Travel Stories: Some struggle to separate love and lust. Elisabeth Eaves has had a harder time distinguishing love from wanderlust.

02.12.09 | 9:47 AM ET


I met the first person I fell in love with on an airplane. He was 17 and off to England with his rugby team, a posse of blond boys in blue-striped jerseys sitting near the back of our jet. I was 16, on a school trip to Europe, and we talked sitting shoulder to shoulder on the floor, feigning a more sophisticated knowledge of our upcoming itineraries than we actually possessed. He called a couple of weeks after I returned home and, a few months after that, took me to his graduation ball.

As I entered my senior year of high school, he scrimped and saved, working two jobs while living with his dad, and bought himself a ticket to see the world. It wasn’t until after he left, and began sending me notes from afar, that I began to really fall for him. There was no email back then, and I sometimes wonder how my life might have been different if there had been. Would emails have been as alluring as his regular light-as-dust aerograms, written in a dense ballpoint scrawl? Once he mailed a photograph of himself, now with longer hair and darker skin, accompanied by a letter saying he was living in a trailer and picking fruit. Later he mailed a small bag of pebbles collected on a Grecian beach, with instructions to put them in water so that they would shine like they had when he found them. From my circumscribed life of homework and curfews and college applications, I was so captivated by his voyage—by the fact that you could just do that, go off into the world and let it carry you along—that after awhile I couldn’t be sure where wanting him stopped and wanting to be him began.

Our paths long ago diverged. But two decades on, the most recurrent features of my love life remain airplanes and letters. I’ve met people who can’t separate love and lust; for me the tricky distinction is between love and wanderlust. They’re both about wanting and seeking and hoping to be swept away, so lost in the moment that the rest of the world recedes from view.

Some people spend their lives looking for anchors. For years, I cut ties as fast as I formed them, always struggling to be free. I had known for a long time that I was inordinately peripatetic, but it wasn’t until I was in my hometown, Vancouver, a couple of years ago, trying to get to know a friend of a friend, that I realized how unusual my path had become. I asked Jen to tell me about her work and her fiancé, the two compass points, I figured, of her existence. She told me a little—she worked for her family’s engineering firm, she would get married in Hawaii—and then asked me where I had been living all these years. I started to answer, but I had lived a lot of different places, and the whole circuitous route was too convoluted to explain. What period of time counted as “living” somewhere, anyway? What about extended periods on the road? I did a quick calculation.

“I haven’t lived in Vancouver for more than 16 years,” I said. As the words came out of my mouth, the figure struck me as stark, made all the more so by my utter lack of a concrete life.

Then Jen asked, “Don’t you like it here?”

Her question made me realize how wide the gulf was between us. As someone with wanderlust and someone without, we were foreigners to each other. “No, it’s lovely, it’s beautiful,” I said. And on some level I meant it. If Vancouver’s residents are a touch smug, it’s because they feel lucky to have ended up in a Shangri-La of dramatic scenery and socialized medicine. To me, though, those qualities are beside the point, because wanderlust, like adultery, is not about that which is being left. It’s about the person doing the leaving. I felt like Jen was my pretty, perfect spouse asking me, “How could you?” And I was the cad telling her I just couldn’t say no to my urges.

“Wanderlust,” the very strong or irresistible impulse to travel, is a perfect word, adopted untouched from the German, presumably because it couldn’t be improved upon. Workarounds like the French “passion du voyage” don’t quite capture the same meaning. Wanderlust is not a passion for travel exactly, it’s something more animal and more fickle—more like lust. We don’t lust after very many things in life. We don’t need words like “worklust” or “homemakinglust.” But travel? The essayist Anatole Broyard put it perfectly: “Travel is like adultery: one is always tempted to be unfaithful to one’s own country. To have imagination is inevitably to be dissatisfied with where you live ... in our wanderlust, we are lovers looking for consummation.”

In my chronic chasing of that consummation, wanderlust has taken me both into romantic entanglements and out of them.

I met Stu when I was a senior in college in Seattle. That romance, too, started on an itinerant note. We bonded talking about the time we had spent abroad—in my case studying in Egypt, in his, learning sculpture in Bali. I was planning to spend the summer in Pakistan; shortly after I left he volunteered to join me, and did. Someone who could regard this as so natural a course of action was surely someone for me. I was so taken with this man that not long after we returned to Seattle, I embroiled myself in the heavy weight of domesticity. We moved in together, became engaged, and bought the mother of all fixer-uppers.

