An Ache for the Distance

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I've been trying to figure out whether or not to take a trip to Australia next Spring. There are a million reasons not to: money, the time it'll take away from things that needed to be tended to at home, etc. There's only one thing written in the imaginary "pros" column of this internal debate: that it's somehow important to go, to see the world whenever and however I can. A condition that is generally referred to as "wanderlust," I suppose, which would explain why I can spend hours Google-Earthing my way 'round the globe and have built an impressive collection of Lonely Planet travel guides for places I've never been.

Merriam-Webster isn't very helpful: wanderlust is a "strong longing for or impulse toward wandering," it reports. (Right.) Slightly more interesting, the dictionary claims it's a word borrowed from German around the turn of the last century -- wandern literally means "to hike" -- though wanderlust has become obsolete in its native tongue and a more contemporary term is Fernweh, which translates loosely to "an ache for the distance."

Etymology is one thing, but where does the impulse actually come from? In Bruce Chatwin's book Anatomy of Restlessness, he writes "that human beings possess a migratory instinct that drives them 'to walk long distances through the seasons.'" I can buy that; it partially explains why humans had spread themselves across nearly every corner of the globe save New Zealand by around 2,000 years ago. (Chatwin goes on to argue that wanderlust is "an instinct inherited from [our] herdsmen ancestors that ''when warped in conditions of settlement'' found ''outlets in violence, greed, status-seeking or a mania for the new" -- which I'm not so sure about.)

What's certain is that wanderlust inspires people to do strange things. A New York Times headline from 1910 blares "Girl Blames Wanderlust: Young Woman Found in Boy's Clothes," and tells the strange tale of a girl afflicted by wanderlust who dons male clothing to make unfettered travel possible: "Miss Tillson has wandered around in boy's clothing before. Every now and then she gets what her friends describe as "wanderlust," and leaves home for a while. Once before, while under the influence of the "wanderlust," she stayed away from home two months, and, posing as a boy, worked on a farm near Chester, NY. On another trip she worked as a waitress in New York. Still another time she was picked up by the police at Nyack ... also dressed as a boy." As difficult as turn-of-the-century travel must've been, it had to be ten times harder for women; I can sympathize with her urge to escape not just the bonds of place, but of sex as well.

2451849839_37c4fdf424.jpgAnother old Times article -- this one from 1912 -- resonates with me as well: "Adopted Son Gets Wanderlust After Gift of Eyeglasses." How poetic is that? The article quotes the eight-year-old's adopted father, who reports that the glasses he bought for the boy some weeks prior "have aroused a sort of wanderlust in the youngster's brain, because the boy has left home four times since the glasses were got for him ... he had been [found] sleeping in an abandoned doghouse" in Yonkers. Maybe that's really what's at the root of all wanderlust: really seeing the world. (Not to get overly profound or anything.) There's something about the workaday routine that dulls one's sight; when you're burned out you never feel really inclined to travel, because you're so concentrated on whatever little tasks are at hand that you're not fully conscious of the larger world -- and if you don't see it, how can you want to go there?

Where do you want to wander?

December 12, 2008 - 6:53am
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