Travel is meaningless — but it doesn’t have to be

When it comes to empty and meaningless rituals, there’s no place like the travel industry.

Consider the annual pilgrimage to gaze at New England’s fall foliage. That’s right, Americans plan vacations around watching leaves fall off the trees. In a couple of months, we’ll crowd into a freezing Times Square to see the ball drop on New Year’s Eve. Come St. Patrick’s Day, we’ll march around in the snow and pretend to be Irish. Oh, I know. There’s more to these activities than leaves or balls or beer. Still, can’t we do better?

Sure we can. With the right approach and goals, it’s doable. As you start contemplating your travel plans for 2016, this is the perfect time to think about a vacation with a purpose.

It starts with the right attitude, says Jill Liberman, a behavior therapist and author of the book “Choose Happy.”

“Travel offers so much opportunity to enrich your life,” she says, “if you are open to it.”

How do you open yourself to it? Think native, she says. Stay away from the tourist traps, speak with as many people as possible, “gain insight firsthand about the destination and lifestyle.”

Too many travelers simply join a tour group and allow themselves to be herded from one attraction to the other. They stop at the same scenic overlook to watch the leaves, eat at the same stuffy bed and breakfast, buy the same kitschy souvenirs. Liberman says there’s more to travel than that.

Actually, you might find more meaning by skipping the tour entirely, according to Gabriel Schirm. That’s what he did after a recent career crisis. “I found myself stuck in a career where I felt like a meaningless cog in a giant wheel,” he says. “I needed to know why I was here on Earth.”

He did so by hiking the 500-mile length of the Camino de Santiago from St. Jean-Pied-de-Port, France, to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, meeting kindred spirits along the way.

“I found that setting out on an outdoor adventure in another country and exploring by foot is one of the most incredible and intimate ways to experience not only a sense of place but a discovery of self,” says Schirm, who wrote about his adventure in a book called “Sunrises to Santiago.”

Meaning comes through connections, says Jeff Wilson, who hosts Real Rail Adventures on Public Television. “It comes from those ‘aha!’ moments when you learn that, for example, Spanish children at a rural farm know some of the same songs that you do,” he says. Essentially, it is coming to a realization that we are different, but we are also the same.

“These phenomena produce a kind of tolerance and understanding that are hard to get by simply watching a travel show,” he says.

No name is more synonymous with purposeful travel than Richard Bangs, the famed adventurer who founded Mountain Travel Sobek. For him, the best reason to visit remote places is to see them while he still can. “There are places that existed when I started my career that don’t exist anymore or that have been changed to the point that they are unrecognizable,” he says. “That is a reason to travel, for me — to see a place before it’s gone.”

Meaning can come from many places. I’ve been on an open-ended trip around the world with my family (for me, it’s field research for this column), and we are driven by the same curiosity that pushes Bangs to see more and Schirm to do with less. We recently spent a month crossing Canada, where we made many meaningful connections with the people we met. I agree: If you put a little effort into it, travel can be more than a senseless ritual.

No one is suggesting that you should skip the drive up to Vermont to admire the colorful fall foliage or avoid a place such as Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. I admit, I’ve done New Year’s in New York, and it’s pretty awesome. All that energy! Beatriz Craven, a Houston psychologist, says you can still find purpose in visits to these cliched destinations.

“You can actually find real enjoyment in these places if you let go enough in the moment and let it just be what it is,” she says.

Sounds good to me. I’ll see you on that leafy overlook. Look for the guy with the goofy grin, shooting lots of photos.

Ways to find meaning when you travel

Volunteer: “Our most meaningful experience yet was just recently when we had the honor of teaching schoolchildren in Tanzania,” says David James, author of “Going Gypsy: One Couple’s Adventure from Empty Nest to No Nest at All.” “It was an incredible experience where we learned as much as we taught.”

Follow your passion: “A vacation can provide us with the perfect place and circumstance to discover how impactful and vital your passion is to you,” psychologist Kim Chronister says. If your passion is photography (as it is for my son and me), then shooting the foliage is a great way to bring meaning to a leaf-peeping vacation.

Do good: Annie Scrivanich, a senior vice president for Cruise Specialists, a Seattle cruise agency, says her clients find meaning by creating items for donation. “On past trips, clients visiting Cambodia to tour Angkor Wat have contributed to local well projects to provide clean water for many local villagers,” she says.

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