The Fuel of Travel

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In Spain, the air is hot. I joked with my son who had joined me on the second leg of a trip to this beautiful country, following a week with my wife, that, yes, it was muy caliente. But it was not “Cuba hot.” “That’s a very different hot,” I reminded him. Two years ago he, his  brother, and I spent seven days in and around Havana. Not long ago, my wife and I traveled by car along the Oregon coast and then across the state’s mid-section to the lonely and often untouched Oregon interior. These are only the most recent excursions.

In my memoir, The Consequence of Stars, travel plays a large role. It is essentially a character in the stories. In the book, travel is not defined in terms of destinations, but instead by journeys. The “searching” that comes with real travel—not a vacation trip—has for ages fueled the work of writers. I could name dozens. And yes, much of that travel has been found in the stories of those writers—nonfiction, memoir, novels, poetry.

But, I wonder, shouldn’t travel for the creative soul be much more than “material?”

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There is energy in place. Every town, city, forest, house, and street has a soul. And yes, a writer can pay attention to these and all the details, but what is bigger here, maybe more important, is the deeper sense of place. Not just what some would call “research.”

Roman mythology gave us genius loci—the spirit of a particular place. This concept has been interpreted in many ways, but Lawrence Durrell in his book “Spirit of Place” argues that the soul of a place is forever there. He suggests that in any city, especially in Europe, if one could erase the current inhabitants and put in place new residents, in time, maybe only a couple of years, the culture of that place, that original culture—that spirit—would reemerge all by itself. Durrell believes any “ordinary tourist” can get in touch with that “soul” just by sitting in a cafe with a glass of wine for an afternoon.

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We did a lot of that in Spain. And in these moments one can quickly see how those afternoons and especially the nights (late for Americans, perfect for Spain) are part of the Spanish city’s genius loci. Those who come to visit find themselves embraced by that spirit immediately. And if you don’t, you are not allowing the seduction of travel to enchant you. Hemingway was believed to have said, “There is no night life in Spain…they are only delaying the day.” It is a cultural shift in the thinking. They take their time. When they drink coffee, they sit and drink from ceramic cups. There is no “take away.” There is no butter. Only olive oil. The trees cover their mountains. And at the thousands of cafes, the summer sun is never cursed. Spain embraces the sun. Yes, it is the the source of notorious summer heat, especially in the south, but it is also Spain’s  light, glinting off its charms.

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All of this is part of the larger spirit of place—something one must generously accept as a gift if one is to allow travel to be the fuel it can be when one believes in creative combustion.

Yes, Granada, Malaga, Seville, Rhonda, Cordoba were all drenched in heat. I did not run and hide from it.  Instead, I bought a hat. A straw hat. People in Spain wear hats.

6 thoughts on “The Fuel of Travel

  1. I smile as I nod my head in agreement. Travel, especially to places where I don’t speak the language, nurtures reflection, conversation with myself. It’s one of the reasons I like traveling. A year ago my niece, a madrileña, visited me in Chicago for all of July and never complained of the heat here. She inspired me to just accept the heat matter-of-factly and go on with my days. Thanks for the lovely post!

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  2. Beautifully put.

    A variety of circumstances have dictated that most of my traveling has been done vicariously, and I was struck by Durrell’s take on the “soul” of a place. It reminded me of a book I’ve mentioned before: Henry Miller’s “The Colossus of Maroussi,” written about Miller’s 1939 trip to Greece. Almost immediately, the very soil and stones of the place infused Miller, and his writing — his spirit — vibrates with it.

    I doubt I will ever be able to venture far from home, but through the work of writers who’ve made the journeys in my stead, I am not bereft.

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    • Nick, as you have come to know, travel is not always physical. “Going somewhere” can be a journey without footsteps. It reminds me of the words of Ranier Maria Rilke, although I had to look them up again to get the phrase exactly right: “The only journey is the one within.”

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