One day back in January, I was wandering the aisles of Barnes and Noble searching for a book for Dax, when I spotted something that grabbed my attention and wouldn’t let go: a cover of sky blue, let’s call it Indonesian blue as opposed to Tibetan blue (much lighter) or Californian blue (much brighter), broken by a dotted line charting the path of a paper airplane crafted from a world map. Without even deciphering the title from afar, I realized the book obviously had something to do with travel or at least geography, so I moved in for a closer look. When I reached the table, my heart skipped a beat: The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World. This was right up my alley. I’m fond of geography, love roaming the world, and have been known on many occasions to be a grump. The resonance didn’t end there though. I’m no slouch when it comes to happiness, having ghostwritten a few books on the subject. This was a book I had to read.
I’ve always had my own theories about places, their unique personalities, and their power to resonate with us as individuals. For many people, the places that speak to them, that they crave when they are away and can’t picture themselves ever leaving are the places they are born. Tom entered the mortal sphere in the shadow of the towering Rocky Mountains, and though he loves the ocean, he only feels truly at peace when surrounded by craggy peaks. I know easterners who can’t abide the southwest with its parched expanses and distinct lack of greenery. They find comfort in foliage, the same foliage that makes my desert dwelling friends claustrophobic. I believe many never realize this connection until they leave their homes and experience a feeling of dislocation, a spiritual separation from the landscape that gave them life.
Born in the Midwest, raised along the far reaches of the eastern seaboard–Annapolis, New Orleans, Schenectady–and educated in Durham and New Haven, I never bonded with my everchanging hometowns. It wasn’t until I made my way west of the Mississippi that my geographic sixth sense sat up and took notice. Utah was beautiful, with its endless open skies, commanding alpine peaks, and hypnotic redrock, but still had one major flaw as I saw it: the cold. I found the remedy in Los Angeles with the added soul-soothing feature that now defines me: water. My peace is in the sun-drenched, temperate shoreline. Does this spiritual connection to Southern Californian climate and terrain make me geographically shallow? After all, who doesn’t like sun and ocean? If I’m guilty of loving the easy or the obvious, condemn me, but after five years away from here, during which not a day went by that I didn’t long for the ocean with a few palm trees thrown in for good measure, I’ll stick by my theory.
Author Eric Weiner, a longtime NPR correspondent who’s covered some of the world’s most war-ravaged, disease-ridden regions, finds in his treatise that geography is only one component of a particular people’s collective happiness. Icelanders, subject to island isolation, six months of darkness annually, and almost constant cold, are some of the happiest people in the world. Money, family, trust, gratitude, and culture all factor in lending places their distinct identities and influencing people’s satisfaction. Maybe that’s why some of my favorite places don’t involve palm trees and some of my least favorite do. I found Hanoi infectious, Buenos Aires intoxicating, Southern Africa liberating, and Australia refreshing, while other places simply left me cold.
I’m back where I belong…for now. This place is a part of me. Yet everywhere I look, I find reminders of places we visited in our travels. When the fog rolls in and nestles in the foothills behind our house, I’m transported to the misty Andean peaks of Machu Picchu. The fruit trees at Pepperdine exploding in bursts of fluffy white blossoms deliver me back to Cappadoccia in spring, and the momentarily green flora enveloping the Malibu hillsides (which thanks to my friend Teri, I now know is called chaparral) fools me into thinking I’m back on the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, except there of course, it’s called fynbos. When I gaze westward across the vast Pacific, my imagination alights on the decks of the immense barges steaming in and out of the docks of San Pedro. I find myself dreaming of the exotic locales that await them, just as I did during our time on the Sunshine Coast in Australia. I smile to myself when I think that the places we experienced are a permanent part of my geographic memory, that I can invoke them at will, and even better, that they’ll spring up when I least expect them, forever connecting me to the most meaningful of years and inspiring of places.
Weiner is reluctant to draw many conclusions from his travels other than happiness is complicated and travel gives you many windows into it. For my part, I’ll say this: some places make us come alive, and for me, this is one of them.
The posts should start coming again, as we drink in our new surroundings, contemplate our future RTW travel (Kieran and Asher are already planning the itinerary for trip #2), and gear up for next week’s trip to the Caribbean. And for those interested, we’re still sleeping on air mattresses and haven’t really figured out when we’ll be moving the furniture out here. After all, life should be an adventure…right?