Mission Improbable – The Trouble with Traveling to Improve your Country

From February to June 1787, with all of his necessities packed in a single trunk, Thomas Jefferson traveled “incognito” by coach, barge, and sometimes mule across most of France and Northern Italy. Reading the extensive diary he kept of the trip, one encounters many passages like the following.

In the boudoir at Chanteloup is an ingenious contrivance to hide the projecting steps of a staircase. Three steps were of necessity to project into the boudoir. They therefore made triangular steps, and, instead of resting on the floor as usual, they are made fast at their broad end to the stair door, swinging out and in with that. When shut, it runs them under the other steps. When open, it brings them out to their proper place.

jefferson1787I don’t quote this because it was Jefferson’s most electrifying prose; it’s not, and to be fair, he never intended to publish it. What is striking about the diary is what it says about Jefferson’s sense of the grand purpose of travel, evidenced by the wealth of detail describing everything from soil types, methods of grape cultivation, the relationship of social conditions to regional crops, and sketches of practical contraptions like the one above. Every page reveals a man bent on devouring as much practical information as he could with an eye toward using it to improve both himself and his country on his eventual return to Virginia. In addition to scouting markets and securing contacts for American agricultural producers (his primary duties as a minister), he brought back with him new varieties of plants, architectural designs and ideas he would later implement, plans for technological devices, and an unparalleled expertise in European wines and viticulture. Not too shabby for an 18th century backpacker.

Despite competing with the leisure travel industry for our hearts and minds, the idea of traveling to improve one’s country is still discussed today, though it more often falls under the purview of travel scribes than presidential hopefuls. One of the most vocal and visible contemporary champions of what you might call national-improvement travel is the writer and entrepreneur Rick Steves. In his recent book, Travel as a Political Act, Steves explains the book’s eponymous theme thus:

When we return home, we can put what we’ve learned – our newly acquired broader perspective – to work as citizens of a great nation confronted with unprecedented challenges. And when we do that, we make travel a political act.

steves wine

Rick Steves, travel writer and man of a sober age.

Steves’s notion that travel can improve one’s country echoes Jefferson, who wrote to his nephew in 1787 that “men of a sober age” could travel to “gather knowledge, which they may apply usefully for their country.” There is however an important difference between them: The country Jefferson came home to was agrarian, weak, and relatively undeveloped, so many of his observations found an appreciative audience among a people who felt they had something to learn from Europe. In contrast, Rick Steves has to chip away against the popular conceit that America is exceptional and has little to learn from Europe – least of all the French, whose label as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” has been un-ironically accepted as the last word on France by the millions of FOX viewers who never quite grasped that learning international studies from Homer Simpson is a bit like learning feminism from Archie Bunker.

Attractive Expressive Young Mixed Race Female Student Sitting and Talking with Girlfriend Outside on Bench.

So like, oh my god, I have to tell you about this thing they use in Europe called the metric system…

But like Jefferson, Rick Steves is also a man fired with missionary zeal. In the book, he writes cogently about successful heroin maintenance programs in Switzerland, Sweden’s commonsense approach to underage drinking, the liberal stance toward prostitution in the Netherlands, and several other battle-tested European social policy triumphs. This is well and good until one recalls that Europe is no longer some distant land from which letters take weeks to arrive and none but seamen, diplomats, or the very rich will ever see in person, which points up another difference between Jefferson’s time and our own: the traveler coming back from Europe today isn’t really telling people much that they haven’t already heard.

So if we know about these things, why don’t we implement all these great ideas? Part of the answer lies in yet another important difference between the worlds of Jefferson and Steves: today’s traveler is sharing his European insights with countrymen who are too often hypersensitive to criticism (Love it or leave it!) and who seldom give a hot damn what Europeans do, think, or say. While some of Jefferson’s contemporaries may have replicated the “ingenious contrivance” he observed in the boudoir, today the phrase “solution X has worked in country Y” is rarely the premier feature of a persuasive discourse or a winning debate.


Reality star Sarah Palin gazes vigilantly at Russia.

You don’t even have to look as far as Europe to overlook an idea. Case in point, socialized medicine in Canada. You can be for it or against it – and I frankly don’t care which – but one thing that should be very clear by now is that its implementation doesn’t lead down the dreaded “slippery slope” to inevitable and abject totalitarianism, as many Americans strangely imagine despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. For some Americans this is as easy to debunk as literally looking out the window (there goes Sarah Palin’s excuse), yet to point out that Canada has socialized medicine but no dictatorship is to be cheeky or obtuse, not a Jeffersonian visionary.

