Between March of 2016 and March of 2017, the following was a relatively regular occurrence: a box within a box would arrive on the doorstep of the townhouse I rented with strangers I met on the Internet. I was to put some things in the smaller box, go someplace besides the townhouse, then tell other strangers on the Internet whether said box was the best way to get your things from where you were to wherever you wanted to go. I lived 23 avenues east of the Pacific Ocean, 2,770 miles west of where I grew up.
I grew up in a valley. My last year there, Census data tallied 2,884 people.¹ My father didn’t go west of the Mississippi until he visited me in California in 2015; neither of my parents have a passport.
Reinventing the box appears to be quite lucrative. One box that arrived on my doorstep could weigh itself; they called it smart. In October of 2016, I dragged the smart box to a hotel in Chicago my friend had booked with credit card points. We chose Chicago by making a list of cities we wanted to see, checking our lists for overlap, then checking the overlap for cheap flights.
Another friend met us there; she teaches high school 20 miles from the valley. One night at dinner, she paused and shook her head. “Most of my students will never travel like this,” she said. Over half of the students at her school are eligible for free lunch, which means their family makes less than $15,171 per year. Another eight percent are eligible for reduced lunch, which only adds around $6,000 to that figure.²
The first time I left the country, I was 20. Right after college graduation, a group of us—alumni, parents, faculty—trekked part of an 81-mile trail in Ireland called the Wicklow Way. A couple years later, we took a similar jaunt through Italy. During the second trip, I was 22 and deciding whether to move to California.
My family didn’t understand my obsession with mobility, but this group did. San Francisco, they said, meant experience and opportunity. Not going, they said, may mean regret. The median family income of a student from my alma mater is $163,600. 12 percent of students are from the top 1 percent.³
The illusion of variance between the boxes that arrived on my doorstep in San Francisco is mirrored by the illusion of variance in how many of us move through the world. Travel is online dating. We’re merely seeking a hit of novelty potent enough to forget ourselves for an instant. It’s escapism at its most literal. Instead of swiping, spin the globe.
Buy a flight beyond your comfort zone, but only after buying the most comfortable shoes and suitcases. Only with smartphone in-tow. Only after reading checklists written by people like me—written so more of us can travel without ever having to see for ourselves.
A girl from the valley recently went to Greece with a boy the valley. A brief study of her Instagram shows them doing in Greece almost precisely what they do in the States. It’s almost precisely what I did in Greece, too. She posted 28 photos of their 14-day trip. None of the captions read: Airplanes are the opium of the people.
I no longer live in the townhouse with strangers I met on the Internet, no longer tell other strangers how to get from where they are to where they want to go. I kept just one of the free boxes. The thing no one tells you about being a travel writer is that it ends the way many relationships do—your own attention inadvertently ruining what you thought you loved.
In San Francisco, I wrote an essay that ended with the words: The world is round. We’re all chasing our tails. In hindsight, such a flattening statement.
While in Chicago, I ran into a guy I knew from college. It’s a small world, we said over drinks. No one said: Only for some.
Alyssa Oursler is a journalist and essayist. You can find her on Twitter: @alyssaoursler.