Why Do We Travel? Michael Bennett of Explorer X Tackles a Fundamental Human Question

"How do you get out of your normal headspace and into a space or a place that will actually help you take stock, reprioritize, find your values, find what’s important?"
  • Michael Bennett stands before rock formations at Smith Rock State Park
Michael Bennett at Smith Rock State Park in Terrebonne, Oregon

This article appears in print in the May 2020 issue, as part of our Getaways GuideClick here to subscribe. 

Michael Bennett wrote his doctoral dissertation on the educational power of adventure travel nearly a decade ago. He went on to cofound Explorer X, a Seattle-based outbound travel company launched in 2017 and shaped by the belief that travel has the power to not just teach us, but to transform us. As the global landscape shifts, so too will the forces that drive our decisions as adventurers, tourists and wanderers alike. Here, Bennett guides us on a sojourn in search of answers to a fundamental human question: Why do we travel?

I don’t think the travel bug is so much an addiction to traveling as it is an addiction to change and growth and learning. I feel that in today’s world, we are hyperconnected at a very meaningless level and underconnected at a very meaningful level, and I think travel allows us to disconnect from work and stresses, relationships and technology. It helps us to connect with new people, places, ideas and perspectives, and all of that leads us to reconnect with ourselves.

So many of us get put on, or put ourselves on, these different tracks, society or family expectations. Or you go to college, you get this degree, you get this job, and then you get a master’s degree, and then you get married, and then you have these kids and buy the house. There’s the quarter-life crisis, the midlife crisis, all of these things that pop up. All of this is to say I feel like we’re experiencing a large amount of general discontent—unhappiness, depression, etc. Look at things like the rise of self-help, people looking for answers, people looking to find meaning in life again, all that. How do you find yourself? How do you reconnect with who you are? How do you get out of your normal headspace and into a space or a place that will actually help you take stock, reprioritize, find your values, find what’s important?

If I’m in my office, or if I’m in the coffee shop down the street, and you ask me or I ask myself, “If I had all the time and money in the world, what would I do with my life?” I’m probably going to give a very logical response, like “I’d love to be a marketing account executive. I want to get out of this assistant role.” But then you go to Patagonia and you take two weeks to tool around and explore and disconnect from technology. You’re not on Wi-Fi, you’re not on cell signal, you’re out there in nature. You’re climbing, you’re hiking, you’re seeing all the beauty of the landscape there, and you’re asked that same question. Research suggests that when you travel, the parts of your brain more closely associated with imagination, creativity and those types of things are fired up. And so, in that space, when you ask that question, you’re more likely to get a response that is much more closely aligned with what you actually want.

Even if it’s seemingly a narcissistic experience, if you use travel the right way, not just about Instagram, but actually learning from it and changing behaviors, doing something about it when you get home, whatever that might look like—big “T,” big-scale transformation or change, or little “t,” small things about how I relate to my family—that’s important, and that makes an impact for sure. I think a lot of people come in expecting big “T.” Like, I’m a lawyer and I’m going to come home and then move to Nepal and shave my head and become a monk. Not very often does this happen. More often than not, you go, you’ll see what it’s like to be in Japan, you’ll see the reverence that they have for their elders, and maybe that inspires you to reconnect with your parents or start a conversation with them that you’ve never had. It’s a little “t” thing that can have a powerful long-term impact.

Whether you’re doing it to change your life or to become a better person, a better human being, to learn more, to spread the wealth and help other people, there are a lot of meaningful reasons that people are traveling right now. And it’s not all self-serving and narcissistic; it can very much be about connection and sharing and learning and growth globally. Travel is this amazing opportunity to explore and discover and connect and become a better person, a better global citizen, and that’s not going to change because of coronavirus.

In fact, I think now more than ever, perhaps because of COVID-19, people are realizing the interconnectedness that we all have, the interdependencies that we all share. I mean, look at the current situation with coronavirus: This outbreak happens in a province in the middle of China and all of a sudden, the entire country of Italy is closing its borders a month and a half later. It suggests that the small changes we make in our lives as a result of our travel experiences can have a dramatic impact on the lives of others not only in our own communities but around the world. It’s a “butterfly flaps its wings” scenario: The ripple effect of one positive change or action can be immense. And more often than not, travel inspires us to make those changes

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