Thomas Jefferson: Traveler’s Curse, Why Traveling Matters

The traveler’s curse portends to be more than just a curious phenomenon.

Thomas Jefferson
UNSPLASH Library of Congress

“Travelling […] makes men wiser, but less happy.”

-Thomas Jefferson,

August 10, 1787

It’s been almost two years since I first heard of the traveler’s curse and I’m still not sure what to make of it. When I first started traveling, I had no idea that this so-called “curse” existed and, even if I did know, it certainly would not have stopped me from wanting to explore the world. It wasn’t until I received an email from my brother about the curse, while I was backpacking through Europe, that I fully understood that there might be a bit of truth in this oddly obscure tale. The traveler’s curse portends to be more than just a curious phenomenon, but rather a thinly veiled traveler’s manifesto cautioning against the adverse psychological effects long-term traveling can have on travelers, as well as the paradoxical need to travel frequently in order to offset such effects.

For those unfamiliar with the curse, here’s a brief summary taken from the reddit post I received from that email:

The more places you see, the more things you see that appeal to you, but no one place has them all. In fact, each place has a smaller and smaller percentage of the things you love, the more things you see. It drives you, even subconsciously, to keep looking, for a place not that’s perfect (we all know there’s no Shangri-La), but just for a place that’s “just right for you.” But the curse is that the odds of finding “just right” get smaller, not larger, the more you experience. So you keep looking even more, but it always gets worse the more you see.

The problem derives from the presumption that the collective whole of your traveling experiences can be conflated together, fashioned into an unrealistic expectation that the place ‘just right for you’ must be ‘better’ than the last place you visited. And if it isn’t you keep searching for that special place, perpetually lost in a traveler’s limbo. That is until you realize it only “gets worse the more you see”, and must accept that such a place cannot exist. This is why the likelihood of finding such a place “get smaller, not larger” the more you are exposed to new and more interesting locations.

It’s important to note that the inability to accurately negotiate the difference between the ephemeral nature of traveling and the stability of home life is the reason why the effects of the traveler’s curse continues to resonate today. And yet too many travelers believe they can easily replace the monotony of the latter with the flair of the former, with little to no consequence to consider. Which is a similar sentiment echoed by Thomas Jefferson in a letter to his nephew, Peter Carr, noting that:

[t]he glare of pomp and pleasure is analogous to the motion of the blood; it absorbs all their affection and attention, they are torn from it as from the only good in this world, and return to their home as to a place of exile & condemnation.   Their eyes are forever turned back to the object they have lost, & its recollection poisons the residue of their lives. Their first & most delicate passions are hackneyed on unworthy objects here, & they carry home the dregs, insufficient to make themselves or anybody else happy.

What Jefferson successfully conveys in this passage is the fallacy of equivalency, where the traveler feels that “the only good in this world” is unjustly taken away from them once they return home (or rather to that “place of exile & condemnation”). In actuality, however, the methodology of travel and a return to ‘normal’ life back home are, for all intents and purposes, mutually exclusive. The issue at hand becomes a failure to recognize that travel is an ephemeral experience. There is only so much that a traveler can take back with them from their time spent on the road, and, unfortunately, the traveling lifestyle is not one of them. That is to say that the beautiful places you visit, the wonderful people you befriend and the lasting memories you forge, become the most important and salient mementos worth keeping. The transition from a traveling lifestyle to a stationary one can be difficult to manage, which is the vital distinction Jefferson wishes to impart to his nephew, or else the traveler (in this case, Peter) may risk his “most delicate passions” to be “hackneyed on unworthy objects”. And it is when friends and places back home begin to lose their significance that the traveler may unknowingly—or perhaps even knowingly—relegate them to the unfettered crime of redundancy, giving rise to the symptomatic, though often misdiagnosed, effects of what is considered the traveler’s curse.

According to the curse, the traveler’s inability to contextualize her newfound experiences to its proper place affects the quality of relationships the traveler will cultivate. Noting that:

[t]he more you travel, the more numerous and profoundly varied the relationships you will have. But the more people you meet, the more diffused your time is with any of them. Since all these people can’t travel with you, it becomes more and more difficult to cultivate long term relationships the more you travel. Yet you keep traveling, and keep meeting amazing people, so it feels fulfilling, but eventually, you miss them all, and many have all but forgotten who you are.

I wholeheartedly agree and I suspect many travelers would as well, for the people you meet on your travels become the most fulfilling, worthwhile, and rewarding aspect of being on the road. The camaraderie of travel is unlike any other experience, and this, I would argue, is the most appealing part of traveling for most people. But the fact that you cannot “cultivate long term relationships” with your fellow travelers (that is, the ones you meet along the way but you know eventually will part paths with) as you could with friends and family back home, becomes problematic for those who cannot properly reconcile the allure of wanderlust with the simplicity of life back home.

This, in part, is due to the fact that the bonds of friendship created while traveling are formed at such an unusually quick rate that it often contrasts with the years it often takes to form similar bonds and friendships back home. The validity of these newly formed friendships are not in question (for I know I’ve met many people whom I would consider lifelong friends, despite our short time together), but that of the false expectation that only by traveling can you cultivate worthwhile relationships, which is of course not necessarily the case. The irony is that these newly fashioned bonds can hold just as much value as those of your friends and family back home.   And so people you meet on the road, which you would probably regard as nothing more than mere strangers, you now consider dear friends, despite the fact you’ve only known each other for a short amount of time.

