The Reason

Carlsbad State Beach
San Diego, California

I am watching the sunset from a cliff overlooking the ocean, the busy interstate whishing behind me. A group of strangers have suddenly formed nearby. We have all pulled off on the surfside road and gotten out of our cars to watch the event. Up and down the shore, the same thing is happening, as it happens every evening, people pulling off to the roadside curb to watch the glory of the sun sinking into the sea. Pausing for nature's church of the sunset, we smile at one another. Down the way, a park ranger has just pulled up in his jeep to watch the show. Below, on the beach, a pair of funky young lovers are sticking their toes in the surf, arm in arm. And someone, somewhere, is actually playing a bagpipe as the ocean sky is turning deepening shades of pink, blue, orange.

Perfect, I think. The seconds turn into minutes and when I take my eyes off the last seconds of the day's sun, I glance around to find the strangers have vanished, hurrying on their Southern California way. Everyone's gone except the couple down on the beach, the park ranger, and me.

And when I look back toward the horizon, I see a sight I may never see again:

A green flash.

My soul does a backflip. That's the only word that fits. It's the feeling Annie Dillard (1988) in her little non-traveling travel book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek called "less like seeing than knocked breathless by a powerful glance" (p. 33).

The problem, of course, is that a transcendent moment is literally only a moment: 2.3 seconds to be exact, the "psychological present," the length of time that any of us can stay in the moment, however remarkable. It's even a bumper sticker truism: [STAY IN THE MOMENT. DAMN! IT'S GONE.]

And just like that - my 2.3 seconds are up. But as I stare at the last of the rays of light still seeping from a sunny place just over the edge of the horizon, my sublime feeling hangs on. A green flash! I know people who live by the ocean who've never seen one. Most amazing sights in nature are a now-you-see-it, now-you-don't affair. The vast majority we never see and what we do see can vanish so instantly we can't help question whether we saw it at all. And that's exactly what I am now thinking: Did I see it? Or not? I head toward the park ranger, who is crawling back into his jeep.

"Was that what I think it was?" I ask.


"A green flash???"

"Yes, it was." He answers, a tad too Zen for my mood, and then pulls away.

But I'm unfazed. If natural miracles happen on a person's work shift, perhaps they don't seem all that miraculous. Besides, he's a local—he can't see "straight" anymore. The ranger might be awestruck over a cow paddy in my Texas hometown.

But this was no cow paddy. The green flash is the stuff of legends. And seeing it was the kind of moment that keeps me in the traveling mindset that Alain de Botton calls "receptivity" in his book The Art of Travel. Such serendipity connects me to the planet in some indefinable way that daily living does not, making me feel deeply alive: Moments can do that.

So even as my little soul is still soaring, I know it won't last. Anything that takes your breath away, must by definition, give it back, since breathing, however boring, is what keeps you literarily alive.

Knowing this, though, never seems to mute the glow of the sublime. And sublime is exactly the right word. The word "sublime" from the Greek came into modern English language as a way to describe inspiring places to travel. The feeling of this moment almost makes up for all those "other" moments—like the international plane ride sandwiched between the nose-picking kid and the pungent Frenchman, like the Mexican weekend complete with motorcycle wreck, industrial-size cockroaches and kneeling before the porcelain throne. It even makes up for the California freeway traffic dodged to be standing here at all.

Such a moment is sort of like "falling in love," says traveling monologist Spalding Gray. It makes up for a lot. There's no planning it. But most of us are always looking for it.

Why do we travel? Millions of experts are ready with the answers to our usual "where's?" and "how-tos?" But how often do we ask "why?"

The answer must be inside us, built-in, way down deep. How else to explain that a travel brochure, alone, can lift our spirits? "Most people have that fantasy of catching the train that whistles in the night," traveling man Willie Nelson once said. Or as professional traveler William Least Heat Moon put it: "The open road is always beckoning."

Literary giants and legendary songwriters, bards and geniuses throughout the centuries, have tried to capture travel's paradoxes:

Travel can somehow can make you feel mortal (Pascal) at the same time it makes you feel in touch with the immortal. (Grey)

It can make you see again after the drudgery of daily survival slowly blinds us (Proust).

It can be frightening (Adams) but also strangely empowering after the fear is conquered (French), and it can teach the difference between being lonely and being alone (Botton).

It reminds us of the power of curiosity ("Why do people build extravagant buildings to a God who, by definition, is everywhere?") over the tyranny of facts: ("This gothic cathedral was designed by Michelangelo, contains 1083 steps to the spire, took 77 years, and was where King Leon of Latvia sang in the choir. Must see!")

It forces us to ask the important questions, even if the most important one ends up being: "There's no place like home." (Baum) It certainly makes home all the richer with the sweet longing for good mattresses and cushy chairs and homemade tuna sandwiches that signals the end of most wanderings.

It also allows us to stop asking questions and just be. (Eliot)

And even in the face of the earth's obvious supreme indifference to us, it can teach that a sense of the absurd, the ability to laugh, is as essential as a sense of the sublime.

Understanding the deepest reasons for travel doesn't always happen, of course. There are travelers who never understand the "why." Some who have, in the words of Botton, "crossed deserts, floated on ice caps and cut their way through jungles but in whose souls we would search in vain for evidence of what they have witnessed." In fact, some who travel via books may learn the "why" of traveling more than the most intrepid of such explorers (Room Travel). But odds are even these souls will put down their book one day, hazard the gap between anticipation and reality, and finally up and go.

If life is about the pursuit of happiness, whatever definition that might be, then some of the energy flowing through that pursuit's hard-wiring certainly seems to be directed toward the road "away." (Stevenson). But there's an undercurrent flowing through all the reasons to travel. "Aside from love," it is said, "few activities seem to promise us as much happiness as going traveling." True enough. However, Spaulding Gray had it "most" right. Traveling is, in itself, a pursuit of love.

Because, seems to me, at its very bare-bones basic, to travel is to fall in love with your life.

I stare now at the last sunset streaks fading away. It's almost dark and yet I don't go. I never know quite why I linger after a brush with the sublime, but I do. It seems I am waiting for my moment somehow to end.

Travel, with its blips of transcendence, also seems to teach that the transcendent isn't mean to last, that the entirety of eternity is a balancing act, the yin and the yang of it all. So every sublime moment must vanish into the waiting mundane of the next moment, pulling you back down to earth, where no one will believe your serendipitous stories even though you can't help but tell them anyway.

And so I linger.

In the last shadows cast across the water, I see movement on the beach below. One of the lovers, after his girlfriend heads back toward the cliffs, is now unzipping, preparing to take a leak in the big middle of my sublime moment. And back down to earth I go.

"Hey!" I yell.

Ooops, he waves, pops his whole other kind of flash back on the safe side of his zipper, and runs out of view.

Nothing left to do but laugh. Yin/yang. The sublime and the absurd. During the same sunset. And no one will believe it.

Now I can go.