What happens when a boy's obsession with traveling becomes a very grown-up affliction?
Author Martin Marks Illustration Natsko Seki
I’M WRITING THIS not from my apartment in New York but from my parents’ South Florida living room overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Why? Because three days ago I needed to do laundry and wanted to go for a nice, long run on the beach. There were other problems, too. A street lamp outside my window had started to go out. At night, its bulb filled my block with a loud, brain-rattling squeal. Also, I’d run out of dishwashing liquid—not to mention paper towels, bottled water and microwaveable macaroni and cheese—and the dishes had piled up so high that I’d invented a new verb (“ziggurating”) to describe their slow creep toward the ceiling.
Those were all things I didn’t want to deal with. And so, two days later, I showed up in Palm Beach—1,100 miles away—with my duffel bag and a pair of running shoes.
“Martin’s home,” my mom called out. My dad popped his head around the corner, a bit bewildered. “Oh,” he said. “Did he leave?”
I could understand his confusion. It was my second time down here in less than 10 days. But it used to be worse. Much worse. A few years ago, I was traveling so much that my New York friends thought I’d moved back down to Florida, while my Florida friends had no idea where I lived. Truth was, I was living everywhere, yet nowhere. In any given month, I might be paddling down tributaries of the Amazon in a dugout canoe, crashing in a tent outside Pompeii during an especially hot Neapolitan summer, grading papers in the smoky terminals of Malpensa airport, hopping a bullet train from Kyoto to Tokyo, or surfing at San Onofre State Beach. In 28 years, I’d lived on three continents and traveled to all the rest (except Antarctica, which is too cold). There was always another suitcase, another ticket, another flight.
I bear the burden of refusing to be grounded, of kicking against permanence. It’s an uphill battle. Especially when travel websites fill my inbox with email after email detailing their last-minute vacation packages. For various reasons—most of them involving said websites, some of them involving laundry—I don’t think I’ve stayed in one place for more than two months. Ever. There was once a popular term that described this passion as the vice that it really is: Wanderlust. I’m bringing it back. In fact, I’ve started capitalizing the “W” to differentiate between innocent postcollege summers spent backpacking around Europe and the full-blown case of Wanderlust that I eventually developed.
I suppose my condition was incubating long before I was born.
My dad joined the Royal Air Force right after medical school. During his five years in Her Majesty’s service, he lived in Germany and Cyprus, slept in abandoned leper colonies and dangled from helicopters above the icy North Sea, before becoming a psychiatrist. My mom played international tennis, volleying from the clay courts of Roland Garros to the soft lawns of Wimbledon. They met on a hotel pool deck in Cape Town and were engaged two weeks later.
For the first few years of their marriage, they traveled. And traveled some more—to Taiwan and Hawaii, to North Carolina to see the Jaws opening run and to New York for cheesecake at Carnegie Deli. But they wanted to start a family, and children meant bottles and diapers and nursery rhymes, not tray tables and baggage carousels and preflight safety announcements. When my mom got pregnant, they decided to kick their Wanderlust à deux—cold turkey.
After less than a month, they relapsed. At three weeks old, I was sitting on my mother’s lap on a flight bound for the Bahamas, soaring high above the world I’d just entered. By the time I was two, I had already flown 116,334 miles. By my 10th birthday, I’d been tear-gassed and infected with parasites. That same year, my dad tried to buy four Coca-Colas at an airport in Zimbabwe. The barman pulled a machine gun on us. Then, for the very reasonable price of $20 a bottle, the barman put down his Kalashnikov and gave us our drinks. With a smile.
Meanwhile, of course, I’d seen the world. And I loved every minute of it. My youthful memories are viewed through the prism of a Boeing 747. I built my childhood fortresses not with sofa cushions but with thin airplane blankets draped over seatbacks. My occasional stomachaches were treated by friendly flight attendants bearing ginger ale. After another young Wanderluster—my sister—joined the family, our pillow fights were largely ineffectual battles, thanks to those small airline pillows. When I started school, my tray table became a collapsible desk. I ate Goldfish crackers in the airport lounge at Heathrow for my afternoon snack. We were a family united by a love of wandering, and I was always along for the flight.
I slowed down a little for high school and college, but after that my condition increased markedly in severity. One Wednesday afternoon, the thought crossed my mind that I’d never been to Machu Picchu. By Friday I was standing outside my friend’s apartment in Cuzco wearing New Balances and an elementary school backpack, convinced that this was all we’d need to conquer the Inca Trail. (I finally acquiesced to my friend’s far more mundane idea of taking the train.)
The advent of travel websites—no more telephone calls, no more travel agents—meant that I could meander the firmament free from third-party interlopers. I upgraded to a new credit card seeking the extra miles, airport lounges, free sodas (the free sodas alone paid for the credit card). I began to spend more time in airports than I did in my own bedroom.
But where to next? What if a family wedding at one end of the globe coincided with a writer’s conference at the other? No problem. My life was in constant motion. From Miami to Los Angeles to Sydney to Cairns I’d go, backtracking from Sydney to Los Angeles to Miami, and then on to Paris and St. Petersburg. That particular odyssey took place in 12 days, after which my first two weeks in Russia were a cacophonous blur. I didn’t know when to eat or sleep. And I couldn’t have been happier. I was a full-blown Wanderluster—with all of its attendant side effects.
Later that year, I was reading John Cheever in a marble bathtub at a hotel in Los Angeles when I realized that there’d been a change. I was living in New York, but it hadn’t quite taken, and a weeklong stay on the West Coast had entered its second month. “When you’re in one place and long to be in another, it isn’t as simple as taking a boat,” I read, as I sat in the lukewarm tub. “You don’t really long for another country. You long for something in yourself that you don’t have, or haven’t been able to find.”
In my case, that wasn’t quite true. Instead of longing for something inside of me, I had been avoiding the search altogether. Adventure had somehow become an escape from life, a way of standing still. While my friends were getting married, having children, paying mortgages, losing jobs—all the sloppy things of life—I had abandoned any sense of permanence in exchange for perpetual motion. For the first time, the travel felt compulsive, involuntary. The joy was missing.
At a wedding in Florida around Valentine’s Day 2007, I had a revelation. Surrounded by old friends and classmates, I stared up at the dark cloudless February sky on one of the coldest nights on record and began to think of the fast-moving clouds as they crept across Cape Town’s Table Mountain, and the dawn casting its orange light through a lace curtain in Rome. I thought of the endless lime green of rice fields after a downpour in southern Japan, the corn fields and wheat fields, Niagara Falls and Iguazu Falls. With Cheever’s words ringing in my head, and with the faces of loved ones before me, I felt that I found what I’d been wandering for. As we talked long into the night after the wedding, I realized that in all my ramblings and peregrinations, I had never been as content as I was at that moment, among people I knew and loved.
Man, I thought, if only I could persuade each and every one of them to come with me to Corfu. It’s absolutely gorgeous in the spring.
MARTIN MARKS divides his time between Palm Beach, Florida, and New York— depending on how much laundry he has.