No doubt mindful of these obnoxious tendencies, Steves is obliged to draw doomed analogies between constructive personal criticism and criticism of one’s equally beloved country:

I enjoy bettering myself by observing others. And I appreciate constructive criticism from caring friends. In the same spirit, I enjoy learning about my society by observing other societies and challenging myself to be broad-minded when it comes to international issues.

I’d be out of my depth to deal with the question of whether the average person strives to better themselves, but even among people who do, embracing criticism is a leap that many still don’t make. Whatever the reason for that, it leads me back to some of the grand claims that are occasionally made in praise of travel, namely, the idea that the inevitable consequence of travel is growth, openness, or some other species of personal improvement. While it appears to make intuitive sense, the continuing struggles of people like Rick Steves to invite their fellow Americans to engage in transformative introspection or to brook well-intentioned and thoughtful criticism suggests to me that there are in fact prerequisites to this happy side-effect – call it ugly-american-thumbhumility or openness if you like – and that travel does not necessarily teach us those things. Traveling certainly affords the opportunity to learn, but in order to learn something it seems we must first acknowledge that we have something to learn in the first place. Without that mindset, the opportunity is wasted, as evidenced by every self-assured ding-dong, dipshit, and dunderhead who strapped on a backpack and came back with his ignorance intact.

I’m not saying that travel has not cracked open a stubborn nut here and there and managed to ram home an uninvited truth; that happens, though it strikes me as less common. It’s also not hard to find examples of travel gurus (Steves is one) advising us to open our minds prior to traveling in order to get something out of the experience, a tacit acknowledgment that we become travelers by becoming open, but that we can’t count on it happening the other way around.

If our goal is to better our country, is there still a point to purposeful travel, or is bettering ourselves the best we can do? And if openness is the main requirement to do that, does travel have any role in that at all?

The big question seems to be: how do you learn openness?  I don’t really know, but I’m pretty sure that if you’re headed into a boudoir in Chanteloup, you want to be ready for anything.


Hello there, sailor.

Editor’s note: this piece recently appeared on Outside Looking In.

Human Gutterballing


by Pablo Harris


“Damn, man, you’re still here?”


“Don’t you have a bed? A house? I know you do. Why don’t you try and visit it sometime? I mean, shit man, you know you’re welcome here but sometimes, I just want to open the door, come home from work, walk into my place, and not have this lazy fuck sleeping, crop-dusting on my couch. So you just been laying around, dropping ass in here all day? Open a window or something, man.”

“Yeah, uh, sorry.”

“Do you even remember last night?”

“Most I think. Not everything.”

“So, what do you remember?”

“Well, I know it was a pretty good birthday. I love it when you open the doors and step into Country Club Lanes – “

“You mean Tweaker Lanes. Get it right.”

“Right. Walking into Tweaker’s, the wafting of grease from the fryer that hasn’t been changed since the Reagan Administration, the resounding echoes of pins crashing, the “ker-chungk” of the pin sweep, and there was even a working cigarette machine stocked with soft packs of Benson & Hedges and Lucky Strike; I dig that place. And, come on, I wasn’t expecting those girls to want to celebrate Erika’s birthday there of all places.”

“Well, I’ll give you that; those girls were hot and they don’t look like the type of girls that go out bowling and shooting Jameson on a Thursday night. I know you work with your boy Tubbs at the Bar & Oven, and I met the birthday girl of course, but who were the others? And did those girls not smell like, I don’t know, vanilla and patchouli and that hippy shit? Those girls kind of smelled like some classy hippy broads, if there is such a thing, but they don’t look like no hippies.”

“Uh, yes and no, I guess. They got a New Age-y business in Midtown. Erika teaches yoga, Joslyn does massage/skin/make-up, and Ellie does holistic medicine.”

“Yeah, Ellie, I like! For a white girl, Jesus Cristo, she’s got some ass, yo! I’ll sponsor a bowling team just to watch her roll, man. And I think you had a chance there. You dropping all that ‘Frisco, restaurant, gay-ass wine and art history shit you know. She was into you there for a while, man. Until, of course, you went into the bar for a pack of smokes and we had to go get you away from some ol’ lady who had ran more tracks & field than Carl Lewis.”

