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Travel advice from Teddy Roosevelt’s uncle

Leaving home is all about the people, not the scenery

With another summer vacation season in progress, tourists can find plenty of advice on how to make the most of their journeys: TripAdvisor, Fodor’s, the Sunday travel section. But the summer’s best travel tip, oddly enough, might be found in a personal letter penned more than a century and a half ago.

The author was Robert Roosevelt, President Theodore Roosevelt’s uncle. In 1851, the president’s father, Theodore Roosevelt Sr., took a grand tour of Europe, sending back breathless reports about the sights he’d seen along the way. Robert, Theodore Sr.’s brother, was unimpressed.

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“I’m afraid, Theodore, you have mistaken the object of traveling,” Robert wrote to his sibling, in a letter quoted in David McCullough’s “Mornings on Horseback.”

“It is not to see scenery,” he wrote, “you can see finer at home. It is not to see places where great people lived and died, that is a stupidity. But it is to see men. To enlarge your mind, which will never be enlarged by looking at a large hill, but by conversing with, and seeing the bent of the minds of other people.”

The sentiment was perhaps a bit overstated, much in keeping with the Roosevelts’ reputation for bluster. A grand skyline is a wonder to behold, after all, and historic sites offer invaluable windows into the past. But in touting the importance of making human connections on the road, Robert had put his finger on something profound.

Modern researchers have found that connecting with other cultures can have lasting positive effects. Psychologists Jiyin Cao, Adam D. Galinsky, and William W. Maddux concluded that broad travel can help people build a stronger sense of trust in humanity; in another research project, Julia Zimmermann and Franz Neyer studied students before and after the young people took study trips abroad. After their return, the students tended to be more open to new experience and more agreeable, suggesting that in interacting with other cultures, the students had learned to be more socially flexible.

Teddy Roosevelt, the man who would become the nation’s 26th president, hadn’t even been born when his uncle offered his advice. But the philosophy he developed seemed to embrace his uncle’s idea—and anticipate the kinds of mental payoffs that experts now associate with travel.

In Roosevelt’s day, as in our own, travelers often treated journeys as a kind of military operation, with success measured by miles covered and views seen, rather than people encountered. Young adventurers on the Grand Tour racked up landmarks like so many trophies on the wall.

But Teddy, both as a private citizen and a chief executive, popularized travel as an exercise in enlightenment. His travels ranged far beyond the European itinerary of the day, taking in the depths of the Amazon and the wilds of Africa. He saw many of the planet’s most dramatic landscapes, but it was his willingness to connect with the locals that deeply influenced his world view—not just in other countries, but within his own. He traveled the woods of Louisiana, the desolate Dakota Badlands, the vivid vastness of the Grand Canyon. In “Fellow-Feeling as a Political Factor,” a magazine article he published in 1900, the same year he was elected vice president, he wrote: “Any healthy-minded American is bound to think well of his fellow-Americans if he only gets to know them. The trouble is that he does not know them.”

Then Roosevelt talks about the revelation he experienced while seeing the country that lay beyond his aristocratic New York environs. “Outside of college boys and politicians my first intimate associates were ranchmen, cow-punchers, and game-hunters, and I speedily became convinced that there were no other men in the country who were their equals,” he writes. “Then I was thrown much with farmers, and I made up my mind that it was the farmer upon whom the foundations of the commonwealth really rested—that the farmer was the archetypical good American.” And so it goes, with Roosevelt continually revising his assumptions as he meets railroad men and carpenters, too.

Roosevelt argues for travel as a kind of cultural cross-pollination—an odyssey in which pilgrims cross geographic boundaries, meet strangers along the way, and end up bridging intellectual and philosophical boundaries as well.

Today, thanks to an airline industry and a national interstate system, innovations unheard of in Roosevelt’s time, the civic benefits of travel would seem to be more accessible than ever. But at the same time, it’s never been so easy to travel without actually talking to other people. GPS navigation means we no longer have to stop and ask for directions at the filling station. Kiosk check-ins at airports and hotels limit our interaction with other people, too. And as we immerse ourselves in a culture of portable laptops and smartphones, ignoring fellow train and airline passengers has become the norm.

The result appears to be what Robert Roosevelt feared several generations ago: travel that connects travelers with different scenery, not different souls. Is it any wonder, in an age of tourism so hermetically sealed from human encounters, that our body politic also seems so disconnected?

Robert Roosevelt’s words about travel ring with special urgency this season, as so many of us pack our suitcases to see Old Faithful, gulf beaches, or continents beyond our own. With any luck, we’ll also take the time to see a new face, and perhaps discover a part of ourselves reflected back.

Danny Heitman is a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana and author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.” He’s on Twitter @Danny_Heitman.
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