Travel always comes with moments of leaving. They bookend a trip like sentries, guarding the free spirited-wandering that occupies the space in between. It’s obvious when you think about it. Travelling to a new place inevitably means leaving the one you already in. And yet somehow, the wrench of leaving a place always takes me by surprise, even (and perhaps especially) when the place I’m leaving is home.
In Cumbria, there’s a word for this. Hefted. It’s used to describe sheep which are bred with an affinity to a particular patch of land. This is essential for fell farms, where the sheep are let out to pasture on the unfenced common land of the fellside, and there’s a danger of them simply wandering off. So they are bred to be hefted. If the sheep are ever sold, they must be sold to a farm far enough away that they can’t just walk back to their original home, the home to which they are hefted.
We probably all know people who are hefted, who knot their soul to one precious corner of the world. What might surprise you is that I think I may be one of them.
In my case, my love of home crept up on me. After all, I love to travel. I’m curious. I always want to know what’s over the next horizon, or hidden down that little side street, or what life is really like on that remote tropical island.
So, when it comes to setting off on a trip, there’s a schism inside me, between my love of home and my desire to explore somewhere new. It’s the wrench that comes from the inability to exist in two places at once (which is maybe why I’m so in love with books – after all, isn’t that what fiction does, allow you to travel without ever leaving home?)
And so I’ve developed a fear of leaving.
It manifests itself like this:
When I book a trip, I’m excited. I think this is fairly universal – anticipation is a huge part of the joy of travel. This anticipation continues as I start to plan, checking out guidebooks from my local library, browsing other people’s blogs for recommendations, googling photos of my destinations… There’s usually a little bump when I have to actually pin down logistics, but I soon get over that, and I’m back to excitedly telling all my friends and family where I’m off to next.
Then, a week or two before I leave, the apathy sets in. For a long time I attributed this to always trying to bite off more than I can chew, so a couple of weeks before I go away I’m always trying to do at least a month’s worth of work so that I’m covered for my time away. But now I’m starting to suspect there’s something more to it than that, because the night before I leave (which is usually when I’m packing), I really really don’t want to go. As in, the thought actually runs through my head: what if I just don’t show up at the airport tomorrow? Wouldn’t that be so much easier?
Of course, I never actually do deliberately miss my departure. I’ve travelled enough now to know that as soon as I’m checked in and through security, I’ll be buzzing with excitement for the trip ahead. But it has got me wondering: what is this fear of leaving all about?
Perhaps it’s a fear of the unknown. Perhaps it’s a fear of change. Not just change from one country to another, but a fear that in going away I might miss being part of a change that happens back at home. We’ve all had that experience where we return to somewhere that was once the centre of our world (school, university, a workplace), only to find that the place has moved on without you.
Maybe that’s why I’m one of the few people who actually quite likes spending time in airports. They’re a kind of ‘no-place’.
In his book, The Idle Traveller, Dan Kieran describes airports as a kind of antithesis of ‘real’ travel, as an ‘unnaturally lit waiting room filled with the bars and boutiques of boredom’.
I know what he means. When a friend recently asked me about the experience of changing flights at Chicago O’Hare, I wasted no time branding it as a hell-hole – crammed with fractious and disillusioned travellers desperate to be in the air and away from this echoing holding pen.
And yet… Last time I changed planes at O’Hare, on a flight back from Portland (Oregon), I spent about eight hours in the airport. The time before that, it was a flight home from Tulsa and a five-hour layover. I know, both of these sound exhausting, but I didn’t want to look at this transit time like that.
Instead, I thought of each one as a working day. I bought myself a coffee, cleared a table of its residue of packets and napkins, and took out my notebook.
Airports may be a weird kind of holding cell for the weary traveller, but the flip-side of that is that they exist outside of time. Like a Las Vegas casino, there’s very little to separate night from day. Airports are their own glass-and-steel bubble, set apart from the outside world. There’s nowhere to go, apart from a never-ending string of fast food chains. There’s no laundry or washing up to distract you. In some there isn’t even any wifi unless you’re willing to pay through the nose for it, which I’m not.
There is only the here and now.
Perhaps that’s why that eight-hour layover next to a sandwich shop in Chicago O’Hare was one of the most productive working days of my career so far.
I drafted several scenes of the play I was working on. I edited some poems and worked on drafting a new one. I wrote a bunch of blog posts, ready to upload once I arrived home. I plotted a novel and created character sketches for it. I finished reading one book. I started another.
I sat in the middle of the terminal and I worked. When I was stuck or needed to rest my hand, I couldn’t scroll mind-numbingly through Twitter and Instagram. Instead, I people-watched. I watched the two small children racing their parents between sections of coloured floor tiles. I listened in to the altercation between the man from the sandwich shop and the family at the next table, who had apparently broken some unwritten rule by sitting at the red table instead of one of the grey ones. Sometimes I just observed the crowd, the general ebbing and flowing of people, the sharp-heeled clicks and the whirr of wheely suitcases along the polished floor.
There’s something comforting about the tidal swirls and eddies of humanity. I think that’s why so many writers choose to work in coffee shops. It isn’t just for the free heating and on-tap cappuccinos – it’s the feeling of being both in a crowd and separate from it, of being simultaneously within and apart. It’s being a shell fixed to the sea bed, feeling the waves of people wash over you and move on towards the shore.