I grew up in the leafy Toronto suburbs during the eighties, an era of feathered hair, tight jeans and Tears for Fears. Back then, the world seemed an impossibly large and mysterious place. Just catching the subway to Yonge and Bloor felt like a serious expedition, requiring an Adidas bag, lumberjack jacket and Kodiaks.
On summer holidays, when my father lashed canoes to the roof of our family station wagon and we set off northward to the lapping lakes and windblown pines of Algonquin, we might as well have been departing for another continent – this was the stuff of great explorers; the stuff of dreams.
During those formative years, my most important lesson came from an impromptu sermon delivered by my lanky, pocket-protector-wearing physics teacher. Our class had been tossing weights into the air, using ticker tape to measure acceleration due to gravity, when Mr. K. overheard someone grumble that they couldn’t attend the upcoming school gala – a sweaty dance party to be held in the school cafeteria – because they had too much homework.
“Too much homework?” Mr K. bellowed, his face turning red. Our classroom fell silent as he launched into a diatribe. “You should avoid the habit of putting off fun, or anything else important for that matter, in the belief you can save it up for later. Life doesn’t work that way.
“Right now, you probably think you only have to study hard for a few years, get into a good university, and then you can start having fun. But once you arrive at university, you’ll decide to put off fun a little longer, so you can graduate top of class and get a good job.
“Then you’ll put it off again, until you get a promotion. Then until after kids. Then until you retire. And one day you’ll turn 65 and think: At last, it’s time for me to have fun. Then you’ll die.”
With that, Mr. K. collapsed in his chair.
In the silence that followed, our class awkwardly resumed our experiment. But his words stuck with me – and changed the course of my life.
In the decades that followed, I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to criss-cross the globe as a writer, photographer and adventurer on journeys that have taken me from Mount Everest to Arabia, from Africa to the high Arctic. I’ve traversed Iceland by foot, Mongolia by horse, and paddled Greenland’s coast in a sea kayak. Recently, I took my young family on an overland journey from our home in British Columbia to a Himalayan monastery, where we spent three months living with Buddhist lamas.
I’m often asked for “top travel tips,” and while a multitude of ideas spring to mind – think big, go longer, take less, seek locals, be careful (but not paranoid), plan less (leaving space for serendipity), don’t be afraid to try a new location – the most fundamental piece of travel advice I can share comes from Mr. K.:
Never put off until tomorrow the trip you can launch today.
This is not easy advice to follow, for as life grows busier and time becomes scarcer, travel dreams too often fall prey to the “as-soon-as” syndrome: As soon as I pay off the mortgage, top up my RRSP, re-roof the house, or do whatever. Each and every year in Canada, millions upon millions of vacation days go unclaimed. I would encourage you to avoid such delays and hit the road at any and every opportunity.
I trust in travel as an elemental force for good; a boundless source of hope and possibility. Whether wandering through rainforests, up crystalline peaks, or into unfamiliar nooks in our own backyard, travel reminds us of the vast, complex and richly diverse nature of our small planet. Along the way, we cultivate friendships and understanding for strangers with backgrounds, histories and beliefs different than our own – reaffirming humanity’s essential sameness.
Of course, life on the road is not always easy. With its randomness and unpredictability, travel demands a grit too often missing in our modern lives. But this is a good thing, and as our possessions are pared to the essentials, we live more simply and, in the eternal words of Proust, come to see the world with new eyes.
As Pico Iyer eloquently writes, “We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate… And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again – to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.”
In this way, the whole magical process brings us back to Mr. K. and his simple maxim: No matter what travel you dream of – an African safari, climbing Kilimanjaro or trekking to Everest Base Camp – don’t wait until it’s too late. Rather, start planning today. Put pennies aside. Book tickets. Mark the calendar. There are only so many tomorrows. Go now.