by James O’Reilly
I read Steinbeck’s East of Eden recently, a marvelous book with more well-wrought themes and characters than a dozen Oscar winners, and it got me to thinking, naturally, of Paradise. It’s what we’re all after, one way or the other, under many a flag—salvation, enlightenment, self-realization (“Be All You Can Be,” as the U.S. Army correctly exhorted), fulfillment, nirvana, heaven. From saint-in-training to suicide bomber, it’s what we do as humans, looking, looking. Some of us search in church and temple, some in the affections of others, possessions, power, drugs, asceticism, duty, service. Then there are those who seek paradise in travel, as do the writers in this book. From Joel Carillet’s opening story, “Red Lights and a Rose,” which takes place in Bangkok, the stories roll around the world until Rolf Potts brings it back to Thailand in the closing piece, “Death of an Adventure Traveler.” Of course all these stories reveal the essence of place, but equally they reveal the essence of the traveler and the heart of the stranger.

Travel is surely one of the best ways to explore the territory of the spirit. While I think we can all agree with sages through the ages that our spiritual home lies within, that realm is nonetheless fog-shrouded by the routines of daily life, which slowly numb us to the miracle of being. As Steinbeck writes early in his book, “And it never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way.”

We get stale if we stay home too long: travel creates motion, a fine breeze that reveals the contours of our insides, our errors of judgment and wishful thinking, and the possible path of our future selves. Even a stroll around the block can do the trick, for a while anyway.

Listen to Mary Patrice Erdmans walking the Way of St. James in “Gods Who Smell Like Goats” (the same passage rang the chimes of Sara Wheeler, as you’ll see in her Introduction):

I went to walk and to clear my head. I went because of the wretched monkey of yearning that never lets me know what exactly it is I am yearning for. Along the way, the innocent faith of an eight-year-old came back to me as I walked without a map or knowledge of the language across the foggy mountains, blue asparagus fields, and enigmatic silent villages of Spain.

Thus is she refreshed, reminded of who she is, living in the present like a child. Travel releases us to rediscover this in the very motion of the voyage, in the mirror of other cultures. The outward journey always turns us inward. Then we get home, we rejoice for a while, the fog rolls back in, and we forget the beauty of home, we forget the beauty of friends and families, and we need to be reminded by the face of a stranger.

While paradise is within, it is our nature to roam. We are born to look for paradise outside until we remember that it was inside all along: here, there, everywhere, as above so below.

The frontis poem by Moro Buddy Bohn is from Kin to the Wind, his unpublished tale of wandering the world without money as a young troubadour. The discoveries he made about life, the friendships he formed, the adventures he had, are pure testament to the message of his poem and to the power of travel—not only are we kin to the wind, we are kin. In each other’s faces are ourselves, and our salvation.