One of the last times I saw Alex Leviton, author of the new book Explore Every Day: 365 Daily Prompts to Refresh Your Life, we were loitering in a very non-suspicious way behind the London Custom House, waiting for muggles to go away so we could hunt for a secret treasure. We weren’t engaged in some sort of Harry Potter cosplay; she was introducing me to geocaching.
There are geocaches hidden all around the world. Unless you’re reading this on an airplane, there’s one near you now – even on the International Space Station. If you think you know your hometown well, go geocaching. I guarantee you’ll learn something new.
So I wasn’t surprised when I heard about Alex’s new book. Alex is a long-time travel writer with over 30 books to her name and more passport stamps than she can count — and perhaps it’s this experience that gives her a special ability to spot adventure wherever she is. If you’ve ever felt bolder, more curious, more like your true self when traveling, her new book is a reminder that we can tap into those same feelings closer to home. Some of the prompts nudge you to go out exploring nearby towns and parks, others you can do without leaving the sofa.
One of the shortest prompts in the book: “Find a nearby geocache. Get geocaching.” I can personally vouch for that one.
You say in the introduction that you think of this book as an act of rebellion — how so?
When you travel, you make 10,000 new decisions every day that you’d never make at home. Society right now says that’s what you do when you travel, but when you stay home, you don’t do that. You don’t get out of your comfort zone.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist who studies flow states, says our brain has two states: conservative and expansive. We’re mostly in conservative at home: routines, safety, work, daily activity. I see it as an act of rebellion to push ourselves into that expansive mode — exploration, novelty, curiosity, risk — without having to go somewhere.
Is there a benefit to thinking like a traveler at home?
Absolutely. Newness is such a great thing for our brain. When we travel, we’re encountering so much newness. Just this week, new research came out about how when we sleep we get this beautiful washing of the cerebrospinal fluid over our brain that clears out all the toxins. In a way, travel is kind of like that. It’s like an awakened version of cleaning out our brain — we get these washes of newness over our brain, we’re hearing new languages, we’re eating new foods, we’re seeing new sights, feeling new feelings. And that’s fantastic for us. It is so much harder to do it at home. I mean, are you home right now?
Okay. Look around. Like what’s in front of your face is new right now?
Umm, there’s a costume of a deviled egg in front of me.
And has that refreshed your life? Just the experience of that?
Well, I wore it to a work party. I’m not particularly good at introducing myself to people at parties. But you put on a deviled egg costume, suddenly everyone wants to talk to you.
Exactly. I want people, every couple of days, to essentially wear a deviled egg costume to a work party — that’s what I’m trying to do with this book. I want people to have that experience. You put on a deviled egg costume, and suddenly there’s newness; you’re out of your comfort zone.
One day of travel is like three months of normal life.
You just went to summer camp and yet you’re a fully grown adult. Why?
This is the fifth time I’ve been to summer camp. It’s one of my favorite things in the entire world.
One of my prompts in the book — and a question I ask all of my writing students, as well — is what five words describe why you travel (or write). My five travel words are challenge, connection, awe, learning and quest. I get these words hitching a ride through Bosnia or writing a book about Italy, but I also get them at summer camp not two hours away. At camp, I challenged myself rock climbing and doing archery, I made connections with four amazing new friends, and I sat awe-struck while kayaking in a gorgeous still lake.
Five words that explain why we travel — should everyone start there?
Yes, yes. Say I was doing an interview and I got to say wherever someone should start, that is totally where I would make people start.
This is one of those things that’s going to take you a few days — you’ll have to sleep on it. You start off just brainstorming and write 20, 30, 40, 50 words. Why do you travel? Culture, wellness, bragging rights, nature, play, food and drink, challenge, adventure, knowledge, art, music, perspective — all these different things. (And then the last one is gelato, of course. Introspection, new experiences, gelato.)
What are your own? Write as many as you can think of the best times you’ve had traveling. What have they been?
In fact, I’m actually gonna ask you: What would be your words?
Oh wow, I’m going to have to think about it. I feel like they’ve changed over time. Part of me still wants that feeling that I had when I was 22, adventurous, and knew nothing. But the best trip I’ve taken in recent years was total relaxation in a place I know well.
