Geographical Gratification

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.

Malibu Rocks Malibu Chaparral
Dax and Friends Surfing

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?

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8 thoughts on “Geographical Gratification

  1. A belated welcome to California! Haven’t checked your blog in awhile, and low and behold, when I finally do you’ve quoted “The Geography of Bliss”! Just happened to receive this book yesterday because we’ve always loved the concept. Thanks for the post.

  2. Great post as usual! I just stumbled upon it and was glad to see something new up as we miss you.

    I can relate! Yesterday, I read a blog from some Californians who traveled the world on bikes for four years and after 50 some countries, they have found their favorite country. It is California!

    The more we travel, the more we appreciate the glories of that great state. In fact, we picked this part of Spain to winter in because it reminds us of home in Santa Cruz! 😉

    I love it all, but Mediterranean climate with mountains AND ocean, tend to give me bliss.

  3. I love your blog and only discovered it a few months ago. Anyway, I saw on your side bar that you are Puerto Rico bound. I went there last summer and was lucky enough to have friends from there take me to the sweet spots on the island. I’m not sure what your itinerary is but I wanted to recommend you venture out to Cabo Rojo/Mayaguez area and Boqueron. It’s on the west side of the island and about a 4 hour drive from San Juan. It’s a beautiful place and well worth the drive…and it’s where the Puerto Ricans go to vacation. Enjoy your trip. I’m going there on Sunday again and can’t wait.

    PS – I’m Mormon too and was inspired by your family. Now I know that my dream of traveling around the world with a family in the future isn’t just a dream :)

  4. Anne,

    My husband, 11 year old nephew Kevin and I have just returned from New Zealand. Like you, I LOVE the LA basin, yet for three weeks, New Zealand gave us peace, good food, great scenery and a welcoming home.

    Now back in the bay area, I have to say, and much like you and yours, we are looking forward to the next adventure, yet I miss living in LA.

    Give my best to Tom who I worked with at ELNK.
    F. McClellan

  5. Anne, Anne, Anne…

    This post, as I’m sure you know, spoke to me in a way few can truly understand. The water, the WARMTH(us cold-fingered friends only know), the endless horizon…Something I long for not because it’s California, but because California is me. If I have to feel my freezing toes and fingers for one more day I think I’ll go insane! It was 48 degrees yesterday. What the?
    So, just as I thought I’d surrendered and about to hunker down here in good ol’ Georgia for a couple more years, I had to stumble upon this post. Thanks a lot. But really, thanks a lot. :)

  6. I visited Kerela in South India with my family and was amazed seeing the beauty of Munnar’s tea garden and Kumarakom’s back waters. Many tourists are unaware of this state in India. It’s worth visiting with your family.

  7. Hi,
    We are leaving the states in Nov. for 6 months in Asia. Vietnam will be our base and then several months in Europe and finishing with 6 months in New Zealand. Your blog has been such an inspiration to all of us. Our 3 boys 14, 9 and 5 loved reading the post our son wrote about Vietnam. Read geography of Bliss earlier this summer loved it!

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