Summer is when most of us go somewhere on a vacation.  Vacation and journeys just seem to go together.  It’s no coincidence that the very word “vacation” has the word “vacate” at its root and when we vacate we are leaving the place where we are at to go somewhere else, hopefully one with a vacancy.  We also say that we are  “going on vacation” even when we plan to spend our time off  traveling in an armchair, most likely one that reclines and has cup holders.   Wikipedia defines vacation as  "a leave of absence from a regular occupation, or specific trip or journey, usually for recreation or tourism".  The key words “leave”, “absence”, “trip” and “journey” all involve movement; and as for recreation and tourism - how can you create or tour without being engaged in some sort of motion? 


Joseph Campbell wrote in The Hero With a Thousand Faces that a central theme in mythology is the "hero's journey".  He described this as a person going on a long journey and "in a decisive crisis wins a victory and comes home changed or transformed".  The classic example is Homer’s epic the Odyssey with Odysseus as the hero on a long journey back home from the Trojan War. It seems Odysseus wasn’t a hero who goes on a long journey; he became a hero by going on a long journey that turned into an odyssey.  But what does this have to do with vacation?  Odysseus went to war not on vacation. He wasn’t on a cruise when Sirens tried to lure his ship onto the rocks and he wasn’t visiting an amusement park when he encountered the Cyclops.   If we thought our vacation would be an Odyssey most of us would forgo the opportunity to be heroic, skip the journey, and opt for the armchair. Even Odysseus might have decided to stay home if he’d known what he was in for.


Fortunately, there is another way to look at a vacation journey.  The word odyssey has lost its capital letter and its hero and is now defined by Webster’s dictionary as “a long journey full of adventure.  A series of experiences that give knowledge or understanding to someone.”  This odyssey seems to be what Leo Tolstoy meant by journey when he wrote that “all great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.”   You could say it is really one journey and one story because after a person leaves home to go on a journey they will be considered a stranger in most places they go to.  Not only that, the same person can also leave and return home but the journey has so transformed them they are viewed as a stranger; or, at least, very strange.  Although this is, in fact, what happened to Odysseus when he arrived home after his long journey recounted in The Odyssey, a journey can be an odyssey without being a heroic epic.   We don’t need to be the hero of our vacation in order to engage in adventures, survive crisis, be transformed by the journey and to have one hell of a strange, if not great, story to tell.  (June, 2016)

On Vacation

By Tim Wintermute