1,000 Places to Not go Before You Die
Travel Books: "Journeys of a Lifetime: 500 of the World's Greatest Trips" and "Make the Most of your Time on Earth: 1000 Ultimate Travel Experiences" are gorgeous, transformational and, ultimately, full of empty promises. Frank Bures explains why travel list books often end up coated in dust.
10.17.07 | 8:21 AM ET
Recently a couple of books landed in my mailbox. They are giant, door-stopping things. One, Journeys of a Lifetime: 500 of the World’s Greatest Trips, was put out by National Geographic, and is as beautiful and seductive as anything National Geographic does. The other is Make the Most of your Time on Earth: 1000 Ultimate Travel Experiences, from Rough Guides.
These and similar titles seem to be arriving in droves, following the path blazed by the plucky and unstoppable 1,000 Places to See Before You Die. Since that book came storming out of nowhere and onto bestseller lists, it seems that every travel publisher has had to issue at least one of these titles. The travel shelves sag under their weight.
Now I like leafing through these books as much as anyone. I get lost in them. I get travel ideas from them. I can’t help picking them up, paging through them, daydreaming about places I’ve been and places I want to go. They make every place seem as gorgeous and transforming and irresistible as the next. They make me want to go everywhere.
But then a strange thing happens: I set the book down, and almost never pick it up again. The desire vanishes. It’s the coffee-table-book phenomenon: The books blend in with the furniture and are never seen again until a pile collapses under its own weight, or until you move and discover, like an archaeologist, a hoard of beautiful books, coated in dust.
Compare this with what happens to my other travel books: On one shelf, I have ratty copies of Granta’s travel issues, which I’ve read over and over. Next to these are books by Tim Cahill, Peter Hessler, Redmond O’Hanlon and others that I come back to like they were old friends. They call out to me. They feel real and full of life.
I think this points to a problem with the before-you-die/power-list genre. At the heart of each of these books is a promise: In a world of so many places to go, of so many choices, here are the ones that count. Here are the ones that will make your life worth living.
This is an empty promise. You won’t find the journey of a lifetime in any of the places in these books. In fact, you won’t find the journey of a lifetime in any place. You could pick any handful of locations and go there expecting to simply be transformed, to suddenly feel as if you had truly lived. But if you do, I think you’re bound to be disappointed. Because the checklist approach to travel misses the point. Because no matter how many places you check off your list, they won’t magically change your life. You could just find 500 ways to waste your money, or 1,000 colossal wastes of time.
The problem is this: Travel is not a passive experience. Travel is not something we get done to us, like a haircut or a massage. Travel is not something out there that we find on the road.
The trip of a lifetime comes as much from inside as it does from outside. What makes a trip life changing is partly the place, but equally what we bring to to that place: passion, curiosity, knowledge, openness. It is the people we meet and how our experience seeps into our bones. Good travel is life-changing travel. But good travel is a creative act, a fusion of the traveler and the world.
So instead of trying to rack up trips, of trying to get as close to 1,000 as you can, instead of trying to see every place on earth before you die, I say go for for quality instead of quantity. Pick one place you think you’d love and go there completely. Read its novels and newspapers and history. Stay long enough to get under its skin, and let it get under yours. Go there and really try be there.
You could try to see 1,000 places, but why would you, when all it takes to make your life worth living is one.