Yup. Our words change. I remember sleeping in hostels when I was younger. I slept in not only in a double bunk bed, I slept in a triple bunk bed. I stayed in a hostel in Italy in my twenties that had cat urine smell and stains on the mattresses. And you know, that was totally fine back then.
I have this theory that there’s two types of travel and they should almost have different words. Like I think there’s two types of medicine: There’s the medicine that keeps you healthy, and then there’s medicine for once you’ve gotten sick.
Same with travel. There’s vacation and there’s travel. And when you’re in your twenties, life is pretty easy. You need to challenge yourself. You haven’t been challenged enough, you don’t have enough responsibilities. Get out there, do crazy shit. Challenge yourself, push yourself to your limits, get yourself out of your comfort zone. And then as we get older and we have kids and we have mortgages and, and life is challenging us a lot, then what we need to do is more of the vacations. Instead of spiraling up, what we need to do when we travel is spiral down.
Challenge is one of my five words, but really travel always has some challenge in it. And challenge can take on so many variations. One prompt in the book is to turn off your phones and all electricity at 6 pm and spend the night reading or talking by candlelight.
Some of the prompts in the book — like that example — don’t even require you to leave your house. There’s at least one that takes place entirely inside your own head. If we can have the experience of travel in our living rooms, is distance overrated in travel?
Yes and no. I do think there’s a benefit to going really far, but I don’t think we need that benefit quite as often as we think.
I think the benefit is in newness, not distance. But, especially in the US, it’s hard to see a lot of newness in fewer than 500-3000 miles. I was just in Puerto Rico. I helped a group of kids cut down coconuts. I had a piña colada at a local baseball game where we were the only tourists. My Fitbit told me my resting heart rate was the lowest it’s been since July. Travel is amazing. In fact, it’s so amazing that I want to do it when I’m at home more.
The travel industry often falls back on the Rick Steves argument, that international travel is valuable because it’s uniquely transformative. But sometimes I wonder how many times Rick Steves needs to be transformed by Europe. Can we not be transformed here in the US?
Yes, absolutely we can. I’ve been in 64 countries, I’ve contributed to over 30 travel books now — I’ve done a lot of travel, and so I don’t want to say, “Okay, I’ve done it, now nobody else can.” I absolutely think there’s a huge benefit to getting into those situations where everything is new. But if you go to Europe twice a year, 10 times a year, you’re not going to have the same transformation because 98% of things won’t be new.
I recently started training guide dogs for the blind, and at the first session, when I thought I was going to just observe, they just handed me a dog and were like, “Go, train this dog.” I had to do this figure eight move, and I totally screwed it up. I pulled the dog too much. I push the dog too much. Everything I did was wrong. And I loved it. It felt exactly like travel. In an hour, it went from 98% new, to 80% new, to 74% new. I don’t need to go to Italy every year, but I do need to challenge myself or learn new things every month. And connecting with adorable puppies is good, too.
There’s a lot of discussion today about “flight shame” and reducing how much we fly because of the carbon footprint. Was that part of the thought that went into this book?
I think that travel is totally up to people individually. And so this is not about flight shaming. I don’t even want people to reduce the amount of travel that they do. But what I’m hoping that this book does, is offer new alternative where all of a sudden people wake up and say, “Oh, I didn’t realize I’m not traveling quite as much as I used to.”
Travel is like improv in many ways, where the answer is always “Yes, and…” We can use that “Yes, and” intention closer to home. If there’s an alternative that satisfies what travel gives you, then we don’t even have to flight shame.
I hope that more travel writers talk about this. We were the ones saying “Oh, you’re only cool if you like go climb Everest.” That was us. Instead of flight shaming, we need to be creating new alternatives, new ways to value different types of travel.
Do you have a favorite prompt in the book?
Yes! And this is something people can do right now wherever they are. Find someone else to do this with you. Grab a paper and pen, take three minutes and draw a map of your hometown. And then compare.
Or this: Give a tree or plant near your house a nickname based on its personality. Or attend a free lecture at your nearest university, a performance at a local school, or a talk at your local bookshop this week no matter what it is.
Pie or cake? And where?
Cake. Specifically, tres leches cake. There’s a place near where I live in Seattle — I just went there the other day for it. I won’t say where, but tres leches cake. Seek it out.
Find out more about Alex Leviton, her books, and her creativity workshops at alexleviton.com.