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The Value of Travel is Often in Retrospect

The value of travel is often in retrospect “No one realizes how beautiful it is to travel until he comes home and rests his head on his old, familiar pillow.” -Liu Yutang “Travel is only glamorous in retrospect.” -Paul Theroux The true value of travel does not often make itself apparent until the journey has [...]

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The value of travel is often in retrospect

“No one realizes how beautiful it is to travel until he comes home and rests his head on his old, familiar pillow.” -Liu Yutang

“Travel is only glamorous in retrospect.” -Paul Theroux

The true value of travel does not often make itself apparent until the journey has been completed. There is an essential need for adventure, whose purpose sometimes is hidden until the paths have been blazed, the road walked.

It is sort of like going to university or learning a trade: you try hard for years, studying, taking exams, staying up late, hanging out with friends, stressing out, partying, busting ass, cheating, sometimes loving it, sometimes hating it, and you do this all for a higher purpose, a deeper pursuit, for some indelible brand on your life gained when it is all said and done. Knowledge must be worked for, it must be earned, and its pursuit is not always enjoyable, but the rewards are always sweet.

I keep going because I know that there is something at the end of the Road, always

As far as I can tell, travel is a pursuit of knowledge,  a way of learning about your world by stepping out into it and looking it in the face — a way of branding your life with experience and the map with memories of people and places. In travel, you are the tester of your theories, and your analysis may be far from the truth, but they are always based on observations which you seize with your own two hands. Such first hand knowledge is the most powerful kind, and once you begin populating your mind with your own observations of the world what is to be gained from books becomes paltry in comparison.


I enjoy listening to travelers talk about their world, I like how they blend second hand information with first hand observation. Long term travelers often sound crazed when speaking of the places and people they have visited, they often contradict themselves 10 different ways per minute, but there is always some underlying glimmer of truth to their words that is more revealing that the work of a thousand press release incantating journalist or an army of university professor, for they have been there, seen it, lived it through no other lens of observation than personal experience. Once the chaff is weeded out, once it is realized that the road to enlightenment is paved with dead end proclamations, the wisdom of personal experience is vital.

I sponge it up when I can.

But, like other avenues of knowledge and experience, travel is not always fun, the joys of travel must sometimes be worked for, the rewards sometimes demand a purgatory of trials to be endured before being granted. I divide “travel”and “tourism”up on this fine line: tourism is the pursuit of entertainment and leisure, travel — whose root word is travail — is the pursuit of knowledge and experience first, entertainment and leisure second. Both activities are perpetually overlapping, and any single individual on any single journey may find themselves skirting both sides of the line repeatedly. The old time travelers had a saying — “turning tourist”– which just meant that they went out sight seeing or pursuing leisure or entertainment rather than working for money, or trying to complete some great feat of travel. I think this is a good term: I try to turn tourist whenever I can, but, at root, I am in this for the deeper gains: knowledge and experience.

Very often, the benefits of travel do not reveal themselves until the journey has long been completed, as Theroux said, the glamour of travel is sometimes in retrospect.

As I sit 81 km into a 1300 km bike ride completely lonely, homesick, physically wasted, and in pain I must ask myself why I am doing this? Why am I riding headlong into the wind of one of the windiest regions of one of the windiest countries on the planet, peddling over hills and crags, with a load that exceeds 100lbs? Each hill is a fight, each gust of wind a battle, and if this trip in pursuit of entertainment and leisure then I know that I’m doing something very wrong.

But I keep going. Why? It makes no sense when I could be sitting in Reykjavik convincing tour agencies to take me on press trips to glaciers, volcanoes, the jagged coasts in comfort and style. But I keep going on a trip that could not be called fun in any sense of the world because there is something gained from earning your travels.

The French tramp declined a free ride all the way up to his proposed destination in Iceland with a pretty girl simply because he said he wouldn’t have earned it — it would have been too easy, and the value of the traveling would have been likewise diminished, the glimmer lackluster. Pierre was looking to test himself against the harsh climate — he was walking across Iceland — for the knowledge and experience to be gained when he finally comes out the other side.

[adsense]The reason I give here will hit at the root of why I — and I assume others — travel difficult terrains, climates, cultures, countries: the end result is worth the challenges, the difficulties, the travail. Once the soreness in your body fades from memory, after the hardships no longer seem as vital, once a steady physical and mental symbiosis is again achieved, only the wonders of the experience will remain — forever branded upon your consciousness and memory. This attainment is worth the dance with insanity, the frolic with exhaustion, the meeting with doom and despair.