There is a way to mitigate the effects of loneliness on the road by traveling with a companion in order to share the experience. But, since “these people can’t travel with you” all the time, and (as the curse further illustrates) the reflective desire to amend for lost time may entice the traveler to, “[…] make up for it by staying put somewhere long enough to develop roots and cultivate stronger relationships, but these people will never know what you know or see what you’ve seen, and you will always feel a tinge of loneliness, and you will want to tell your stories just a little bit more than they will want to hear them.” I think all travelers (myself included) have been guilty of this grievance at some point, perhaps chatting a little too long about our traveling excursions. It is, I assure you, a forgivable offense since being on the road requires that you constantly introduce yourself to fellow travelers and you find yourself telling and retelling the same stories at an almost indiscriminate rate. However, once a traveler is back home, they will find that most people will not be able to relate to their stories and are unable to share in the experiences they’ve had. This can leave the traveler with a sharp pang of loneliness, lost in a cycle of perpetual search and believing that the only way to fill the void is by seeking out new travels (an effect I like to think of as the “traveler’s curse hangover”).

And like any alcoholic will tell you, sometimes the best cure for a hangover is more alcohol (which, by this poor analogy, I mean the need to continue traveling). Before that can be true, however, it’s important to understand the difference between a traveler and a tourist in order to know how to properly offset the effects of the hangover. Andrés Aranda, blogger for Travellerspoint, poignantly illustrates that the curse perpetuates a “[…] cycle of nostalgia, the paradox caused by the normalization of the extraordinary and the longing for the routine, which makes the traveler a traveler, and no longer a tourist.” A traveler will long for the uncertainty of the road, whereas a tourist will always seek the security of a destination. It’s a fundamental, philosophical divide on how people choose to view the activity of traveling. And it should be said that there is absolutely nothing wrong with favoring one approach over the other. But it is this “cycle of nostalgia”, which Andrés astutely points out, as the true culprit of despair that most road weary travelers encounter on their return home and may choose not to confront. Nostalgia conveys a desire to return to a happier period in one’s life, and when this sentiment is coupled with the effects if the curse this wistful sense of longing for the road can unnecessarily complicate the cultivation of meaningful perspective and therefore properly contextualize the traveler’s experience.

Interestingly enough, it seems that the paradoxical nature of the traveler’s curse necessitates and advocates for more traveling (not less) as an antidote to the curse. The author of this curse (whose own identity is mysteriously unknown, further adding to the obscurity of this urban legend) acknowledges that the curse only, “gets worse the more you travel, yet travel seems to be a cure for a while”, which contrasts with Jefferson’s advice to, “[b]e good, be learned, & be industrious, & you will not want the aid of travelling, to render you precious to your country, dear to your friends, happy within yourself.” I find the proverbial antidote to lie somewhere within a curious admixture of the two, in that the rewarding, qualitative properties of traveling—its ability to beset ignorance while encouraging the development of personal growth—is inherently linked to the reasons a travelers chooses to explore the world. The reason why we travel is just as important as the way in which we travel. Not knowing or understanding these reasons can lead a traveler erroneously astray, where the open road may not offer the comfort of meaning they may ultimately seek.

Furthermore, many travelers will too often mistake the odd coincidences that occur while traveling (randomly crossing paths with people you’ve met weeks or months before or having that “perfect” day go just right) as more than just a random occurrence. It’s at this point that the curse gains traction in the traveler’s mind and believes events incur far more meaning than what may actually intend. What Jefferson advocates is the need to compartmentalize the “pomp and pleasure” of traveling from the values associated with your home “country”, so as not to confuse the two and believe one to be superior over the other. In other words, to “be industrious” is to travel with purpose (one developed by your own design), and not, as Jefferson suggests, in order to eschew the “aid of travelling”. All the traveler needs is to accept the ephemeral nature of traveling as a fleeting, though worthwhile experience and take from it only what it can reasonably offer. This attitude will allow the traveler to successfully circumvent the dreary effects of the curse and its hangover.

With that being said, the curse serves to further illustrate the importance of traveling, especially given the intrinsic value it possesses as a unique form of education. And to this point, Andrés Aranda concludes, quite saliently, that the time often spent away from the road will inevitably make the traveler’s, “[…] gaze return always to the horizon, for she’s realized that she’ll always be far away from someone, from somewhere, no matter where she may be.” This, if nothing else, should provide the reader with a sober, yet comforting reminder that though you may “always be far away from someone”, there will always be amazing people and places you’ve yet to encounter and it’s important not to lose yourself in the tempting cycle of perpetuity. There will always be someone or something that you find ever more appealing throughout your travels, and this inherent fact of traveling has always been true. Therefore, when your gaze tends towards the “horizon”, it should be for a moment of introspection, reflecting fondly on the memories you’ve cultivated throughout the years, rather than for the longing and anxious anticipation of falling into the same predictable habit of looking for that place “just right for you”.

The appeal of traveling has always derived from the premise that the more you see and experience the more wholesome you will become, as such experiences will undoubtedly strengthen your resistance against prejudice, while at the same time widen and enrich the breadth of your worldview. It’s important to understand that traveling will always be a worthwhile endeavor, regardless of when or where you go.

Just remember to enjoy the moment while it lasts.

Jerry Alonzo Leon


Jerry's favorite country to travel to is Spain. When he's on the road, he keeps it real simple with a pen and a pad. His travel style is spontaneous, easygoing, and always in search of a great adventure.

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