The grouch in me wants to start this post with the standby gothic horror story introduction, “It was a dark and stormy night.” But that wouldn’t be entirely truthful. It is a dark, mid-November night, but a surprisingly mild one, and the only storm raging around here is the one wrecking havoc on my sinuses.
So let me be more accurate: it is a dark mid-November night. I’m tired and sick. Everyone I work with is tired and sick. Most of last week it was raining and cold. The sun sets early. My nose is dripping, my throat is sore, and my head feels like a stuffy, shut-up building, snot-filled and dying for a breeze. And this cold isn’t even that bad…it’s just a precursor, a pre-winter, pre-flu kind of cold.
I think I need a vacation. I definitely need a vacation. But since I’m saving my vacation days for the post-Christmas doldrums, I’ve got to resort to the next best thing: daydreaming about a vacation.
The legwork for a good fantasy vacation isn’t so different from the lead-up to a real getaway. You can pull foreign guidebooks from the library, visit the travel section of your local bookstore, search lonelyplanet.com or cruise travel blogs and cheap ticket websites. You can picture the beach, the city, the fjord you want to visit, price hostels or guesthouses nearby, and research the specialties of the local cuisine.
And unlike real plans—where you’ve already purchased airline tickets and your departure and return dates are set in stone—when you’re planning a fantasy, you can dawdle. You can change your mind without incurring extra fees, and you can pack everything you could possibly need or want without worrying about plastic-bagging your liquids and gels or fitting everything into a backpack the size of a chunky toddler.
In your daydream vacation, you can manage the unfeasible. You can take a three-day detour into rural Italy to try the olive oil from that one farm so good your grandfather told stories about it. You can ignore the hassle of rental cars and country bus schedules. You can visit Hay-on-Wye, the Welsh town with a hundred bookshops, and you can buy every novel of Dickens, Thackeray, and Eliot without a thought for the added weight to your luggage or enormity of international shipping charges. You can spontaneously switch hemispheres, detour from Bangkok to Santiago, laze about on a beach in the Turks and Caicos, or climb Mt. Katahdin even though it’s likely to be freaking freezing and snowy at five thousand feet in Maine in November (not to mention that you abandoned your exercise plan back in August when you got a really bad blister on your left big toe).
The possibilities are endless, and the price of such infinite freedom is only this: none of it is, in any immediately concrete way, real. Now depending on your perspective, reality could be nothing, or everything. As usual, I struggle to see things as so black and white; I prefer to waffle about in the gray, searching for truth somewhere in the middle. And I think there’s a definite element of fantasy to traveling—real traveling—just as I think that most good fantasies (though not all of them) have some connection to reality, even if only to the reality of your desires.
This fall, one of the bestselling books in the store where I work is called Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot on and Never Will. It’s a beautiful book, with drawings of islands so alone that the single page of ocean surrounding them doesn’t begin to tell the story of their isolation from the greater land masses we call continents and and the little heaps of civilization we’ve piled upon them. The author’s descriptions of these oceanic oases (though “oasis” is only metaphorically an appropriate term) are composed partly of straight-forward, geographic figures and details, and partly of mytho-fantastical evocations of something our world hardly has any of anymore: places where we most likely could never see, places where we could actually be totally alone.
I find it fascinating that while so many of us choose to live in cities, our lives quite literally happening one on top of another, and while we choose to be connected to one another (and to connected-ness, itself) in the seemingly ceaseless way in which technology joins us all today, the beguiling escapism of a book like the Atlas of Remote Islands is so quickly recognized and seized upon. It’s clearly picking up on something, some need, gap or potent desire. Such fantasies of remoteness and isolation are seductive, and they highlight something subtle but important: we humans are really a study in opposites, embodied tangles of contradiction. And our realities and fantasies are tangled together too, and fantasies—like the ones promulgated by the Atlas of Remote Islands–are seductive in part because they are real.
These islands may be virtually inaccessible, but they exist, even if we only really visit them in our minds. And my travel fantasies…my daydreamed two-week, jetlag-free adventure to Japan, South America, Norway, and Montana, it’s real too, in its own way. Granted, a lot of it will have to be discarded when it comes time to plan my next “real” adventure. But not all of it.
And I think it’s also important to remember the element of the fantastical that exists in all the traveling we actually do. If you want proof of the entangled nature of travel and fantasy, look no further than all the claims of “authenticity” spouted by vendors of all types of tourist experiences, hotels, and restaurants, or proclaimed on the back covers of travel memoirs. We want so much for our travels to be “real,” to see how things “really” are (or at least, some of us do), because we’re aware, however subconsciously, of the unreality of travel, of the ways in which being a traveler isolates you from the daily realities of the world you’re visiting.
I’m not sure about this yet, but I want to believe there’s a lot of good that can come from daydreaming. I think fantasy is important to reality, and vice versa, perhaps especially for travelers. To recognize that there’s a little bit of dreaminess to being a traveler might make one’s observations about other realities, other worlds within our own larger world, more keen and more useful. I know that the trip in my mind right now won’t be actualized exactly as I imagine it…but if I work for it, if I mine my fantasies–not necessarily for what in them is closest, already, to being real, or for what could most easily be realized, but for what I most want to see, for the best they have to offer–perhaps I can make the world (the real world) a better place for all of us traveling through it.