When Pierre is finished with his Iceland travels — once his wind swept face and chapped lips and sore legs heal — he will not remember the hardships, only the beauty of the experience, the knowledge that he earned from pushing his physical and mental tolerance to their limits, the truly catatonic landscapes that he experienced in a very direct and uncommon way. When Pierre is finished he would have earned is travels.

I have gone on some pretty horrible journeys in my travels, but I cannot remember the hardships, the sickness, the horror, I can only remember the conversations, the people, what I learned. Memories are like watching movies, you can see the pain but cannot feel it. Even the trials of your own experience will not last in retrospect. When you look back on your travels everything is illuminated.

There is no such thing as a valueless journey, nothing in travel is wasted. So I continue to face strong winds, big hills, and a heavy load as face the anatomy of my dreams and continue bicycling through Iceland. What I am collecting here will hopefully be worth the hardship, turn glamorous, someday — and travel writing is always easier when the traveling is hard.

Filed under: Adventure, Iceland, Travel Philosophy

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3705 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

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  • Dyanne@TravelnLass July 10, 2011, 1:12 pm

    “I divide “travel”and “tourism”up on this fine line: tourism is the pursuit of entertainment and leisure, travel — whose root word is travail — is the pursuit of knowledge and experience first, entertainment and leisure second.”

    Though I don’t embrace the inevitable controversy (usually slathered in a thick layer of disdainful pretension) that follows these two tandem terms, I do believe there IS a distinction between the two styles of “travel”.

    I rather favor your non-judgmental definition, Wade. Indeed, nothing wrong with mixing the two (most of us interchange them all the time) – a bit of entertainment and leisure now and then, can be most welcome in the often more arduous pursuit of knowledge and experience.

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    • Wade Shepard July 10, 2011, 5:41 pm

      Right on. This is just an assessment of a dichotomy of patterns that are easy to observe but somewhat difficult to define. The problem comes with the fact that many people tend to take definition of terms — or, when it comes to people, labels or titles — and they associate status or a lack of status to them. Once this happens it becomes difficult to dig further into defining and explaining what we observe. There is an odd status that people apply to the label “traveler” (for lack of a better term) and a lack of status with the label “tourist,” but, when it comes down to it, they both are acts and the labels can only really be had when the action is occurring — they are both temporary states that almost anyone traveling independently will bounce between.

      A good example of an attempt at definition or explanation being mistakenly interpreted through a lens of status can be found in the comments on the World Travel page. The people who commented automatically attached status to the title “world traveler” rather than just discussing the basic attempt to define the term.

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  • Aliza Aseltine March 31, 2012, 12:36 am

    Fantastic post, I agree wholeheartedly. Thats the reason I travel, have slept outside as a solo 20yr old… ect. SO well said. I think alot of people, esp. coming back home dont understand this concept there like “why? it’s so ____”. Thanks so much for this post, every line hit home.

    love from the US

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    • Wade Shepard April 6, 2012, 6:06 am

      Thanks for all these great comments and for reading!

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  • François August 16, 2012, 6:08 am

    Great article, especially in light of my own trip.

    Sometimes you just wonder why the f**k you do this and it just takes a breather or the end of the trip to realize all that you absorb.

    And you’re right, we forget pain.

    For me, the biggest imprint is of people. Buildings leave me cold.

    First-person is absorbing with your body, the way a forest heals you when you are in its presence.

    I’m still into my five-month trip around Europe so I don’t know yet what the lasting effects will be on me but I wish I could gather all the people I met and bring them with me.

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    • Wade Shepard August 16, 2012, 8:52 am

      Definitely. Travel is sometimes like participating in a strenuous and serious athletic event. In the moment you often can’t say that what you’re experiencing is fun, but in the end all the pain, suffering, and frustration is often worth it. It’s a good thing that travelers stand a much better chance of winning than most athletes 🙂

      Have a good journey through Europe.

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  • Amelia May 7, 2015, 9:52 am

    Just stumbled upon your blog while doing some research of my own on this whole “travel in retrospect” idea. I see that it’s an old post, but I just wanted to say that I loved the message. You’re a beautiful writer, by the way. Happy travels…wherever you might be by now 🙂 Cheers!

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