17 October 2012

Splurge on Socks: A Commencement Speech for Travelers

I was honored to be invited to give the keynote speech for last night's Meet Plan Go event in Minneapolis. Here's what I said: 

When I was asked to deliver a keynote speech here, I panicked. I kept imagining it like a commencement speech. In my mind, it was already snowing here in Minnesota, so you were all wearing stocking caps, and at the end, you tossed them in the air while my final platitudes faded and the opening notes of "Pomp and Circumstance" blared over the PA system.

Finally, I gave in and went with it. So here goes.

Ladies and gentlemen of the Meet, Plan, Go class of 2012 ...

Splurge on socks.

This is the single most important piece of advice you will learn this evening, so remember this and this alone. You must not skimp when it comes to socks. Blisters will Mess. You. Up. Universal truth.

Everything else is negotiable, everything else is subject to disagreement and debate. All of us who have ever set foot outside the house have an opinion, forming a cacophony of voices all too eager to spar about the one proper way to travel, the specific things you must see before you die, the singular manner in which you must behave when you travel.

Most of it, though offered with sincerity and good intentions, can be ignored. All of it is true and all of it is false. The key, of course, is figuring out which is which for you. Know what to dismiss, what advice to stare down with furrowed brow and knowing gaze and say, “Thanks, but no, I’ll do it my way.”

Also: buy bottled water. Always check the seal before you drink.

Squat toilets are tricky. Proceed with caution.

To travel is to ignore some fundamental part of your own instinct, some survival mechanism grafted to your DNA. Someone in your family tree, way back, was eaten by a bear or a tiger. It must have happened.

Stop worrying. It won’t happen to you. Probably. No matter how overwhelmed and scared you feel about the prospect of travel, about going to far-flung places, it’s almost certain that things will be weirder and more wonderful than you expected and will--for real--work out in the end.

And no matter how cocky and adventurous you’re feeling, you’ll still mess something up. You'll have moments of abject terror or paralyzing awkwardness. That I can guarantee.

You’re going to be the stupid tourist. You’re going to get into trouble. That’s okay. That’s the point. It's a necessary stop on all roads worth taking. It’s where the best stories come from.

Maybe you'll blog, maybe you won't. Either one is fine, no matter what your relatives say. 

Send postcards. Send one to me. I’ll write back.

About those socks: Don’t get white, don’t get cotton. I like Smartwool. They didn’t pay me to say that, but if they want to send me a lifetime supply, I won’t turn it down. Comfort is important in socks. If your feet aren’t happy, you’re not moving.

Every day on the road, do something uncomfortable and unfamiliar to rattle yourself.

Every day on the road, do something comfortable and familiar to ground yourself.

Go to an American restaurant in a foreign country just for the utterly perplexing sensation of seeing a familiar template twisted and skewed until you’re not even sure what it means to be American anymore.

Eurail passes are a hell of a deal. Switzerland, in general, is not.

Carry one and only one fortune-cookie platitude in your wallet at all times. Like this: find your own path.

Maybe you’ll single-handedly hack your way through the jungle to a quote-unquote "undiscovered" village in Borneo. Maybe you’ll dance the electric slide with your grandma outside the starboard snack bar on a Walt Disney cruise ship. Maybe you’ll do the R-T-W thing--’round the world, baby!--with your best friend from college. Maybe you’ll just hitchhike down the road a stretch, to that neighborhood where you’ve never been for one reason or another, and walk into the VFW for a pitcher of Miller and a round of darts with a Korean War vet named Tiny.

That’s all good. That all counts, no matter the destination, the budget, the amount of time, the company you keep. Manifest destiny comes in many flavors. Find yours; don’t worry about others. Realize that you can get lost and make new discoveries on the beaten path, just as you can be jaded and all too comfortable in the most exotic places. Whatever you’re doing, wherever you’re going, embrace it. Love it on your own terms. Take the opportunity to look below the surface. Of the sight, of the experience, of yourself.

Buy Tiny his beer. Buy other travelers drinks. Even if you’re not generally social--in fact, especially if you’re not usually social, because, well, carpe diem and all that--talk to the people you meet--the tourists, the locals, everyone. Sit at the bar. Bartenders are better than any guidebook.

Go to Venice once, to bask in the beauty. Only stay one day, though, because beauty is more fleeting than you think.

If you’re ever stranded at the Atlanta airport, your best food bet is the Atlanta Bread Company, by Gate 24.

Never fly through Atlanta.

Keep calm, carry on.

Pack light, carry on. Add your socks last. Stuff them into shoes, shove them into every nook of your packed suitcase. Wool compresses wonderfully.

There is so much information out there, so much scolding, so many proclamations. Seriously, ignore most of it. All that matters is your own inner voice. Learn to sift through the information overload in a way that is meaningful and useful to you.

Anyway. Don’t worry about it. You’re going somewhere. You’re following your dream, your passion, your folly--whatever that may be. You’re becoming a better person.

Be wary of anyone who tries to tell you that something will make you a better person. 

Be wary of anyone who says “I’m a traveler, not a tourist.” Never say that. I will hunt you down.

Get lost at least once each day.

Don’t panic.

And when you’ve figured out where you are, after all that walking, look down at your feet, all cozy and comfortable, and be glad that you splurged on those fancy socks.

And then put one foot in front of the other, propelled by your own curiosity. The world awaits.

NB: For those who were wondering, yes, I was more than a bit inspired by this

1 comment:

  1. In the South, if you die and go to Hell, you still have to change planes in Atlanta.


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