We are conditioned to fear darkness. It is a state so imbued with disquieting connotations that even as an adult, when your mind can logically distinguish between the bogeyman and the simple absence of light, you still get that uneasy feeling when it's midnight, a spoon falls in the kitchen, and your girlfriend asks you to go to see what that noise was.
Recently I traveled to darkness at a sensory exhibit titled "Dialogue in the Dark." Participants are led through several rooms in complete darkness by a blind guide in order to realize the limitations of the human body, respect its capabilities, and engage in thought-provoking conversation about both. The most edifying aspect of the exhibit was the unnerving kind of blackness that exists when you can't tell if your eyes are open or closed.
As I awkwardly stumbled through the inky experience, I considered that though countless others had done the same, this felt exclusive. The darkness lent an indefinable quality to the situation, as if I could be anywhere during the eclipse. I was exploring someplace completely new and different.
In his book The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain observes: "Discovery! To know that you are walking where none others have walked, that you are beholding what human eye has not seen before . . . these are the things that confer a pleasure compared with which other pleasures are tame and commonplace."
Unfortunately, there's a discouraging idea pervading the travel world that there are no places left on Earth to discover. The emergency wanderlust beacon has been directed to the virgin topography of Patagonia or the isolation of Papua before they are overrun by tourists. So as we flock to those parts of our planet where "traveling" might still be considered "exploring," we forget that the greatest unexplored regions on Earth are the bottom of the ocean, the vastness of space, and the human mind. And what do all of these have in common?
I'm not suggesting that the only way to new explorations is on a space shuttle, but rather a reconsideration of what darkness means to a traveler. We travel because of the distance between home and elsewhere, the excitement of what will unfold abroad, the unknown. It is what the French call L'appel du vide, the call of the void; essentially, it is the darkness that motivates us to move. And always in the darkness we are beholding what human eye has not seen before.
So whether you travel where none other has walked or millions have flocked, what's important is that we don't really know what we'll see, whom we'll meet, or what will happen when we're there. The darkness lures us forward toward experiences so pleasurable and so withdrawn from the tame and commonplace that it's sometimes hard to tell if our eyes are open - or closed.