In the past year, I have moved from Charlotte, North Carolina to Wellington, New Zealand, packed west to a Colorado mountain-town, retreated to my hometown of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and now find myself as a professor of English at University of Wisconsin Green Bay. I am transient. I stay moving. In doing so, I find myself alone more often than not. I prefer it this way.
Anyone who knows me well can attest that I tend to keep to myself. I do not label myself an introvert, but I value time separate from others and am at peace with this fact. While I can find joy conversing with locals at a bar, picking a tour guide’s brain, or even chatting a stranger when I get turned around, I’ll almost always opt to isolate myself when in a new place. It’s not that I’m uncomfortable or anti-social, but I prefer using time to discover what drew me to another unfamiliar place.
For me, traveling invites introspection. It’s an opportunity to break from mundane routines, recalibrate my perspective, and reprioritize my values. When I’m challenged to fully immerse my physical and mental states in new environments, I am able to understand myself at depths previously untraversed.
My first trip outside the United States came on the heels of completing my first year in graduate school. I felt stuck. Torn, this realization caused a lot of inner-conflict. I couldn’t understand why I was so anxious to leave a place I happily made my home for four years. Unable to decipher why I was at the end of my rope with friends I still deeply cared for. I knew the answer wasn’t in the familiar bars and alleys of my college days, so I left.
I arrived in Europe with a plan to hit 10 cities in just over a month with three dear friends—Lou, Grant, and Craig. I mostly kept quiet on train rides, contemplating each rolling hillside and quaint domicile. A handful of nights a week, I would stay in to write while they were at the bar. I kept my pace a half a block behind my companions when wandering around cities. I wasn’t caught up in what others were seeing, but rather what stuck out to me. What I retained and why.
I ruminated over these questions. What did I notice? Which of my senses were evoked? Did I notice the smell of the streetcar, or the buzzing of a scooter first? Did I react with a smile when bumped into, or did I shrink with anxiety? Asking myself these questions, these overlooked trivialities, helped me learn more about myself in that month scraping by than I had living comfortably in the city.
When away, I can detach from my daily struggles and dive into my circuitry. I can take a step back, think about how and why I’ve been functioning in certain capacities, then evaluate if these behaviors are beneficial or not.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, my most pivotal travel experiences consistently come at extremely difficult intersections of my life. Where I have to choose whether to stay on a comfortable path I resent, or trek back into the unknown. In my eyes, when you face a crossroads there are two routes to take: ignore it and continue to distract yourself, or plunge into the core of what is bothering or motivating you.
My recent jobs have taken me all over the world. I worked as an editing intern for a publishing house in Wellington, New Zealand. Then, as an outdoor educator in the mountains of Colorado. And now, an English Composition professor in Green Bay, Wisconsin. In each place, I’ve found serenity. Whether it comes from a rancid hostel room, a homey log cabin, or a quiet studio neighboring an industrial plant, I need isolation. Time to remember which events have led me here—to this exact moment, this exact place in time—is paramount to my growth and development.
Sometimes, getting into your own mind can be a scary endeavor. Isolation and introspection are by no means the easiest route. It’s not uncommon for me to be burdened with my own thoughts. My doubts, fears, insecurities, inadequacies. I understand how deranged and mental one can become constantly searching for greater truths, why some would prefer the comforts of stasis. I have seen some of the greatest minds I’ve ever known plagued by the search for self-discovery. Sometimes, what you see when you look at yourself just isn’t pretty, or who you want to be.
But that’s exactly why taking time to reflect is so important. Difficult and scary as it may be, it’s this time, this process, that makes travelling necessary to my being. Traveling juxtaposes my quotidian sense of self against unfamiliar soil, opening a space where I wrestle with who I am. Who I want to be. Finding this in one place, losing it another, I continue on the never-yielding search of introspection.
Concluding lines of Walt Witman’s Song of Myself:
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.
Peter has made a reputation for not staying in one place too long as of late. Traveling both across the United States and internationally, he fancies himself as a well-rounded vagabond. One that has his career, passions, and interests figured out, but allows them to drive his next destination.