacBook and think, “Yes, yes.”
But somewhere, lurking behind the self-satisfied surety, was an uneasiness, a dim awareness of something I couldn’t quite name. Over the years I’d watch myself, my mind buzzing in the busyness of planning for a trip, saving for a trip, going on a trip, fantasizing about the next trip before I was back from the trip I was on. In this way, I did most of my traveling in my mind, and at the end of all the trips was ultimate fantasy: moving to Buenos Aires. It became a kind of barometer: I could measure how unhappy I was in my life by how much time I spent, not just fantasizing, but organizing potential logistics—checking flight prices and researching apartments, projecting how much I’d need to save.
And it served a great purpose for me—it was a way to escape, to not really be present, to always be saying, in the back of my mind, “I’ll be leaving this soon.” Hell, it’s a lot better than smoking rocks.
We’ve got this phrase in 12-step recovery; it’s called “pulling a geographic.” It usually refers to moving—the idea that the drinking/using/gambling/whatever isn’t the problem, it’s the place. “I just need to get out of this city, start fresh, make new friends.” We’ve burned through jobs and people, or we’ve burned through ourselves, and we convince ourselves that a change of scenery is just what we need to kick-start a new, healthier life.
Maybe it works for some people, I don’t know. But we’re addicts, and so it fails. Invariably, we follow ourselves to our new locations, our addictions packed into our souls like over-stuffed luggage. The same patterns ensue, and we find ourselves living the same lives, being the same people, against a different weather pattern and slightly altered skyscape. We call this “pulling a geographic,” and in recovery we get to laugh about it, because we don’t have to live like that anymore.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot as it relates to travel, as it relates to Phnom Penh, to home, to my What Next’s and What Now’s. I’ve been thinking about it as I’ve done it in my life, the way I’ve done most things in my life—in my head. I never actually moved to Buenos Aires, and my longest trips have been around 3 months. But there was always the fantasy, the obsession, the longing—the not being present.
“Do you think anyone really finds themselves traveling?” I asked Anna one night. We were talking about, of all goddamn things, Eat, Pray, Love. She laughed a noncommittal laugh.
“I think it’s a myth,” I decided. “Not that I haven’t learned valuable things about myself traveling, and not that I don’t love traveling—”
“Obviously,” she interjected.
I grinned. “Obviously. But, I dunno—” which was a lie, cause really I did know “—I think all the real work I’ve done has been done sitting still.”
Which isn’t to say I think all voracious travelers are actually escaping, or even that I think all addicts travel or move to “pull a geographic.” It’s just to say that, as the years have gone by, I’ve watched myself, sometimes out of the corner of my own eye, and if I’m really being honest, I’ve often used travel as a way to escape, and a way to isolate from people, from real relationships.
Being home, I’ve realized how immensely difficult my time in Phnom Penh was. A lot was coming up, and I was doing a lot of sitting still—sitting on my hands, it felt like sometimes. So I could laugh that night, at the Night Market, the last night I saw Tim and very well could ever see Tim—because I could understand the restlessness, the itch. I could understand the Flight.