Overwhelmed by love, my wanderlust had gone into abeyance like a briefly dormant volcano. But there was so much of the world I hadn’t seen yet. There were lives—so many—that I hadn’t experimented with. What if I was meant to be a spy or an aid worker or a scuba-diving instructor? What if I was meant to be a writer in New York? And forget even what I was meant to be. What would it feel like to just wander the world, knowing I could stand on my own two feet? The idea of roaming intoxicated me to the point that I couldn’t look at the glossy cover of a travel magazine, or browse the travel section of a bookstore, without getting a lump in my throat.

I began to resent the person I loved for keeping me from all those other possible lives. And so I left. I would come back, I said. I just had to get away for a few months.

At first we mailed each other letters. I sorted out coins and dialing codes to call him from far-flung phone booths. One of the earliest calls I put through was from a box on a busy market street in Kota Bharu, Malaysia, where I was about to get on a rattling colonial-era wooden-seated train that slogged across the peninsula, through thick jungle, ending up a day later in a nowhere town that lacked even charm. It was very important to me to take that train, I recall, to make a 24-hour journey that I could have accomplished in five, a desire I can’t fully explain now except to say that I had to go the long, hard way around. A hallmark of the wanderlust-plagued is that we favor experience over inherited knowledge, however sensible the latter might be.

The best kind of travel—the kind I wanted to experience—involves a particular state of mind, in which one is not merely open to the occurrence of the unexpected, but to deep involvement in the unexpected, indeed, open to the possibility of having one’s life changed forever by a chance encounter. After several months of phone calls, letters and even a fax or two, I determined that my tie to Stu, which is to say my tie to home, was not letting me be completely open to the world. While I had already come far away, I wanted additionally to be able to feel that any life was possible. I wanted to be different people, and just as much, to see what sort of core remained as I shifted from skin to skin.

The prolific travel writer Paul Theroux has devoted at least one entire novel to this idea. In “My Secret History,” his protagonist, Andre Parent, is both an inveterate traveler and an incurable creator of alternate lives. “I knew I was a slightly different person with each woman—lied to each of them, or chose a different version of the truth for each of them; remembered what to include and what to leave out,” Parent says. And ultimately he starts to wonder if maybe his real self is the one that exists when he is traveling between two places, or two women, inhabiting “this space, all this hissing air, going from one life to the other believing I was unchanged.”

I finally called Stu from a phone booth in Yeppoon, a sleepy Australian beach town near the Tropic of Capricorn. I had to cut my ties, I explained, adding that I did not want to get married and was not coming home. It was agonizing to hurt him, and frightening to think that this was it between us. When, after an hour, I stepped out of the phone box, night had fallen and a full moon was on the rise. For a long time thereafter, the sight of a full moon would remind me how many months it had been since that phone call. My friends—one old, two new—were waiting for me in a camper, and we drove through the night to a tin-roofed village called Airlie Beach, where we parked on a hillside at around 2 in the morning. The three of us girls stretched out in the back and slept there. In the morning I climbed onto the roof and surveyed a pink dawn and sailboat masts, and felt scared and free. That was consummation.

Was it just new horizons I wanted, or new men, too? The fact was, I could no longer see a meaningful difference. My goal wasn’t romance, but anything can happen when you open yourself up to the world.

Fast-forward. There was the Australian guy who fell for me just a few months after that moment on the roof of the camper, while I was a shoestring backpacker. But he was a homebound sort. Once I left his country, I never saw him again, although spates of letters and phone calls cropped up for years, always teasing out the idea of a reunion before one of us backed away.

There was the American boyfriend I met while I was living in New York. I moved to London, and we continued to see each other, with one of us flying back and forth every month. Email was in common use by then, as were cell phones, and we made heavy use of both. One of his last gifts to me was a digital camera.

In London I began seeing an Englishman. We were masters of the romantic vacation, taking trips to Sicily, Croatia and Scotland during which we mostly ate and made love. He went on to live in Moscow while I lived in Seattle again. Aeroflot, we discovered, operated a direct flight three times a week between the two cities. After many months apart we reunited in Mexico, and traveled restlessly together to Cuba. We broke up shortly after he joined me back in New York, when, for once, neither of us really had to be anywhere else.

