Traveling and Serendipity

Last week Lauren and I vacationed to Northern California. We stayed with her aunt and uncle in Mountain View, and with their house as our home-base, we drove down to Monterrey and Carmel, visited San Jose, and took the train up to San Fransisco. Like anyone would, we really enjoyed our trip.

The benefits of traveling like this are obvious to everyone. No one scoffs at free airplane tickets; no one—all other things equal—would give up the chance to see the world. You don’t have to convince anyone that traveling is a good thing.

One reason for this is because traveling is often linked with vacationing, with taking a break from work and getting to do something relaxing or fun. Each of us needs rest, not only to make the times of work more bearable but for its own sake—to simply be at peace.

at the Montalvo Art Center

Another reason is the cultural awareness that comes with traveling. With the rise of globalization and postmodernity, more people realize the need to experience and understand cultures other than their own. When we travel, nothing is clearer than the fact that other people live differently, they’ve had radically different lives, they perceive the world in a completely different way, and yet they remain—like us—people. Traveling, in this way, is an exercise in empathy.

There’s also beauty. Whenever I go on a trip, the thing I want to do most is see stuff—specifically big stuff. For our trip to San Fransisco, I wanted to see big bridges and big trees (as well as steep streets). The chance to see complexity or vastness in nature and civilization has been one of the main magnets for tourism throughout history. We hear rumors of something beautiful on the other side of the map, and we’re willing to traverse the world to see it.

But I want to posit that the most important virtue of traveling is none of the above. Instead, the number one benefit of travel is the possibility for serendipity. In the photograph above (pay no attention to my inability to smile), Lauren and I are enjoying our own serendipitous event. While driving around south of San Jose, we came upon an art center nested deeply in the woods. We parked on the gravel and hiked up a steep hill, unsure of what lie at the top.

Places Where People Have Sex

Up on the hill, we found a long, green field with a creek marking one boundary, a beautiful white mansion at one end and a garden at the other. Scattered throughout the grounds we found classical statues and abstract monuments. We spent some time walking through the grass and under shade.

Just before the complex was closed to visitors, though, Lauren and I found the center’s ongoing exhibit: James Gouldthorpe’s Particles: A Painting in Ten Chapters. We walked through two rooms and the hallway connecting them. Along the walls were over two thousand individual mixed media paintings, telling the story of life from birth to death with more poetry than most pens.

Though it only took a few minutes to walk through the entire exhibit, the experience felt much longer and much fuller, and I felt fortunate to have been there—to have witnessed Gouldthorpe’s work in those unintended minutes. And just as aimlessly as we had arrived, we left.

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