“Well, shit, Eddie the barkeep got me a couple of birthday shots.”

“How many times have you been there?”

“I’d been there maybe once or twice before but never been into the lounge.”

“What the – ?”

“I got friends in low places, I guess.”

“Fuck your country music shit! Alright, that’s kind of impressive that you just met these barflies, been there twenty minutes tops and you already got this old man buying you drinks. That’s fine and all but you could’ve been getting ready to serve Ellie up a chorizo breakfast. Your priorities are all screwed up.”

“Fair enough.”

“Alright, then, what else happened?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, yes, I know what happened, but do you? ”

“I don’t know. We played one more game, drank a couple more beers, and got a taxi back here. All I know is I’m in f-ing pain. I can’t move. What is it, the quads? Hammies? I feel like I tore everything up in my legs. I can’t get up. I really can’t move. And it feels like there’s a hole in my chin. I guess maybe I fell out of the car or tripped going up the porch and cracked my jaw on the top step? I don’t know.”

“That’s what you think? That’s what you remember?”

“Yeah. Sure.”

“All right, then. I’m going to tell ya right now.”

“Hold on, then, let me get a beer.”

“Why don’t you get some coffee or something.”

“Nah, just a beer.”

“Sientate, cabron! There is no ‘just a beer’ with you. Come on, you must remember the dive of glory, que no?”

“Haha, yeah, is that what you call it?”

“I saw that look in your eye, that glassy-eyed faraway stare, I know that look. Something bad’s gonna happen. Like Dirk in Boogie Nights in that botched drug deal scene.


You had that look. You and Erika were talking about your birthdays, birthday wishes, drunken shit. Then you said something like, ‘You know, Erika, I’ve always wanted to run down the alley and knock over the pins’.”


“Then she started jumping up and down, hanging all over you. Her friends started chanting ‘Pablo, Pablo’ so Tubbs and I went over to the shoe counter. Tubbs walked right up to the guy there and tried to explain, ‘Hey I just want to apologize beforehand. You see, my friend over there, he’s always wanted to do this and today is his birthday and . . . Oh, there he goes!’ and you took off down the alley.

I saw you launch yourself Pete Rose style a good ten feet from the pins. I guess you thought the lane was slick so you could slide into them head first, hands out front to knock ‘em down but you just stuck with a fucking ‘KUH-KAWH’ like thud of your chin on the deck. You didn’t move. Then you rolled over and the sound of you moaning ‘AAARRRRGGHHUUUH!’ drowned out the whole bowling alley.”

“I don’t remember the moan.”

“Then you like did this army/belly-crawl up to the 1 pin, swatted it, ‘Aaagh’, and we had to wait for your broken ass wobbling back up the lane like The Crippled March of the Penguin. Had to get you out of there.”

“I guess that’s where it all gets fuzzy.”

“Fuzzy? Shit, you might have a concussion, man. You hit the lane fucking hard. ‘KUH-KAWH’! You know, I saw this Stupid Human Trick on Letterman, back in the day. But that guy had a helmet and a skateboard. You’re lucky. You would’ve really fucked yourself up had you hit the pins.”

“And I only got a one?”

“Mark it one, Smokey.”


“A world of pain. You know, those girls wanted to go to the Press Club, go dancing, but you couldn’t even f-ing walk. And Joslyn was coming around to me but . . . fuck it. I had to work today anyway. Tubbs wins. But, anyway, speaking of work; aren’t you supposed to be at work right now? It’s Friday night. Aren’t you bartending or serving tonight?”

“Yeah, I’m supposed to be on the floor tonight but that ain’t happening.”

“Do you still have a job?”

“I don’t know. It’s alright, though. I’m moving next month, anyway, after graduation.”

“Are you even graduating?”

“Eh. If not, I’ll buy a degree on Khoa San Road.”

“And what’s this shit about moving? Where? When did you decide this?”

“Last night, talking with Eddie and Fern in the lounge. It’s kind of why I had to do the dive of glory. Something I’d always wanted to do. Something I felt I had to do before I leave the country.”

“What the  . . . leaving the country? What the fuck are you talking about?

“Come on, let’s talk about it at the Raven. But first, let’s get a taco.”