If all you know about Mark Twain comes from a cursory perusal of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn from way back in your high school days, you’re rather tragically missing out. The man is responsible for a full 1% of all historical witticisms thus far produced by the human race. The fact that he looks like a drunk version of Albert Einstein is just an added bonus.
But the man was also a big fan of travel, galavanting around the world in his heyday like a somewhat-more-modern-day version of Marco Polo, but likely consuming vastly greater amounts of alcohol throughout the process.
And, being the savvy wordsmith that he was, Mark Twain has been credited with one of the most memorable and inspiring travel quotes of all time:
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
Too bad he never said it.
Even I was fooled. But in retrospect, it’s obvious. It’s not a Mark Twain quote. It can’t be. No one’s getting insulted by it! And this isn’t the only time Twain has been misquoted.
So where’s it from? Who was ingenious enough to grace the world with such lyrical beauty, to bestow upon the globe such inspirational poetry, that galvanizes the dreamers into embracing a life of ever-so-fleeting wonder?
We don’t know. Oh well.
The earliest known appearance is from an author named H. Jackson Brown, Jr, in the book PS: I Love You, published in 1990. But this was just a book of inspirational words of wisdom, without necessarily providing or knowing the origins. A few newspapers (and even a video game) misattributed the quote, and here we are today. Check out the discussion here for details on how it all went wrong.
So what else have we got?
Actual Mark Twain travel quotes
One can only assume Twain spent the entirety of his existence spouting ingenious witticisms at all hours of the day and night, the brilliance of which has been forever lost to the ages; but luckily for us, he managed to get at least a few of his thoughts down on paper, and what we do have is a treasure trove of sentence-sized masterpieces that put most novelists to shame.
But, of them all, this one stands, first and foremost:
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” – Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad
And in pictorial form:
It is, in my objectively correct opinion, the best Mark Twain travel quote to be found.
Of all the reasons to travel, broadening one’s horizons is the most important. We live in a world with billions of people and rapidly diminishing resources, and our collective history is far less cooperative than it is competitive. Experience is the enemy of ignorance, and travel is a gateway to understanding the world.
Oh, and it’s also scientific fact. Researchers actually tested this claim, by evaluating levels of trust among those who traveled far and wide, experiencing cultures entirely different from their own, and those who did not. The results would have been obvious to Mark Twain; the more countries one visits, the more trusting he or she will be of others, particularly when those countries were nothing like one’s homeland.
But of course Twain wasn’t all rainbows and sunshine:
“The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can become until he goes abroad.” – Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad
Especially when it’s body temperature outside with 100% humidity and you’re packed into a sardine can that resembles a train car with thousands of your fellow humans and you just want to take a shower dammit. Argh.
But don’t worry, Twain has a way out for us as well. It’s a lesser-known cousin of the “travel is fatal to prejudice” quote from above:
“It liberates the vandal to travel––you never saw a bigoted, opinionated, stubborn, narrow-minded, self-conceited, almighty mean man in your life but he had stuck in one place since he was born and thought God made the world and dyspepsia and bile for his especial comfort and satisfaction.” – Mark Twain, The American Abroad speech, 1868
Sure, you might be an awful moron now, but spend a few years in Uzbekistan and you’ll come back just a regular moron.
And, speaking of morons, Twain has some words of wisdom here as well:
“I have found out that there ain’t no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them.” – Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer Abroad
It’s hard for me to imagine, but some people just don’t understand this. They picture travel as an endless series of picturesque landscapes and exotic sightseeing tours, failing to realize that in reality it’s a constant fiasco of missed trains, closed attractions, booked-up rooms and entire nights spent locked in the train station on concrete floors in the middle of winter. At least, it is for me. Damn you, Italy!
But for those who think traveling with a friend is the only way to travel, you’ll be in for a series of unpleasant surprises. Traveling requires constant decision making all day long, and traveling with a friend requires constant consensus all day long. Everything from sleep schedules to eating habits to sightseeing preferences, and, above all, budget restrictions, must be harmoniously synchronized.
And this is entirely separate from the rather obvious predicament of having to spend your whole vacation alongside someone who might be a huge jerk. If the two of you can’t stand each other, there will be no escape.
Until you go home, upon which you’ll be greeted with further disappointment:
“There is no unhappiness like the misery of sighting land (and work) again after a cheerful, careless voyage.” – Mark Twain, Letter to Will Bowen
I cannot argh loudly enough to express how annoying this is. Those first few 9-5 shifts after a few months spent exploring the Peruvian jungle or trekking through some Nepalese mountains are going to be awful.
And although plenty of people will repetitively claim until the end of time that travel is simply an escape from “real” life, I shall adamantly refute it until the last of my days. The world around us is real life, and experiencing it is invaluably educational; sitting at home and endlessly going through the same routine over and over again isn’t any more “real,” but it’s certainly more boring, and infinitely more conducive to ignorance.
But, odd though it may seem, Twain seems to have adopted just such a perspective in his later years, apparently having outgrown his love of travel after having seen it all:
“Travel has no longer any charm for me. I have seen all the foreign countries I want to except Heaven and Hell and I have only a vague curiosity about one of those.” – Mark Twain, Letter to W. D. Howells, 20 May 1891
I would imagine he might have felt somewhat differently if the proliferation of photography had been as thorough in 1891 as it is today, but such is life. And, speaking of Hell, I bet he’d have gotten a kick out of the Hades travel guide.
Mark Twain’s travel writing
Twain was lucky enough to be able to travel quite a bit during his lifetime, and he detailed those experiences most famously in The Innocents Abroad, which is one of the best-selling travel books ever written, and Twain’s best-selling book during his lifetime. The book details his experiences traveling to Europe and the Middle East, and contains many of the travel quotes for which Twain is famous.
His next book, Roughing It, details his adventures in the American West, where he briefly dabbled in the 19th century lottery that was gold prospecting.
So it’s hard to imagine today, but Mark Twain could have been the Rick Steves of his time. Just with a whole lot more alcohol, and far more swearing. Imagine going on one of his tours.
Oh, what could have been.