Image courtesy of Linde Waidhofer/Conservacion Patagonica
The other day I read an article about a new pair of high-tech goggles that will allow a user to experience immersive, computerized 3D worlds. The article predicted that the goggles, when connected to the right software, could simulate a range of human activities, such as chatting with a friend. The goggles might also, the article predicted, create a boom in something called “virtual travel,” permitting people to tour the Coliseum without ever leaving their sofas. This was described as an exciting prospect, and I suppose that in certain ways it is, offering a stimulating alternative to watching TV or visiting a website. Still, I had to wonder if “virtual travel” was a term that even made sense. Isn’t travel defined by motion through space?
Journeys are fundamentally the same: they begin in the mind, with the image or the story that inspires them in the first place, and finish in the world. When I was a little boy I had a neighbor who had sailed on a vessel called the Pathfinder, mapping the western coastlines of North America. His name was Rear Admiral Robert W. Knox, and he’d worked for a government department called the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey.
In his home he showed me pictures of his voyages. The one I remember best showed him standing beside a Tlingit totem pole somewhere in southern Alaska. The moment I saw the picture, at five years old, I knew that someday I’d stand where he stood, or somewhere much like it. The trip took 30 years to transpire, concluding near Sitka during salmon fishing season. Yes, there was a totem pole, but there were also eagles, otters, whales, and a host of other wonders that hadn’t appeared in the original picture.
Travel connects our insides with life’s outsides, sometimes in disorienting ways that cause us to lose our balance momentarily. Until a couple of years ago, I’d never visited Big Sur. I wasn’t even quite sure what Big Sur was. A town? A particular set of rocky cliffs? I knew the place mostly from a Jack Kerouac book titled Big Sur that describes a nervous breakdown he suffered while living alone in a cabin in the forest in California. Wind, rain, darkness, and the sounds of surf figure prominently in the story, eventually driving Kerouac to the brink in a manner that I, as a writer, found romantic for some perverse artistic reason.
One weekend I rented a car in San Francisco and headed south along the coast in the hope of tasting Kerouac’s seaside madness.
But where was Big Sur?
I couldn’t find it. The name seemed to denote a stretch of coastline that ran on and on for many miles and was almost wholly fogged in that day, allowing me only glimpses of redwood trunks and occasional craggy precipices. I found it impossible to drive because my headlights didn’t cut the mist, so I checked into a modest motel and campground with an old-fashioned wooden hot tub in which I sat completely encased in whiteness.
Drops of cold water dripped from unseen branches onto my exposed shoulders and my nose. A bearded young man climbed in with me at one point and spoke through the steam about wandering California picking marijuana to support himself and engaging in fleeting, casual love affairs. I never clearly saw this stranger’s face, nor did I ever clearly see Big Sur; when I left in the morning, the fog was thicker than ever. It was better that way, as it turned out. Blindfolded by the vapor in the air, I’d voyaged more deeply into Kerouac’s soul, and into the soul of the place that drove him mad. The truth is I still don’t really know what Big Sur looks like. But I do know, at a primal, animal level, exactly what it feels like.
In the early years of the Internet, Microsoft had an advertising slogan: “Where do you want to go today?” The implied answer was: Anywhere you want. In some ways, that promise has borne fruit as services such as Airbnb have added a new intimacy to travel, allowing us to customize and personalize our voyages of connection and discovery. In other ways, though, the miracle of technology has promoted the illusion that we can be everywhere at once, which is much the same as being nowhere at all.
Unlimited, instant, fingertip access to descriptions, videos, pictures, and—very soon—3D simulations of destinations threatens to create a vast imbalance between what we can see, or think we’re seeing, and what we can genuinely touch.
Imagination is only a first step on the way to contact and experience, but by itself imagination is a form of isolation that can leave us trapped in our own minds. The only way out is real, not virtual, travel: the kind that sends us off into the fog in search of Big Sur so that we can complete the idea formed inside our heads.
Walter Kirn is the author of the novel Up in the Air.