David Cogswell | August 25, 2015 10:58 AM ET
The Incessant Traveler
I was born with the irresistible urge to move. From the time I was able to walk I started wandering off, constantly leaving my mother worrying and anxious about my whereabouts. I would return bewildered that she was so upset. It was an inborn urge. I had no control over it. It was operating long before I had any idea what was happening. I have no illusion that this behavior was normal.
I was always wandering around, exploring whatever areas were available for me to explore in the country, in the city, whatever frontier was before me.
My cellular protoplasm seemed to be magnetized in an odd way, or perhaps vibrating at a frequency that caused me to have a compulsion to be constantly moving. When I learned to ride a bike my powers of movement were extended. Later I learned how to hitchhike, then to drive. It was like putting wings on my feet. My parents learned to expect me to disappear frequently, inexplicably.
It was an inner drive that seemed to always have been there. I was driven to move, to roam, to explore. I dreamed of traveling to distant places, such as I had read about in books or seen in movies. It was an insatiable drive. I had no idea where it came from. I was just being moved by it.
At one point I wondered if it might have been a propensity inherited from my great-grandfather. My maternal grandmother’s father had been a merchant marine back around the turn of the last century. He was, like Joseph Conrad, one of the sailors who traveled to the various trading points of the British Empire at its height, when “the sun never set” on the empire.
They were the first global men. They were the precursors of today, when it is possible for ordinary people to travel around the globe. Then it wasn’t so easy. You had to have sea legs. You had to be able to endure the conditions of sea travel all around the world, including, for example, the occasional typhoon. When I read Joseph Conrad’s descriptions of the experience of a storm at sea it gave me a window into the existence of my great grandfather.
Jukes was driven away from his commander. He fancied himself whirled a great distance through the air. Everything disappeared -- even, for a moment, his power of thinking; but his hand had found one of the rail-stanchions. His distress was by no means alleviated by an inclination to disbelieve the reality of this experience. Though young, he had seen some bad weather, and had never doubted his ability to imagine the worst; but this was so much beyond his powers of fancy that it appeared incompatible with the existence of any ship whatever. He would have been incredulous about himself in the same way, perhaps, had he not been so harassed by the necessity of exerting a wrestling effort against a force trying to tear him away from his hold. Moreover, the conviction of not being utterly destroyed returned to him through the sensations of being half-drowned, bestially shaken, and partly choked.
It seemed to him he remained there precariously alone with the stanchion for a long, long time. The rain poured on him, flowed, drove in sheets. He breathed in gasps; and sometimes the water he swallowed was fresh and sometimes it was salt. For the most part he kept his eyes shut tight, as if suspecting his sight might be destroyed in the immense flurry of the elements. When he ventured to blink hastily, he derived some moral support from the green gleam of the starboard light shining feebly upon the flight of rain and sprays. He was actually looking at it when its ray fell upon the uprearing sea which put it out. He saw the head of the wave topple over, adding the might of its crash to the tremendous uproar raging around him, and almost at the same instant the stanchion was wrenched away from his embracing arms. After a crushing thump on his back he found himself suddenly afloat and borne upwards. His first irresistible notion was that the whole China Sea had climbed on the bridge. Then, more sanely, he concluded himself gone overboard. All the time he was being tossed, flung, and rolled in great volumes of water, he kept on repeating mentally, with the utmost precipitation, the words: "My God! My God! My God! My God!"
As tough as economy class air can be, it certainly is no comparison with what those sailors experienced in those days. Even with the dangers we read about every day from terrorism, travelers today have it easy compared to the travelers of a century ago, or even 50 years ago.
My English grandmother used to tell stories about her father the seaman, but of course she was not there with him when he went to sea and anyway she lacked the eloquence of Joseph Conrad. But she did pass on the lore of the sailor from the point of view of a young girl who sat at her father’s knee and heard his stories when he returned from his long voyages.
Maybe it was partly her stories that ignited the fire for travel in my soul. But I suspect it was inborn, an involuntary urge based on some kind of genetic predisposition. After finding my way to the travel industry I have discovered many others who share this condition. Perhaps I could define it, isolate it and become one of those few people who have the rare distinction of having their names put on a disease, like Parkinson’s or Meniere’s.
But for now I will just endure it.
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