The Restoration IV: Travel

This article originally appeared in the August 2009 issue of The Four Marks as part of a series called "The Restoration." "The Restoration" is a monthly column dedicated to restoring Christian ideals in our modern culture. For more information on The Four Marks, please click here.

This piece was also published in the March 2010 edition of Dimensions: The Newsletter of the Thomas More Center for the Study of Catholic Thought & Culture, at Rockhurst University.

"A rolling stone gathers no moss, but it sure gathers a lot of polish.
Bishop Richard Williamson

I was born an American citizen abroad. I began my life in 1979 in Singapore, the son of American and Singaporean parents. Even while I was swimming in my mother’s womb, I was travelling between the Philippines – where my parents lived – and Singapore – where my mother wanted me to be born. I stayed in Asia for the first decade of my life, then we moved to America: Dallas, Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Anaheim. By this time, despite going to boarding school for high school, I had caught the travel bug. I went on to live in and around: Detroit; Boston; Rome; St. Marys, Kansas; Chino, California; and then back to Orange County before moving to Overland Park, Kansas, where I currently work and live.

For years my travels have been a great blessing. Travel for me has not been a “special occasion.” It has been, to this day and hour, a way of life. I always tell people that if “you have always wanted to go there” why not go? As I sit writing this in a cafe across from the Louvre – in a city of my dreams – Paris – I reflect on two things in particular.

One, the healthy and mild envy I have of the rootedness of many of my Midwestern peers. It is not unusual for many of them to have been born, raised, gone to high school and college, and then get married and settle down right where they have been their whole lives. They have bloomed where they have been planted. Their existence and experience of life has been far more conventional and traditional than my own.
What does that rootedness offer? Continuity. Tradition. Accountability. Deep, life-long friendships. I envy this because I’ve never had that continuity, that tradition. My oldest friend, dear as he is, dates to when I was 12.

Two, the richness travel can contribute to that rootedness, if you let it. Professor Robert Greenberg, in his lectures on Mozart (which are simply masterful; you can obtain them from the Teaching Company at pointed out that Mozart only began to write more adventuresome forms of music after he had really and truly mastered the classical forms in hundreds of ways. In other words, he only “travelled” once he knew his own home. How many Americans know their homes?

I don’t mean their backyards or even their cities or counties. Many know those, and know them well. But we live in a nation that stretches from ocean to ocean, and it is so often not explored, and can be done for a fraction of the cost of international travel. Before Paris (though it is well worth your time), perhaps spend some time in Maine, eating lobster rolls and looking out from historical lighthouses. Or watch the leaves change in New Hampshire with Europeans who fly over here to watch it. Visit some of the battlefields of Pennsylvania and Virginia where our country’s future, for better or worse, was decided during the War to Prevent Southern Independence. Sit by the banks of the majestic lakes we call Great, which are so vast, that if they were to be emptied, would cover the entire country in two feet of water. Marvel at the breathtaking majesty of Half-Dome in Yosemite, the Falls in Niagara, or the Canyon in Arizona. This is to say nothing of the food, culture, and heritage of New Orleans, San Antonio, Louisville, Charleston, Richmond, and a hundred similarly-sized cities in between. Be dazzled by the all-encompassing greenness of Seattle, the majesty of Fort Hood on an early Portland morning, the endless quality of Lake Coeur d’Alene, the silence of Whitefish Lake in Montana on a Sunday morning, the quiet rushing of the waters of the still (no matter how much we drain it) mighty Colorado as you wind your way across that state on I-70. Quietly enjoy a California sunset, or let the warm Gulf waters tease your toes…

Europe? Maybe when the endless beauty next door has been a little more explored…

And why? What does travel afford us, at the end of the day?

A realization that life, at least in First World countries, despite many differences, is very much the same everywhere. The conversations of kids on the Metro in Paris are no different than those of my students back in Kansas City nor are they different from the subway conversations I’ve overheard in New York, Boston, Montreal, Singapore, San Francisco, Rome, and Washington, D.C. People are venting about work, or talking about plans for the weekend, or just hanging out with their friends. People everywhere enjoy food, friends, time with their family, things that are free, sunshine, art, and music. You don’t need to fly 3000 miles to realize that life is very much the same everywhere in the world. We all speak in the languages we first learned at Babel (and new ones too) and are increasingly able to communicate and interact with one another.

More importantly, travel affords us a chance to be intensely grateful for what we have. I remember never loving America as much as I did in my final month of living in Rome while I was studying abroad. As much as I adored living in the city of Catholicism, in the heart of classical and Christian culture, and among dear friends, I yearned to get home, have a cheeseburger, and be simply “back” in America. If the phrase “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” has validity, so too does the phrase “you don’t know what you’ve got till you see what other people have.”

If travel teaches us nothing else, it reminds us that Heraclitus was right, and that you never can step in the same river twice. For the Catholic whose heart has stopped – as mine did – in the breathlessness of gazing at the church that is home for all Roman Catholics – St. Peter’s Basilica – my faith was never the same again – and not because of some ephemeral hazy sentiment, but because I had a chance to glimpse in this world, the things that St. Paul has promised us that “eye has not seen, nor ear heard, what God has prepared for those who love Him.”

For a sneak preview of those coming attractions, travel.

Stephen Heiner

Stephen lives in Paris, France. He founded True Restoration in 2006.

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5 Responses

  1. Heliodora says:

    There are many things from this post of yours that have spoken to me, and I found myself nodding "yes, yes" even though in the past on your blog, there have been many things I have disagreed with and continue to disagree with- I have appreciated these candid sentiments, and hope to see more of them.

  2. Laure says:

    Very nice piece. So true. I would like to see more of the US. I especailly agree with your comment about the ironic envy. I have experienced that also to some degree, although I have not traveled to the extent that you have. It's not so much about bloom where you're planted as trying to find contentment where God has placed me for the time being…

  3. Bernadette says:

    Somehow, people that are constantly traveling and on the move strike me as rather unhappy. The call of other places deprives them of a simpler life, and the simple satisfaction of just being among family, friends, on your own stomping ground, leaving your mark, carrying on family traditions, and with the one thing that makes it all worthwhile and the only thing that really matters, the Traditional Catholic Faith.

  4. Catholicity says:

    Nice post. However… 🙂 Fort Hood is in Killeen, Texas. Mount Hood, I believe, is in Maine, being the northernmost summit of the Appacian Trail, which I will, mind you, hike one of these years.

  5. My dear Sir/Madam

    I can't imagine you would think I would let an article go to press without fact-checking my memory. But given that I have actually seen Mount Hood in Oregon:

    There's a picture for your benefit.

    I don't doubt that it's not the only Mount Hood, though. Thanks for the tip…