Then I met the diplomat. By this time I had the distinct sense that something was wrong. I wasn’t happy, and it had something to do with either my itinerancy or my love life, which were, as usual, hard to separate. My long-distance relationships were so thrilling, with their international rendezvous (Jerusalem, Barcelona, Hong Kong, etc. etc.). By seeing my boyfriends in new places after pent-up months of no contact, I heightened the excitement. But could I—fickle wanderluster that I was—maintain a flame with someone day-in and day-out? Was that even meant to happen? Or was part of growing up, as more stable friends so often suggested, learning that life isn’t supposed to be a thrill ride every day? I swore to myself that there would be no more long-distance relationships. With that in mind, I moved in with the diplomat and followed him to Washington, then Paris. I had never tried following someone in this way before, for his needs, his career. Maybe that was the missing ingredient.

It was not. After more than a year in Paris, on an early December morning as the Christmas lights faded and festive dark turned to gray daylight, I loaded four suitcases into a taxi on Avenue Montaigne. I went back upstairs to take one last look at my ex-apartment. The living room looked too perfect, with its balconies, its marble fireplace, its fashionable but uninviting white sofa. I surveyed the emptiness, then left and locked the door from the outside, and slipped the key back underneath it for the diplomat to find. Another life was over, and I couldn’t get back in now even if I wanted to.

I flew from Charles de Gaulle via Toronto to Vancouver, where my parents met me at the luggage carousel. My four suitcases represented, give or take, the household I had acquired thus far in life. The most overstuffed among them split open between Toronto and Vancouver. The handlers strung it up in red and white tape, but when it arrived on the carousel the rip still gapped ominously, contents poised to escape, the whole bundle looking dangerously close to explosion. We took the suitcase to the Air Canada counter, where they provided us with an enormous clear plastic sack, into which I dumped the remaining physical artifacts of my existence: clothing, bags, boots, books. We gave the airline the broken suitcase, and four days later a new one, larger and sturdier than its predecessor, turned up on my parents’ porch.

My life wouldn’t be so easy to fix. I had woken up at the age of 34 and realized that I wanted to go home, only to discover that I had no idea where home was.

I felt numb that winter after arriving in Vancouver. I pinged around the world some more, to an assignment in New Zealand and then back to Paris for more work, all the while knowing I had to settle down for my own sanity. Finally, of the three great variables in life—work, home, love—I made decisions about the two that were in my power. I moved to New York, and left freelance writing behind in favor of a staff job, the kind with such novelties as a fixed location and health insurance. I signed a lease, with myself as the sole renter, for the first time in my life. Nervously at first, mindful of all the places and people I had run away from, I began to buy large things, such as a desk and a bed. They represented my growing confidence in my ability to stay put.

Months went by. Then a year, a year and a half. I didn’t re-experience the soaring thrills of my earlier long-distance loves, but nor, thankfully, did I plunge back into the sense of loss and disorientation I had felt on achieving a perfectly rootless life.

One weekend I began to go through a box of old journals excavated from my parents’ home, and a letter fell out. It was from Stu, and was dated Sept. 24, 1995—four months after I had left, and about two after I had made that full-moon call from the phone booth in Yeppoon. In the wake of my departure he, too, had abandoned Seattle, and was on a sailboat bound for points south.

Written on five small sheets of yellow notepaper, the letter read in part: “By leaving our safety net, we have thrown our souls upon the wind, exposing ourselves to all of the fears and dangers that we sought to protect each other from, and in doing so, we have made ourselves available to experience things that ... border on the magical.”

The letter stunned me, both for its forgiveness, but even more so for its understanding of the force that drove me away, and dominated my life for the next decade. I wanted to call him, but was too nervous. Would he even want to talk to me? What would we say? We had been in touch on and off, but not in the last couple of years.

I found his phone number listed in an online directory, and, after hesitating for 24 hours, began to dial. As I was doing so I realized that it was my old number in Seattle. He answered.

A few weeks later he was on an airplane, headed for a work project on the East Coast. He took a break to come to New York. He walked into my apartment, and we talked for the next 15 hours.

And so it began again, with a letter and an airplane, and continues now with emails and cell phones and jetBlue, scans and photographs, old-fashioned handwritten notes, and promises that don’t scare me this time around. And, whatever comes next, he’s given me back at least one thing: that feeling that if I open myself up to the world, anything can happen.