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It's Nelly's World

The Art of Travel

alec vanderboom

No one writes about travel anymore in the way that Henry James wrote about travel--of course, no one writes about anything in the way he did. It is not, I think, that travel has "changed," though of course it has. It is that he approached it with his full self bared to it. Every one of his senses was fully engaged, but more important, his accumulated memories were too.

He faced a new place, or an old one, with the filter that was the individual named Henry James completely unstopped, so that images and feelings flowed through, and came out transformed. He wrote about what was before him at the same time he appreciated its effects on him: the present as it quickly became the past.

Conscious that the impressions of the very first hours
have always the value of their intensity, I shrink from
wasting those that attended my arrival, my return after long
years, even though they be out of order with the others that
were promptly to follow and that I here gather in, as best I
may, under a single head. They referred partly, these instant
vibrations, to a past recalled from very far back; fell into a
train of association that receded, for its beginning, to the dimness
of extreme youth. One's extremest youth had been full of New York,
and one was absurdly finding it again, meeting it at every turn, in sights,
sounds, smells, even in the chaos of confusion and change; a process
under which, verily, recognition became more interesting and more amusing
in proportion as it became more difficult, like the spelling-out of
foreign sentences of which one knows but half the words.

This is James, upon returning to New York, from The American Scene. It is as if he is standing beside himself, watching himself return; and so the traveler is a part of the picture, and is also its narrator.

Why do we travel? To "see" things? To feel them? To feel differently than if we had not traveled? Or to leave home behind for a while, so that we may return?

There is a curious phenomenon, strictly related to sojourning in a place that is not home (or is home, but only when one has left it for good), of falling in love with a place. Then, we need and want it to stay the same and never change--that which places must do, or die, I think--in much the same way we wish our beloved to remain always as he was in the moments we first recognized, "Yes, this is love." Stay, then. Forever. James had this experience with Newport, which he then revisited years later:

Newport, on my finding myself back there, threatened me sharply,
quite at first, with that predicament
at which I have glanced
in another connection or two--the felt condition of having known
it too well and loved it too much for description or definition.

For me, it was Nantucket. Going there as a child with my family changed me forever: I discovered what magic, and love, were for the first time. I was, literally, transported by the strange difference of this simple island (yes, simple, then)--its salt air, fog, moors, the crunch of sand under bicycle tires, the sweat of August by the sea, the feeling of being away, the clam rolls, the Malachite ice cream from Main Street after dinner, the beauty of the cobbled streets, the whaling museum with its haunting old horrors.

When I was sixteen, a girlfriend and I made our first voyage into young adulthood by driving there together, alone. We prowled the docks at night, met young men from boats, and stayed up under lamplight pledging undying love to someone who would leave the next day, and whose name went with him.

The summer after freshman year of college I returned, and this time it was my journey into womanhood that was taken on the island, its beach rituals with the other working college students, the drinking on Straight Wharf, the hitchhiking, the half-price day-old sandwiches at the health-food store, the sunrise, and the sunset.

So much happened to me there. Nantucket happened to me there.

Eight years later I returned. Perhaps I was different, too, but my dear place should never have changed. I did not recognize it: gone were the clam shacks, and the easy life; in their place were Fine Dining and big money. Big, big money.

I felt pierced. Almost destroyed. I wanted to go back into its exact memories, to show the people who were important to me now why it was important to me then. This place I could not recognize, and could not afford, with its million-dollar houses coating the dunes where once there was . . . sand and air--I did not like this place. The magic seemed gone, in its place a replica Madison Avenue. I already knew where that was, for I lived there, and chose never to visit it.

I think we all have these places of the heart, and they all go and change on us. Maybe that is why we travel. Someone else's lost love of a place can become our new one, because we did not know it when. We travel in order to love.


For the next month I will be traveling. Maybe I will find what I am looking for; I suspect I will. Then I will tell you about it. In the meanwhile, the next three weeks will find here brief teasers from a work in progress. "Progress": I like the sound of that.