REGARDLESS OF WHAT our social media bios would have us believe, you can’t sum up your life and life philosophy by cobbling together a mishmash of vaguely meaningful quotes purportedly originated by famous people. And as much as I hate to say it, travelers are among the worst offenders.
Here are 9 quotes you’ve likely ‘liked’ at some point during the age of Facebook, and why, if you really think about it, they’re kinda full of shit.
1. “Every few hundred feet the world changes.”-Roberto Bolaño
…said the man who had never driven through Nebraska.
2. “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”-Mark Twain
This is a popular one, and overall, I agree with the sentiment. Travel can make you a better person, and more people should be traveling. The problem lies in the second word: “is” should be “can be.” Because if you’ve traveled long enough, you’ve met people who use their travel experiences as a confirmation of the worst in people. One French guy sneered at me, so all of France is snotty and uptight. I got robbed in Brazil, so all Brazilians are thieves.
A much better quote is this one, by Thomas Fuller: “Travel makes a wise man better, and a fool worse.” Or hey, it’s the internet, you can just give the Twain quote my tweak and no one will ever notice.
3. “Not all who wander are lost.”-J.R.R. Tolkein
While this is undoubtedly a true statement, the people who tend to quote it are generally obliviously, irretrievably lost. Because it’s usually quoted by college students abroad, or travelers in their early 20s who would see no irony in both using this quote and, in the same breath, telling people they are “finding themselves.” It’s okay to be lost. It’s good for you every now and again. Just be willing to admit it.
To use a better quote from Henry David Thoreau, “Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves.”
4. “The world is a book, and those who do not travel only read one page.”-St. Augustine
The world is not a book. And you can learn a lot more than a page’s worth by staying in one place.
5. “Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.”-Gustave Flaubert
To be fair, college students just returned from studying abroad weren’t a thing in Flaubert’s time. But a lot of people — including myself, at my worst — have used the places they’ve traveled to more as items on a resume than as places they’ve lived and learned from.
6. “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”-Henry Miller
He meant to add, “unless your destination is the grocery store,” right?
7. “I think that travel comes from some deep urge to see the world, like the urge that brings up a worm in an Irish bog to see the moon when it is full.”-Lord Dunsany
I…I just feel there’s a better simile out there. I’ve never seen any worms in Irish bogs during full moons. Maybe, “like the urge that drives salmon upstream,” or “like the urge that makes teenagers wanna bang” would be more universally understandable.
8. “Tourists don’t know where they’ve been, travelers don’t know where they’re going.”-Paul Theroux
While I think the tourist / traveler distinction initially came from a place that was trying to make people better travelers, it has turned from that and has become an elitism and a snobbery on the part of self-proclaimed “travelers.” It’s a distinction that needs to die, and it needs to die fast.
For one thing, you can never truly, fully experience a place without living there for a very long time — so to some extent, all travelers are tourists. And for another, you can never go someplace and not be touched, in some way, by something authentic — so to some extent, all tourists are travelers.
Anyway, as much as I admire Theroux, and as much as I don’t want to take this quote too literally, I know plenty of travelers with itineraries, and plenty of tourists with old travel journals.
9. “Travel far enough, you meet yourself.”-David Mitchell
There are way too many quotes about travel and self-discovery. Danny Kaye once said, “To travel is to take a journey into yourself.” Marcel Proust said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” And there are a million others along those lines, including the Henry Miller one that’s already on this list. So my opposition to this quote is on the grounds of cliche.
I also think there’s a tendency in these quotes to make travel a magic prescription for becoming a better person. Maybe there are elements of travel that force you out of your comfort zone. Maybe that forces you to confront yourself in different ways. But all new experiences do that in some way, including awful ones like the death of a loved one, or getting diagnosed with cancer. Travel is wonderful — but the change is your own, it’s not a result of the change of your position on the planet.