Mariah Proctor is a senior at BYU.
I’ve made no secret of the fact that airports fascinate me. That is, I’ve made no secret of it to myself, but if you’re just tuning in you probably feel like I just told you a big, fat one. A secret I mean, not a lie. I’m currently sitting in the Dallas/Fort Worth airport and to my left a woman just walked by wearing striped linen from neck to toe. She’s wearing a fedora and meandering as she talks on the phone. On my right is a boy with big glasses and a fisherman’s vest talking spiritedly to his mother as he twirls a bottle of vitamin water. Her back is to him, but I imagine she’s listening.
Airports are a wild cross section of the population. Whether you’re an extremely successful businessman riding in ultra-platinum priority emerald seating or a poor student flying on borrowed frequent flyer miles (me), you have to go through security like everybody else and at some point we all find ourselves in the terminal trying to get comfortable without making the people around us uncomfortable and trying to watch our possessions like hawks without appearing paranoid or offensively suspicious of our strange neighbors.
No, the real clincher is the air in airports (no pun intended). It’s buzzing with an unbelievable feeling of anticipation that everybody feels, but few acknowledge. No one, save perhaps the flight crews, comes to an airport without some excitement (or dread) that they associate with the place they are going or the person they’re coming home to. Even the most airsick, travel-weary, jet-lagged, achy, numb-looking airport patrons are in hot anticipation of an extraordinary something and you can feel it.
I spend a lot of time in airports. It was from the back of an elephant that I first took a hard look at myself and asked why I’ve turned myself into a habitual globetrotter. I get such mixed reactions from people as they slowly gather from our conversation how many places I’ve been, and how long I spend there, and how I don’t foresee myself stopping anytime soon. I watch their eyes as their ears take in bits of the content of my experiences, and what I see in them is not disdain or respect, merely puzzlement. I see the analytical wheels turning in their minds as they try to assess my motivation for doing what I do. Maybe once they figure why, they can decide whether they can cast approval upon the behavior or not.
The truth, I’m still assessing myself with the same hope for a verdict. It would be easy to say that because of genetics I am, this very second, en route to my third study abroad in a distinctly different region of the world than either the first or second. When your parents hardly spend a calendar year in the United States and Sunday dinners at Grandma’s house consist of her stories of her years in Turkey or that time that she took the Trans-Siberian Railway or that funny gal she met in Australia, you start to get the sense that this traveling thing is pretty deep in your blood. But I’ve never been one to let myself be acted upon (even by great genetics), so that explanation still isn’t enough.
What is it? Why am I sitting here in Dallas and not back in my dumpy Provo apartment getting ready to tandem bike to some burger joint and celebrate my collegiate youth? I was walking on a boardwalk in Tiberius on the Sea of Galilee once, with an ice cream cone and a traveling companion. The latter turned to me and said, “You know, I picture your life involving lots of evenings like this.” He didn’t explain any further and he probably had no idea the effect his comment had on me. What did that mean? Is mine to be a life full of ice cream cones and sunsets and boardwalks and freedom? There was something in his tone and the way that he specifically said my life would likely involve this kind of thing and not “isn’t this nice” or “oh if evenings were always like this one” that made me concerned from that day forward that I am perceived as, or worse that I am, some kind of perpetual pleasure seeker.
My comfort came, as it often does, in the form of a book that somebody kindly let me borrow in anticipation of my summer plans. The book is entitled The Art of Travel by a man called de Botton. I was entranced by the initial chapters because he so accurately captured my feelings about the chasm between expectation and reality as it pertains to visiting a new place and realizing upon arrival that you inadvertently brought yourself along, so you get hot and tired and disappointed and distracted and detract from the experience by being present.
As I got further along in the book, he talked of a German named Alexander von Humboldt who, in the summer of 1799, traveled to South America and over the next 5 years gathered previously unknown information about the continent in nearly every field of biological and social science. His accomplishments were vast and unbelievable. He was truly a renaissance man and as I read I got excited, recognizing a bit of myself and thinking that discovery, exploration, and bringing people knowledge that they didn’t have before is the reason I travel. My excitement was a bit dashed by the consecutive discovery that I am not expert in the cataloguing of species or the anthropological study of peoples, and by the fact that it feels so much harder to find a new frontier now that an additional 200 years of advancement have occurred.
“Instead of bringing back sixteen thousand new plant species, we might return from our journeys with a collection of small, unfeted but life-enhancing thoughts” (de Botton, 111). That’s what I’m after. I’m not merely seeking pleasure (though I find that it is a byproduct of the way I spend my time), nor am I the involuntary follower of a genetic whim, I am just a person seeking to further my collection of life-enhancing thoughts. I am not satisfied to merely know what I know, because the more I know, the more I realize that I don’t know. I may not change the world, but every person I meet helps me to change myself, and I’m boarding this plane now (no, seriously they’re calling for me to board now) because I want to meet more of those people and bring home my dearest souvenirs—a few life-enhancing thoughts.