The ancient Romans believed in generous vacations: They took sightseeing tours for two to five years at a time. In more recent centuries, Europeans of means and faint constitutions spent multiple months languishing at spas. Even Jesus withdrew for 40 days and 40 nights to find some peace and quiet in the desert.
Yet so many of us today - I'm speaking of those fortunate enough to have the resources and the vacation days - remain slavishly attached to our 24/7 connectivity and take only a week at a time - maybe two! - off work.
But it can be difficult on a weeklong vacation to unwind our anxious psyches. Short trips require quickly shaking off travel fatigue so we can hustle through a sightseeing agenda, trying (and usually failing) to wean ourselves off addictive phone and e-mail checking, maximising every day of good weather, hoping each flight departs on time and that no one gets sick. In all that hurry, there's little unstructured space to wander and investigate. And without time to spare, wrong turns become sources of squabbles and frustration rather than opportunities for the unexpected.
When I have weeks to explore a new place, I love getting lost in other countries. It's an amplified version of what travel already feels like: decentring, humbling, vividly sensitising. On a lengthy trip to Thailand, my partner and I rode motorcycles through the mountains surrounding Chiang Mai. At any sign along the highway that intrigued us, we'd turn off, sometimes onto a dirt road into nothingness.
But other roads led us to soak in sulphurous hot springs, canoe through the frigid dark of caves, sit with monks and share tea. Stumbling upon some full-moon festivities, we met a stranger at a riverbank who gave us orchids and sparklers to decorate a banana leaf. Our glittering leaf sailed away alongside hundreds more, trailing smoke and carrying wishes for the year ahead.
Whether you seek out wild adventure or travel at a more restful pace, spending extended time away from quotidian life allows time for the secret details of the world to reveal themselves.
Another night, using a map scrawled on torn paper, we tried to find a party out in the countryside; unsurprisingly, we got wildly lost, riding past farms under the bright moon, pulling over to show our map to confused passers-by. After an hour zigzagging on back roads, we saw a bonfire in the distance: Was that the party? We'll never know, but it looked like fun. We drove over and joined friendly locals in a temple courtyard, settling in with paper plates of curried noodles, black rice doughnuts and cold Singhas as dancers performed late into the night.
Searching the horizon for fire, deciphering maps without a shared language, choosing to turn into the unknown instead of away from it: This kind of travel requires more time, but the gift is an acute awakening of all the senses. Whether you seek out wild adventure or travel at a more restful pace, spending extended time away from quotidian life allows time for the secret details of the world to reveal themselves.
No matter if it's not far-flung adventure you're seeking, but a restful vacation staying in one place. A related gift is the space to finally be still; more than any exotic destination, stillness appears to be the elusive luxury of our age. On a monthlong sabbatical from my job - a benefit that increasing numbers of US companies have started offering to longtime employees - I stayed close to home, in the woods of the Hudson Valley, trying out a daily yoga and meditation practice with a small group of friends.
Stripped of 3G wireless coverage, freed of workplace urgencies for an entire month, I had the chance to start each day with a quiet walk at dawn and watch the fog lifting off the grass, the tiptoeing deer, the changing green of spring leaves. Among my friends, with all this newfound time together, fresh rituals emerged: silent breakfasts, afternoon walks capped off with chocolate macaroons, sneaking wildflowers into one another's shoelaces while we set up for yoga.
With each passing week, habitual urges and anxieties subsided, the afternoon walks got longer and our conversations meandered and deepened. I felt greater intimacy not only with my friends, but also with myself. Pico Iyer describes this kind of time off "partly as a way to visit remote states of mind: remote parts of myself that I wouldn't ordinarily explore". Given enough time, this remoteness can be explored whether you're with family and friends or alone, whether you travel just a few hours away, or fly to the other side of the world.
My most profound experience with remoteness came quite far from home. Midway into a Himalayan trek with my brother, it dawned on me just how precarious our situation was: well beyond cellphone range, alone with our guide, days of difficult hiking away from help, should something go wrong. This danger had been evident in the abstract when we planned the trip, but along the way I experienced a different form of knowledge - the bodily knowledge of what walking 10 hours a day, day after day, actually feels like, our isolation measured out in steps.
"Do people you take on this trek ever get sick?" I asked our guide, uncertain if I wanted to know the answer. "Oh many sick, many sick," he immediately replied. Our boots beat a nervous rhythm on the trail in the subsequent pause before he added, offhandedly: "Some die."
A week earlier at the trekking agency, my question of whether there would be an opportunity to wash my hair during the trek produced hysterical laughter. My brother and I argued over whether to bring a heavy jar of Nutella so we could have something to slather on the endless meals of chapatis. "Do people die?" was not even remotely on our checklist.
In fact, that trek landed us in real danger, as an unexpected blizzard coincided with a night of altitude sickness. We had to push through hours of heavy snowfall, wearing socks as gloves and heaving for oxygen, to make it over a 17,000 feet (5,180m) pass. I don't recommend wandering into the Himalayas without proper acclimation or gear, as we naively did. (And pro tip: Do bring the Nutella.)
But it was a profound experience to be stripped of all the insulation and clutter of regular life, to be reduced to a pure animal state. I felt terrified, raw and awake to the fragility of life - the farthest I'd ever been from home in both mind and body.
Soon the blizzard became so dense that I could only follow the footprints left by our guide, gasping for air and terrified I would step off a cliff, when abruptly out of the whiteness emerged the enormous head of a gaur, the wild ox of the Himalayas; I couldn't even see the rest of his body. I stopped. That disembodied black head exhaled huge clouds of steam as we gazed at each other, everything else blinding snow.
I had to walk for many days to reach him, but here he was, waiting to show me what true ease looks like. The awe and radical serenity I felt in that moment likely echoed that of the ancient Romans when they first saw the Great Sphinx of Giza, towering over them in the desert sand, or that of vacationers who have shed their familiar, daily routines and taken time to come face-to-face with the unknown. The wondrous details of the world await us all: It just can take a few weeks to reach them.
I calmed down and took my next step.
NEW YORK TIMES
- The writer is the associate publisher of Riverhead Books and author of We Mammals In Hospitable Times, a poetry collection based on her experiences as the Antarctica Writer in Residence.