Death and travel don’t seem the happiest pairing for a travel book. Honestly, that’s not a trip I’m eager to take any time soon. Yet travel writer Lori Erickson weaves those topics together in her new book Near the Exit: Travels with the Not-So-Grim Reaper with surprisingly upbeat results.
She’s a deacon in the Episcopal church so, it’s not surprising that Lori’s travels have a spiritual direction. Her previous book, Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God, is a memoir told through trips to a dozen holy sites around the world.
Now, partly as a result of her brother’s unexpected death and her mother’s move to a memory care facility, Near the Exit takes a slightly different approach to travel. She investigates how cultures confront death, from the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, to Mayan temples in Mexico, to Maori communities in New Zealand, and to plenty of more commonplace sites such as nursing homes and graveyards. It’s a very readable, wise and, yes, funny book that will certainly inspire me to appreciate many of the places I travel in a new light, hopefully with the Grim Reaper on another bus.
Here Lori answers my questions about travel inspiration and our ultimate destination:
How and when did you decide to combine spirituality and travel?
I’ve been interested in these two topics for much of my adult life. About 15 years ago I realized that I could actually combine them–in fact, pilgrimage is almost certainly the oldest form of travel, and is still of major interest to millions of people today. So at that point I decided I wanted to specialize in the intersection of travel and spirituality, which I define very broadly. While I’m Christian, I’ve wandered a lot in my faith journey and draw inspiration from many other traditions, especially Buddhism.
Your book focuses on mortality as well as travel. Would you briefly discuss a couple of places you’ve been where the culture offers exemplary ways to deal with our own mortality? Can such cultural travel help ease the fear of death or the loss of loved ones?
In my book I write about the small Colorado town of Crestone, which has the nation’s only non-denominational, open-air cremation site. While I didn’t see a cremation there, I talked to a variety of residents about what it means to have this option in town, and what it’s like to see their neighbors’ remains go up in smoke. It’s clearly a powerful experience and a profound teaching in impermanence. They also do the preparation for death very well, with strong community support and communal rituals that help ease the transition, both for dying people and for their loved ones. Crestone has a lot to teach us about dying well.
The other place that I found to have a very healthy attitude toward mortality was the Day of the Dead Festival I attended at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago. On November 1-2 in Mexican communities, the dead are said to return for a visit. People create altars that honor their loved ones with photos, mementoes, and their favorite foods, and picnic on their graves. I like the idea that the dead come back for those days, and then leave again. It’s a very healthy response to death, I think. You don’t focus on it all the time, but you know that for those two days, you can remember and grieve and celebrate, all at the same time.
I focus on literary travel; you target spiritual/religious locales. Your interest has certainly taken you to some unusual places—grave yards, cremation grounds, pyramids. In what ways does having a particular focus or field of interest enhance your travel? For example does it offer a way to go beyond routine tourism and to interact with the people who live in your destination? Do you have other suggestions for subjects/interests around which to organize a trip?
I love all kinds of travel, but I think having some kind of focus for trips deeply enriches the experience. It might be gardens or art or food or beaches or a wide variety of other topics. The point is that you’re able to focus on certain things and ignore others, which can deepen your understanding and enjoyment. Travel can sometimes feel like a firehose of impressions. Having a sense for what’s most important to you can help you deal with that rush of too much information and too many new experiences. Pretty much anything can be a focus for travel. People should think about what gives them pleasure and what they’re curious about.
I loved the story about your New Age travel companions in Mexico who constantly reported having past-life experiences and spoke “galactic.” One in particular said she had received a message from the Egyptian god Thoth. OMG. I think it would be difficult to travel with a group like that and it sounds like they drove your husband, Bob, a philosophy professor, a little nuts. We’ve all been in trips and tours with travel companions who were a tad irritating. Any suggestions for how to deal with all this? Lessons learned?
Well, all the best travel stories involve misery, don’t they? Or if not misery, at least trials and irritations. It’s helpful to remember that travel and travail share the same root. It also helps to keep your sense of humor and realize there are times on nearly every trip when you’re going to be irritated or miserable. Just accept that and know that these moments almost always pass pretty quickly. And you can be grateful that those problematic traveling companions won’t follow you home, unless they’re a family member.
I know you strive to meditate and be a contemplative person. The way travel can be nowadays—airport lines and cancellations, overcrowded tourist sights, rushing from place to place—it seems more like wearing a hair shirt than a soul-satisfying experience. How do you maintain your lovely, composed self? Maybe you rip off your clerical collar and yell at people, but I don’t think so.
Hah! That’s funny. I have my moments, believe me. But it helps that I grew up on a dairy farm and never went anywhere growing up. I try never to lose sight of the fact that I’m incredibly fortunate to have the opportunities and experiences that I do. And as I said, even the hard parts make for interesting stories and rich writing material.