Experiencing the World Through Others

Growing up, my family went on lots of excursions and road trips. When I was 9 or so, we traveled by car from Oklahoma City to Winnipeg, Canada – onto Toronto and Montreal and back. This experience really opened my eyes to the possibilities of exploring places. I remember staying in a cabin in the Canadian woods, exploring the rivers and mountains in Colorado, and the Great Lakes of Michigan and the fossil beds of Montana.

And I remember clearly the sense of being outside myself as I absorbed this foreign landscape – the wide, flowing rivers, the architecture, and the rugged hills of the Dakotas. As I got older we continued our travels, throughout Oklahoma, the South, the Rockies, the Midwest, Chicago, New York, Boston… See America first was the popular saying at the time. Its is something I carried over with my own children, camping on the Gulf, sojourns into Mexico, visits to Washington D.C., New York City, Philadelphia ….


There are many aspects of travel that appeal to me. Sometimes I travel alone and that experience of moving through the world as a solitary individual always makes me watch more, take more in and notice the details. Going it alone has its advantages, of course. If you’re looking for maximum freedom to go where you desire, when you desire and in whatever way you desire, solo travel often works for me. But lately, having someone along for the ride is indispensable.

In 2001, I moved to Colby, Kansas, and the rural high plains. I found here a number of young college students who had not traveled much and were eager to see what was beyond their immediate grasp. I recall, taking a trip over Spring Break to visit my son in Los Angeles, California and the number of students literally begging to go with me on this trip of a “lifetime.” So now I tend to travel more with my students.


We have traveled border to border in the USA, traipsed through parts of Canada and into the urban jungles and remote rainforests of Mexico. Through them I can view the world through their eyes, hear the sounds of a place through their ears, and experience something amazing through them. For me it is all about taking those sensory details and connecting them with larger pictures of a culture, the history, and art.

When I’m with my students and we are walking or passing through a foreign landscape I always find myself asking about who was there before, what kind of history it carries. Travel/study trips with students allows me to think about these questions – both the asking and the answering – and weave them together with images – the gravestone of a pioneer, the heady scent of sage along a hundred-year-old wagon trail still carved into the ground.


Prior to traveling with students, I must go through the process of thinking about what they will see, do, hear and learn. It requires me to research a foreign place and as I write their workbooks it pushes me to look deeper, ask more questions, attempt to understand the place and the people who live there and, in a way, that deepens my own experience.

Still, there are other times when I would rather fade into the background and experience things more quietly. So I try not to go as a teacher, because that can sometimes actually stand between the place and me. I think, in order to get a true perception of a place, it’s important to somehow balance both. As a side-note, being a teacher, I find it becomes almost impossible to just take ‘a vacation’. After a couple days, I’ll be quietly jotting notes and picking up a few brochures ‘just in case’…

Dr. Michael Thompson
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