Travel can nurture loneliness or animate despair. This is a truth that presents itself whenever I set foot in an airport, browse magazine stands while waiting for my flight, and order coffee from sanitized kiosks.
While brainstorming a list of books for this blog, I realized that this theme shows up regularly in the literature of travel. The sense that everything is dying drives Jack Kerouac’s flight from place to place in On the Road. It lurks behind bullfights, parties, and affairs in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. And the desire to make sense of tragedy drives the narrative of Krakauer’s Into the Wild.
The sense of isolation that accompanies travel is one I usually welcome. I’ve heard that the internet, that great digital band-aid for loneliness, is now available on airplanes too. But I have a simple procedure that allows me to cut myself off during flight time: I pretend it isn’t. The time this buys me can be rich in reading and thinking. A few years ago, I was able to wade through all of Gravity’s Rainbow and a good chunk of Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman during a series of flights from Atlanta to Kathmandu and back.
When my work took me to Kathmandu again a few weeks ago, I rifled through my bookshelf for a suitable airplane read. I briefly considered novels with travel themes, pulling out books by Roddy Doyle, Edward Abbey, and John Steinbeck, but nothing seemed to fit.
Flipping through About This Life by Barry Lopez, I recalled reading his essay, “Flight,” and immediately packed the book. Later, in the air over the Atlantic, I read Lopez, a biologist, philosopher, and storyteller, offer his motive in writing:
If I were asked what I want to accomplish as a writer, I would say it’s to contribute to a literature of hope.
Lopez travels well. He finds hope among the landscapes of a passing life. He finds kindred spirits across cultural lines and among indigenous peoples in his essay “A Short Passage in Northern Hokkaido.” He finds truth in the relationships that make up a landscape in “American Geographies.”
In an essay called “Flight,” Lopez burrows into the loneliness that often defines air travel. But his affection for the ideas, people, and sensations he encounters somehow embeds a hope in the experience of seeing how small we seem from the air. In conversation with one freight manager, he muses:
Every pilot I spoke with…had a story of the white-orange flash of lethal fighting seen from above, fought in the named and unnamed wars of the modern era, fought in Timor, in the Punjab, in what were once thought of as the lawless hinterlands, but which are now as accessible as Detroit or Alice Springs.
Whether seeking to truly see his backyard, as he does in “The Whaleboat,” or honoring life by removing roadkill from highways as he travels, Lopez finds moments that “…repair the gaping rift between body and soul.”
Lopez keeps finding and expressing hope. Whether or not you find that travel brings with it some kind of despair, I’d recommend taking About This Life with you the next time you step outside of your day-to-day life to try to see things. It helps to have a travelling companion who knows how to spot hope where it shows itself.