In a widely-circulated article this summer, Jynne Dilling made a radical proposition to American workers who take fewer and fewer vacation days, and feel increasingly guilty when they do: go beyond the sanctioned 2-week vacation and expand your time away to a full 3 weeks.
As she points out, the ancient Romans followed a generous vacation practice, embarking on sightseeing tours for 2-5 years at a time. More recently, well-off Europeans spent months at a time languishing at spas to restore their health. Even Jesus is said to have withdrawn for 40 days and 40 nights to find peace and vision in the desert. Yet many modern working American — and of course Dilling is talking about folks with the resources and available vacation days — remain slavishly attached to our 24/7 connectivity and use only a single week at a time to get away from work and day-to-day responsibilities.
The trouble is that it’s hard to fully unwind from the stress and anxiety many of us carry in just a weeklong vacation. Shorter trips require a person to immediately shake off travel fatigue and then hustle through a packed sightseeing agenda, trying (and often failing) to tear ourselves away from addictive phone and email use, hoping that the weather cooperates during that full window, and praying that all flights depart on time and no one gets sick. In all that rush, there’s little unstructured time to wander and explore. And without time to spare, wrong turns give rise to bickering between travel partners and frustration over missed opportunities.
Dilling learned these lessons the hard way as a younger traveler, but has shared her wisdom and experiences taking longer breaks from work in recent year. Here’s an extended exceprt from her recent piece in the New York Times, “In Defense of the Three-Week Vacation”:
“When I have weeks to explore a new place, I love getting lost in other countries. It’s an amplified version of what travel already feels like: decentering, humbling, vividly sensitizing. On a lengthy trip to Thailand, my partner and I rode motorcycles through the mountains surrounding Chiang Mai. At any sign along the highway that intrigued us, we’d turn off, sometimes onto a dirt road into nothingness.
But other roads led us to soak in sulfurous hot springs, canoe through the frigid dark of caves, sit with monks and share tea. Stumbling upon some full-moon festivities, we met a stranger at a riverbank who gave us orchids and sparklers to decorate a banana leaf. Our glittering leaf sailed away alongside hundreds more, trailing smoke and carrying wishes for the year ahead.
Another night, using a map scrawled on torn paper, we tried to find a party out in the countryside; unsurprisingly we got wildly lost, riding past farms under the bright moon, pulling over to show our map to confused passers-by. After an hour zigzagging on back roads, we saw a bonfire in the distance: Was that the party? We’ll never know, but it looked like fun. We drove over and joined friendly locals in a temple courtyard, settling in with paper plates of curried noodles, black rice doughnuts and cold Singhas as dancers performed late into the night.
Searching the horizon for fire, deciphering maps without a shared language, choosing to turn into the unknown instead of away from it: This kind of travel requires more time, but the gift is an acute awakening of all the senses. Whether you seek out wild adventure or travel at a more restful pace, spending extended time away from quotidian life allows time for the secret details of the world to reveal themselves.
And no matter if it’s not far-flung adventure you’re seeking, but a restful vacation staying in one place. A related gift is the space to finally be still; more than any exotic destination, stillness appears to be the elusive luxury of our age. On a monthlong sabbatical from my job — a benefit that increasing numbers of American companies have started offering to longtime employees — I stayed close to home, in the woods of the Hudson Valley, trying out a daily yoga and meditation practice with a small group of friends.
Stripped of 3G wireless coverage, freed of workplace urgencies for an entire month, I had the chance to start each day with a quiet walk at dawn and watch the fog lifting off the grass, the tiptoeing deer, the changing green of spring leaves. Among my friends, with all this newfound time together, fresh rituals emerged: silent breakfasts, afternoon walks capped off with chocolate macaroons, sneaking wildflowers into one another’s shoelaces while we set up for yoga.
With each passing week, habitual urges and anxieties subsided, the afternoon walks got longer, and our conversations meandered and deepened. I felt greater intimacy not only with my friends, but with myself. Pico Iyer describes this kind of time off “partly as a way to visit remote states of mind: remote parts of myself that I wouldn’t ordinarily explore.” Given enough time, this remoteness can be explored whether you’re with family and friends or alone, whether you travel just a few hours away, or fly to the other side of the world.
My most profound experience with remoteness came quite far from home. Midway into a Himalayan trek with my brother, it dawned on me just how precarious our situation was: well beyond cellphone range, alone with our guide, days of difficult hiking away from help should something go wrong. This danger had been evident in the abstract when we planned the trip, but along the way I experienced a different form of knowledge — the bodily knowledge of what walking 10 hours a day, day after day, actually feels like, our isolation measured out in steps.
“Do people you take on this trek ever get sick?” I asked our guide, not certain if I wanted to know the answer. “Oh many sick, many sick,” he immediately replied. Our boots beat a nervous rhythm on the trail in the subsequent pause before he added, offhandedly, “Some die.”
A week earlier at the trekking agency, my question of whether there’d be an opportunity to wash my hair during the trek produced hysterical laughter. My brother and I argued over whether to bring a heavy jar of Nutella so we could have something to slather on the endless meals of chapatis. “Do people die?” was not even remotely on our checklist.
In fact, that trek landed us in real danger, as an unexpected blizzard coincided with a night of altitude sickness. We had to push through hours of heavy snowfall, wearing socks as gloves and heaving for oxygen, to make it over a 17,000-foot pass. I don’t recommend wandering into the Himalayas without proper acclimation or gear, as we naïvely did. (And pro tip: Do bring the Nutella.)
But it was a profound experience to be stripped of all the insulation and clutter of regular life, to be reduced to a pure animal state. I felt terrified, raw and awake to the fragility of life — the farthest I’d ever been from home in both mind and body.
Soon the blizzard became so dense that I could only follow the footprints left by our guide, gasping for air and terrified I would step off a cliff, when abruptly out of the whiteness emerged the enormous head of a gaur, the wild ox of the Himalayas; I couldn’t even see the rest of his body. I stopped. That disembodied black head exhaled huge clouds of steam as we gazed at each other, everything else blinding snow.
I had to walk for many days to reach him, but here he was, waiting to show me what true ease looks like. The awe and radical serenity I felt in that moment likely echoed that of the ancient Romans when they first saw the Great Sphinx of Giza, towering over them in the desert sand, or that of vacationers who have shed their familiar, daily routines and taken time to come face-to-face with the unknown. The wondrous details of the world await us all: It just can take a few weeks to reach them. I calmed down and took my next step