Though worried about the pandemic, my family risked a short trip to the beach this summer. We loaded the car with food before our four-hour drive and stopped only for gas along the way. We kept to ourselves in a rented condo, and there was enough space on the shore for us to enjoy the surf at ample length from everyone else.
As an exercise in isolation, the getaway was a smashing success. Our closest companions were sand crabs and sea gulls.
But on the drive back home, I was quietly haunted by the words of Robert Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt’s uncle. In 1851, before the future president was born, TR’s father, Theodore Roosevelt Sr., took a trip to Europe, writing back home about the sights he’d seen. That was when Robert offered a rejoinder to his brother. “I’m afraid, Theodore,” Robert sniffed, “you have mistaken the object of traveling. It is not to see scenery. . . . It is to see men. To enlarge your mind, which will never be enlarged by looking at a large hill, but by conversing with, and seeing the bent of the minds of other people.”
I wouldn’t go that far. Memorable landscapes yield insights all their own, and a large hill can be a lovely pleasure. But Robert Roosevelt’s broader message—that the real point of travel is connecting with others—has a special poignancy this year as a radically altered travel season draws to close. In a summer defined by face masks and social distancing, the connections Robert championed are precisely what we’ve been told to avoid.
That loss is no small thing, as I know from previous summer road trips. On a long-ago visit to Maine, I cringed when my daughter spilled her juice cup on a huge, leather-clad biker at a rural diner. He greeted the mishap with a smile, forcing me to reconsider my assumptions about burly guys who drive Harleys. Similarly, the gracious hospitality I experienced in Bloomington, Ind., made me rethink my notions about cool Midwestern reserve. In Boston, a local man’s diligence in returning my lost credit card told me that laments about urban indifference go only so far.
The point of travel is to overcome distance, not to keep it. Travel nudges us to see strangers as individuals, not types. Such insight seems in short supply these days as a wearying campaign season reduces voters to abstract entries in some demographic niche, neatly sorted by race, sex, education, red state or blue.
What we desperately needed this summer was what this ugly pandemic took away—the chance to see our fellow Americans up close, where the true greatness of this country has been all along.
Mr. Heitman, editor of Phi Kappa Phi’s Forum magazine, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”
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Appeared in the September 5, 2020, print edition.
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