Traveling Short Distances for the Long Haul

A year ago, almost to the exact day, I turned in a paper about travel — what constitutes as travel, who travels, how we should travel, and why we should travel — to one of my favorite English professors at Berkeley. In the first few weeks of class, we’d been reading essays by philosophers (like Sir Francis Bacon and Walter Benjamin), as well as contemporary articles from renowned authors (Pico Iyer), in which they provided their own sets of answers to these three questions.

I don’t often revisit old papers after I’ve visited my professor in office hours to ask questions and receive feedback, but for some reason, this one came back to haunt me as I was driving home from Bart late on Thursday.

It was just about 10 o’clock at night, and I was just able to haphazardly piece my thesis back together, but couldn’t remember any of the finer details. Yesterday, I dug my paper back from the grave, and frankly, I’m surprised my professor gave me as generous a grade as she did.

My thesis wasn’t strong, nor did it line up with my conclusion. My choice of diction, as was my tendency a year ago, was sloppy. Throughout my entire paper, I don’t think I described anything with clean precision and accuracy. While my professor may have known me well enough by that point to accurately guess what I’d been trying to say, she never actually read it anywhere in my paper.

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Los Angeles at night, view from Griffith Observatory | Photo by Courtney Cheng

Rereading a poorly written essay that had once been a source of relative pride for me was a terribly cringey experience — though I am relieved to note that I still agree with the point I was trying to get across.

I’ll include an edited (read: clearer) version of my thesis here:

“Travel” shouldn’t be limited to only defining an exclusive action of privilege that considers only large-scale physical movement, something that takes you to a new country or the next city. The simple act of moving from one location to another should be considered a form of travel. People should be encouraged to view this small-scale change of location as such because it makes available more opportunities for engagement, enchantment, and experience. 

I’d written this essay at a time when my lengthiest trip took me from the front door of my apartment in Berkeley to downtown San Francisco and back again; my shortest trip was from my apartment to campus. Come graduation, I’d scraped this trip down to just a seven-minute walk.

Now, my longest trip can take me from my parents’ house in inland East Bay, to my office in downtown Pleasanton, and out to the Mission in San Francisco — and back again. And this is on a weekday.

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Bikes in San Francisco | Photo by Courtney Cheng

Perhaps it’s ironic (or maybe unsurprising, given how philosophers and writers have regarded travel) that after my travel distances and times increased, my appreciation for small-scale travel diminished.

Every day, I can get in my car and drive to where I need to be — whether it’s to work, to the gym, to Berkeley to see a friend — or wherever else I want to go (which is still probably Berkeley).

But every time I’m in the car, I’m not paying attention to anything. Yes, I am paying attention to the road, but I’m not really bothering to take in anything else. There are highway walls and other cars stuck in traffic and new communities being built all over the place so the rolling East Bay hills are slowly being covered and vanishing from sight. But that’s it.

When I used to walk everywhere, I had the chance to mosey around and take my fine time, if I so desired. Anything that piqued my interest was available for me to explore. Now that I’m driving, travel has come to define the action that gets me from point A to point B.

You can, of course, consider travel as “the most efficient way to get to the place you need to be.” It’s a perfectly functional definition that works and is true. But if you go a lot of different places in one day, this definition causes a large fraction of your day to lose a lot of its charm.

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Fengyuan, Taiwan | Photo by Courtney Cheng

Bacon had advised his readers to choose land travel over sea travel because there was so much more to observe — everything from the grandiose to the mundane — as you traveled on foot, across land. Benjamin’s flâneurs were people who observed the world around them, often as they walked their tortoises, without coloring anything with personal judgment.

Both philosophers aimed to define travel in (relatively) looser terms; they wanted their readers to take in their worlds with wide eyes, eager minds, and open hearts, not remain cloistered in the walls of their own worlds.

While I shared a similar perspective when I wrote my paper, I’ve definitely slipped from there to just wanting to get from one place to another. It disappoints me to realize this, but in the context of new homebases, new stresses, new fears, new worries, I’m unsure how I’ll be able to re-adjust my perspective back to the one I had during the relatively stress-free years of college.

But I guess the best thing to do is to just try. And to have the intention of doing so. Because with any hope, if my mind and heart are in the right place, this will happen.

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