02/18/2015 03:53 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Why We Travel

My wanderlust is stirring. I can tell because my wife and I have begun talking about a trip to exotic places we have read about but never visited⎯North Africa, Sicily, and Calabria, the toe of Italy. The very names conjure images of Hannibal, Roman legions, Greek ruins, and Phoenician sailors, not to mention battlefields from World War II. And it's only been three months since our last trip, an easy jaunt from LA to LA⎯that's Los Angeles to Louisiana⎯via Amtrak to New Orleans, and by rented automobile through the southern parishes. Three months before that we had traveled into the Sierras of Central California for a brush against the wild. Now we've got the itch again.

Why do we travel? Well, we are all travelers, all the time, traveling the journey of our lives while our planet spins on its orbit. Our trips, whether we call them vacations, or getaways, or adventures, or explorations, are all mini-versions of our big journey, through which we hope to find something, the meaning of our existence, perhaps. Each trip we take, each adventure we embrace, each challenge we set ourselves, is a minor variation on this major theme. Our travel experiences give us a compressed life story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and hopefully an insight or discovery about the world and our place in it.

Of course, there are many kinds of travelers and many kinds of trips. Luxury travelers go on African safaris like Bedouin chieftains housed in furnished tents attended scrupulously by doting servants. At the other extreme are the backpackers who walk for days in wilderness carrying their shelter, their food, their wardrobe, like the nomads of old. Beyond them are the adventure travelers whose thirst for the springs of human life pushes them beyond the boundaries of civilization into timeless and often dangerous regions. In between these extremes are the majority of travelers, tourists really, like the characters in Mr. Hulot's Holiday, limited by time and budget, seeking relief and renewal in departure from their everyday routine, if only for two weeks every year in the Catskills.

But all are pursuing the same holy grail of travel: to recreate ourselves by breaking out of habits and patterns that deaden, that become mindless and automatic, that steadily, imperceptibly, dull our senses and through them our souls. Travel renews us, allows us to reinvent ourselves, to play a part in a new play (the less scripted the better), with new locations and new characters, all unknown and mysterious. No wonder our hearts quicken as our travel plans finalize, as tickets and reservations are confirmed, as we begin to pack and make the arrangements to keep our permanent home safe in our absence. We will leave home in a kind of death, and return, reborn, to resume our everyday lives. We will have completed the cycle described by T.S. Eliot: "We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know it for the first time." And when we return, people will ask, "Where are you going on your next trip?"