As soon as it looked as if the coronavirus had started to loosen its grip on the nation, a lot of people began to think travel—going places, shedding the isolation. Three months into 2021, the Wall Street Journal asked, “Is Travel Coming Back?” The evidence pointed toward an answer in the affirmative. Among other favorable signs, Delta saw bookings begin to pick up in late February, and airline executives “are optimistic that demand will rebound.”
By land, air, or sea, travel is a desirable activity for millions, providing life-changing experiences. People are able to step out of their cveryday lives and see the world from a new perspective, explore a different culture, and meet new people. All of this has a salutary effect on the traveler. The 2021 devotional I’m using is a collection of short articles by women for women. One of the things I like to do after reading each item is to read the writer’s bio, and oftentimes, “a love of travel” is listed among their hobbies. Perhaps you, too, find traveling a pleasure.
Some of us confine our travel to books, which, as Emily Dickinson said, “can take us lands away,” and in literary works, we encounter travel that cannot be done in any other way. Geoffrey Chaucer’s delightful The Canterbury Tales can take us on a trip we couldn’t actually experience today. Perhaps from your college English Lit class you remember the eclectic band of pilgrims who set out from South London to Canterbury, about 70 miles away, going on foot to see the cathedral where Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, was martyred in A.D. 1170. Along the way, the collection of colorful pilgrims regale one another with memorable tales, and we get to listen in and enjoy them. Some of their stories give Chaucer a chance to criticize the church’s hypocrisy, using such characters as the Monk, the Priest, and the Pardoner. The Scholar gets good marks, however, because he spends his money on books, and “gladly would he learn and gladly teach.” The book is an engaging and enduring piece of travel literature.
Today, travel is easy and convenient, but before the Wright Brothers gave us wings or Henry Ford put the nation on wheels, travel was often a hazardous undertaking. Caroline Fraser’s Prairie Fires is the biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the Little House on the Prairie books on which the popular TV series was based. The Ingalls family, like thousands of people in the 1800s heeded the call to “go West” where they would find “free land” to settle and build a life for their families. The trip out West by wagon was arduous. The travelers crossed rivers, endured punishing cold weather, sickness, disease, and hunger, and large numbers died before they reached their destination. Fraser gives us a memorable detail in the book where the Ingalls children riding in the wagon counted the grave markers—the crosses—along the way as they traveled, but they finally gave up counting because there were so many crosses it was disheartening.
The rugged kind of travel the pioneers experienced on their way to settle in places like Kansas, Nebraska, and Wisconsin has an echo in today’s daring , perilous journey undertaken by immigrant children from Central America trying to get to the United States. Unaccompanied youngsters, some under twelve years old, trek across inhospitable terrain, hoping to find a home in this country. They travel without parents or other relatives or visas. Just like Huck Finn, they “light out for the territory,” hoping to find a welcoming place. It is painful to contemplate youngsters today having to take their destiny into their own hands like the pioneers, and travel to an uncertain future.
Those of us in the faith community have the travel itch also; we have our sights set on a desirable destination. You may remember reading John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, loved by generations of readers, and at one time was second only to the Bible in popularity both in America and England. It is an allegory applicable to those who see life here on earth as a journey toward a better country. The Pilgrim’s Progress is a simple travel story with a profound meaning played out in the characters, their experiences, and the travel destination. Beginning with Christian, every name is significant. Christian shakes off his cumbersome load after meeting Evangelist and sets out for the Celestial City; he leaves everything behind, and begins his long journey on foot, encountering a host of individuals and experiencing tremendous hardships along the way. He is bogged down at the Slough of Despond; he meets the Giant Despair at Doubting Castle; he overcomes the attractions of Vanity Fair. Finally, he is able to cross the Dark River with the aid of Hopeful and stand victoriously on a mighty hill “higher than the clouds.” When he shows his “ticket” at the Gate, he is ushered into the Celestial City of incomparable beauty where he meets the King.
This journey that Christian takes is open to everyone. The Celestial City is real and waits up ahead. What happens to us along the way changes us and strengthens us to reach our destination triumphantly. The Pilgrim’s Progress is not merely a fictionalized version of the Christian’s journey through this life. John Bunyan was serious about real travel to his destination. I trust that we are, too.
“Life is a journey that must be traveled no matter how bad the roads and accommodations.”