Don’t forget to be there

There’s a wilderness of land and people out there. More than anyone could know. And then there’s this other wilderness, almost entirely decoupled from the first one, that exists in people’s heads. It’s made of shorthand summaries and untested assumptions about the first wilderness, and it’s cramped and twisted like a funhouse ride and teeming with deranged fictional characters.

People who have done some traveling across the first wilderness – especially if it’s for fun – just love to creep into conversations and point out features of the second wilderness, all the time believing they are saying something meaningful, accurate, and wise about the first. They sorely want it to be true. Sometimes, sounding knowledgeable in the power play of the conversation at hand is what matters. We all love to play the wise mentor role.

This is how you get twenty-something know-it-alls at parties who say stuff like:

  • “Seattle is just a worse version of San Francisco.”
  • “People from Missouri are bigots.”
  • “New York is gross.”
  • “Everyone in Paris is so rude!”
  • “There’s more to do in Los Angeles than anywhere else.”
  • “All these new people moving to Austin are ruining the place.”
  • “People in Italy really know how to live.”
  • “Watsonville is full of Mexican illegals and if you go there you’ll get stabbed.”

(That last example may seem especially upsetting, but unfortunately, the inner wilderness is a place that can foster opinions that are not just pointless, but vicious as well.)

I know about this because I’ve caught myself doing it a few times. It’s very tempting to point out some very personal, very subjective chunk of my own second wilderness and declare that everyone else will see exactly the same thing if they just go where I did. I keep trying to rein myself in, and talk about statistics instead, or give purely logistical advice.

But, paving the world around us with generalities and wishful thinking is a very human behavior. We do it to stave off madness in the face of an ultimately unknowable universe, because we are all far less capable of dealing with uncertainty than we want to admit. And sometimes our confidence needs the boost we can get by talking out loud, and we say something at a party like, “Oh I would never enjoy living in Canada.” … Conveniently forgetting the fact that 37 million people live there, and if they have a pretty good time of it, we probably could too. It would be no less honest – but far less flattering – to rephrase that confident statement as, “I’m mostly ignorant of how to enjoy life in a place like Canada and I want to remain that way, because I need to narrow down my choices for the sake of sanity.” I mean, let’s admit it: Learning is work, and sometimes we have to prioritize.

I have to be okay with this, and so does everyone else, because we’re all only human. I really only bring it up because sometimes it’s very useful to recognize that we’re wandering around in the second wilderness – in the funhouse of our own assumptions – and if we just wake up a little and look around in more detail, we can find really useful connections, and gain new confidence. Every new place I go I’m astonished at how poorly I actually see things, and how much I lean on previous knowledge and trust that things will be predictable. I have to stop and go back, sometimes more than once, and ask “What did I just see? What did I just ignore?” and most important of all, “What’s being hidden from me because I’m a stranger?”

If you’re traveling, take a page of advice from a slow-ass bicycle tourist, and slow way down for a bit. Ask yourself a couple of those questions and give yourself time to seek an answer. Chances are, it will lead you somewhere way more interesting than the next picturesque monument on the madcap package bus tour you were offered by the tourist bureau. It was hard enough getting to that new place — so don’t forget to be there when you get there.