“Remember: The rules, like streets, can only take you to known places. Underneath the grid is a field – it was always there – where to be lost is never wrong, but simply more.” – Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
“To be lost is never wrong” is, I’d like to think, a justification for the directionally-challenged like myself.
I hop off my desired mode of public transportation, pick a direction, and walk. In a mere few steps, I lose all sense of my whereabouts in thin, plaited streets. I linger by any sight that catches my attention – a quaint guitar shop, a rusted playground, an indecipherable mural – and I do this all again in the next city.
See, getting lost means that every place is an infinite adventure. I may not be able to navigate to famous tourist attractions or Instagrammable spots, but I can trace a city’s veins into shaded cul-de-sacs and hear its rushing blood in the rumblings of a bin lorry. No matter how many times I’ve visited a place, or even lived there, I remember not my route, but my delight.
I could defend the blessings of being directionally-challenged, but I wonder why it needs defending. I wonder why trips need detailed itineraries and meticulously selected destinations, why choices need justifications and writings need grand lessons. So please allow me to meander and share the reasons as to why I go places without a reason.
As an American international student I should visit the popular spots: the signposted London Eye or Stonehenge. But I chose the unmarked road for my English tour this winter.
If I had to find a reason, I would say that my most cherished travel memories are unplanned: a cheap dimsum place hidden in subway tunnels underneath Shanghai, a tandem bike ride along stormy Lake Michigan shores, a trek to some nameless dried lake by the Sahara Desert. This trip, too, should follow the whimsical threads of fate.
Or I could say that my head was swirling with dreams of Georgian houses and over-crowded pubs. Of raindrops stretched across train windows, blurring countryside fields like a painter’s carefree smudge. Of towns aged by industrial decay and rustic greens that touch the sky. Of the real England.
But the real reason was Adlestrop.
It was a faint memory of my friend Jennifer’s words about her summer trip to the Gloucestershire countryside, how as a literature-lover she sought out the old railway sign “Adlestrop” – immortalised in namesake by Edward Thomas’s poem. Enchanted, I read and reread the lines, lost in their contemplative probing. The poet’s train stopped “unwontedly.” I heard the echoes of his words, “the steam hissed / someone cleared his throat,” engraved in my memory alongside “willow-herb” and “meadowsweet” swaying in the whispered summer breeze.
I told no one that poetry was my reason. As I trawled through Google Maps and puzzled over train strikes in preparation for the trip, I claimed lofty ambitions of cultural exchange and ethnographic studies. But I’ve never been the best at statistics, so my haphazard selection of locations were replaced by some spots of convenience: I went where my friends live.
Lilleshall, Shropshire. Sprawling poppy fields surrounded Will’s barnhouse-converted home where his family kindly hosted me for two nights. Inside the house were roast dinners, three Christmas trees, and an affectionate greyhound – much unlike the cold-hued outside world that wore frost as eyeliner, chillingly beautiful. Wellies squelching on tractor tracks, we walked by abandoned coal mines and through fields of grass glazed by a whiteness that “made wild of the tame.” A quiet pub lunch. A frozen canal where two severed heads of ducks, tied together, kept their eerie suspension. A bus ride where a dear old lady asked for help lifting her Christmas shopping. The organic English countryside experience.
Newcastle, Tyne and Wear. British weather struck again. Liyanah and I dashed through Christmas markets where puddles reflected golden lights. Spooked by a voice in the castle ruins, we sheltered in a library, where we hovered over old ordnance maps and yellowed Bach scores. We chased the River Tyne along the quayside, completely soaked, but without a care in the world.
Durham, County Durham. I huffed and puffed up its endless hills while Edmund navigated like the local he was. In its famed cathedral, someone was tuning the organ. I always found a sense of rootedness – a comforting permanence – in these majestic instruments built into architecture. Edmund, as an Oxford organ scholar, gushed about this particular one with endearing words.
Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire. Lucas and I trekked through a tiny village with a two-hourly bus as its sole public transportation. There I fell asleep to the sound of rain and, come morning, window-shopped in assorted Cotswold villages. Stratford itself was too Shakespeare-obsessed, with tourists crowding up the riverside park and queuing to enter the playwright’s old school building. Amid all this artificiality, I treasured Lucas’s stories – his first kiss in the park, his first Ancient Greek lessons in the school building – evidence of the real humans whose lives grace these surroundings.
Everywhere I travelled, my favourite memories were not the curated attractions or National Trust properties, but the small things: inexplicable and overlooked. In the cities’ messiness and the countryside’s seclusion, I found that mood described by William Wordsworth as “in which the heavy and the weary weight / of all this unintelligible world / is lightened.” When travelling, the unintelligible becomes a destination, the search of which needs no direction.
A line of poetry that beckons at you is ample reason. A fleeting fantastical imagining, a fondness for the way a city’s name rolls off your tongue. A tangled longing.
So at the end of my meandering, there is a reason – let it be reason enough. Let each choice follow a heart instead of a thousand justifications; let each piece of writing arrive at wide-eyed delight instead of structured grand lessons. The heart is never lost, simply travelling towards delight.
Two springs ago, Illinois. The university of my dreams, cosy dormitories, lakeshore sailboats. I had an acceptance letter to the best undergraduate journalism program America had to offer, an open path towards the career I desired.
I took a turn, instead, down English cobblestone streets to go someplace I had no reason to: someplace mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds