Why is being “off the beaten path” or on “the road less traveled” desired by so many of us? These terms conjure up a sense of being the first one to have an authentic experience. Another dimension highlighted by these terms is curiosity. Have you ever wondered where a path leads or what lies over the next hill? These positive elements make up “The Explorers Desire” and connect to a deep desire for authenticity and originality. What might an idealized experience of “off the beaten path” look like?
The Idealized experience might start off something like this:
During, my flight to France I strike up a conversation, with a man returning to his family in Paris. As we share a bottle of wine, he tells me his family roots are in a small town to the north. “My brother still runs a small vineyard there. My family has lived there for generations, but most of the rest of us are in Paris now for work. The festival of our Patron Saint is next week. We will all come home. Please, join my family there. They would welcome a guest. Very few come to our festival.”
Barely controlling my enthusiasm, I blurt out in broken French, “I would love to join your family.” He doesn’t even bat an eye at my bad pronunciation.
Pausing for a moment, he responds, “Unfortunately, I have a few days’ business to do in Paris. Call my cousin when you get to town. He will make sure you get settled in.” He slips me the name and number as we begin our descent into Rome. We have a friendly parting in the airport and go our own ways.
After a restless night I continue my travels with guidance of a couple native Parisians. I take a train and eventually a bus which drops me off on a narrow gravel road that intersects the main road. The road winds along a slow moving river. A church surrounded by vines stands crumbling beside the road. I wave at a old man walking among the grapes, but I don’t see a single solitary tourist. The crunching of my shoes on the yellowing packed gravel is the only sound that greets me. Of course, you know it only gets better from there when I meet his cousin, and the family welcomes me to the town festival!
So, what are the ways that being on the well worn path thwart the “explorers desires” expressed in this idealized travel prologue? There are thousands of ways the explorers desire can be frustrated.
One- travelers can ruin the path and the destination. My wife and I discovered a beautiful family owned Italian restaurant in Phoenix. We frequented it and sometimes had the opportunity to speak to the chef. Some of the staff got to know us. Later, on certain nights, we could barely get a table. We experienced a mixture of pride and disappointment at their success. The success of the place changed the experience for us. This is forever a hazard for those with the explorers drive. Marco Polo, Magellan, Columbus, Lewis and Clark and every other explorer led others to follow them to experience what they discovered. Inevitable the path becomes more worn. Sometimes we don’t get along with fellow travelers. They might be rude or unconcerned with the hosts culture. We have all been embarrassed to be travelers before. The cobblestones are more beaten down. The restaurants more trafficked. The tours more scripted and scheduled. Art works have to be protected. Ancient steps or monuments are “just” reconstructed.
A second “explorers desire” downer is a perception of fakeness or artificiality. This may come from a contrived experience of a place or from the people you meet. Some need to make a living from travelers. When you experience people who have become hustlers because of their proximity to a “site” or “well traveled” path. It highlights the negative consequences that our travel can have. It begs the question: Does my travel destroy the beauty I come to experience? Am I changing the culture/nature/or history in a negative way? Are the people you meet putting on a “false self” to profit from tourism? Have the people become disconnected from their past and their culture due to the influence of travelers? Is the destination presented honestly? Has it been changed, sanitized, or otherwise tampered with to create an experience for the traveler?
A traveler of the “traveled path” may also be subject to disappointment. Travel stories of the explorers do not often dwell on the drawbacks of the places they discover. We like to dwell on the unspoilt nature of the place. We like to highlight the authenticity of the people. We want to talk about the experience of the awe of nature or the sense of spirit evoked by a visit. It can’t be like that every time for everyone.
These pitfalls may even ruin a trip where you are the explorer. So how can you avoid this travel trashing traps?
One-strive to understand the delicate uniqueness of every place. It isn’t only the coral reef and the millennial pace of canyon carving that should draw awe and reverence from a traveler. Every traveler’s dream destination springs into existence as the fortuitous combination of many factors. It might be an accident of nature or a coincidence of human history being rediscovered and preserved. It could be a combination of these. It might also be due to the compatibility of the host culture with the culture of the visitor. As travelers we should be especially aware of the ecological consequences of our travel. How much energy does it take for us to physically travel? How is the food we are eating raised and how does us eating it affect those who eat it every day? Find and implement green travel trips or eco travel ethics that fit your personality and enhance your travel experience. Also, most of us travelers receive the privilege to be able to travel freely due to the combined results of economic, military, and cultural struggles of the last millennia. Do we meet people and places with the gentleness and respect that they have the right to demand from the recipients of such privilege? Marvel at your place as a travelers on the small blue marble we call home.
Two-strive to be authentic and respectful. Learn to know yourself. Are there habits you have fallen into using so that you don’t have to be honest with those you meet? Do you use masks to hide your failings when you meet others? Are there stock phrases you use during interactions to keep from listening? Do you practice treating every person as a unique individual? When an authentic traveler meets another person they find opportunities to encounter the others’ mysterious humanity. In seeking authenticity, use the experiences of those who went before you and seek out advice of expats or locals. They can help guide you toward the authenticity you seek! Remember even those who have not left their hometowns or countries travel on their own journeys. They strive, search, and live. At home or abroad, you can have amazing experiences when you meet others with respect and share your true self.
Three- Dodging disappointment. In our relationships, in our professional lives, and in our travel disappointment and fear of failure hold us back from experiencing the joy, passion, and transcendence of the moment. Traveler’s disappoint first arises from comparing our experiences with a movie, book, or story from a fellow traveler. They trigger expectations that our experience should match or exceed the stories. Comparison and the belief that “our” travel should be of the “best kind” prove fertile breeding ground for disappointment. The second incarnation of travelers disappointment arises when we begin to measure our experience against the expectations that we have created using the raw materials mentioned above. We fashion an itinerary which includes peak moments that will fulfill our needs and bring us to new “travelers highs.” We expect to find what we are looking for or experience the emotional charge that adventure and travel do for us. Whatever your philosophical or religious outlook this kind of living from expectations is a recipe for disaster. Find a way to avoid it that works for you. Meditate, do yoga, pray. Ground yourself in your body. Remember and be firm in your belief that “All will be well,” as Hildegard said. This will help you make space in the present moment to be surprised by awe, meet wondrous people, and be amazed at the world you find yourself encountering.
Do you have any tips to share or pitfalls of being on the beaten path?