There and Back Again: Travel as a Calling

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
Neodelphi hobbit square

People who get in my car notice the Bilbo Baggins action figure sitting in the console. With the inevitable grin, they ask me, "So what's that about?" I answer them, "Bilbo is the patron saint of my car, because it's been there and back again."

I've put 200,000 miles on my 12-year-old Honda Civic. Long miles. Short miles. Everything in between. My car has traveled the ridge of the Grand Canyon and the byways of the Florida Everglades. I've visited a roadside attraction east of Tucson, Arizona, called "The Thing" (I'm not telling you what "it" is; you just have to see it yourself), and meditated on war at Cowpens National Battlefield in South Carolina.

The "roads go ever, ever on," as Bilbo Baggins sings. Traveling the road transforms a person in unexpected ways.

How? My answer can be found in The Hobbit, a book by J.R.R. Tolkien and a movie adaptation directed by Peter Jackson, being released today. The movie is a prequel to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, an award-winning, billion-dollar movie franchise. Jackson did the unthinkable and nailed the epic Tolkien novel. Now, Jackson takes on the prequel and promises to plunge us back into Middle Earth.

At the beginning of The Hobbit, a very comfortable, well-to-do Hobbit named Bilbo Baggins is forced by Gandalf the Wizard to go on a great adventure. His companions, 12 dwarves, seek to reclaim their lost gold from a terrible dragon, Smaug the Magnificent. To this point of Bilbo’s life, he has barely traveled outside of his own neighborhood. The moment he leaves the Shire, however, Bilbo finds himself walking strange roads, hearing strange languages, and seeing strange landscapes.

The journey begins to change him as Gandalf points out monuments of ancient civilizations. He learns about long dead kings, queens, and people who occupied the land before him. When Bilbo reaches the Elven home of Rivendell, he encounters a culture so different from his own that he is made to confront prejudices learned from a lifetime of close-minded provincial living in the Shire. Bilbo, already small in stature, learns humility as he realizes his place in Middle Earth. He wrestles with the words of Gandalf, that he is, indeed, quite a little fellow in the wide world after all.

In Ohio, my home, I often drive by 2000-year-old earthen mounds made by a mysterious people. Archeologists can tell us very little about those who built these amazing works of art, and I realize my own smallness in history. It brings me a deep sense of humility. The Teacher's words in Ecclesiastes come to mind: "A generation goes and a generation comes. But the earth remains forever."

When I travel, I don’t encounter Elves (sadly), but I do encounter people who transform me. I'm often struck by how simple conversations in a gas station or in an out-of-the-way historical park open my eyes. What strikes, ultimately, are not the differences, but the similarities. Thick, harsh, New Jersey cadence may seem unrelated to the Cajun drawl of Louisiana, but the citizens tell a similar story. Human beings have the same dreams, the same pains, the same sufferings, and the same fate awaiting us all. So, while their differing culture views change me, I'm also transformed by the sameness; the Image of God shining forth as the Elves shine in Rivendell.

[Spoiler Alert]

After a long, beautiful, and terrifying journey, Bilbo returns home changed in significant ways. Gandalf describes it well when he says, "My dear Bilbo! Something is the matter with you. You are not the same hobbit that you were." Indeed, Bilbo finds himself no longer "respectable" to his neighbors and friends. He recites poetry, talks about his adventures, and speaks Elven. The road made him into a new person, no longer able to see as he once did.

Traveling the road transforms me, too. The mere act of stepping outside onto my street can sweep me off to a life-changing experience. God uses these experiences to make me see the vastness of His world, to gaze on mysteries, and to be transformed by wonders in people who, at least on the surface, appear different than me. This traveling, seen as a calling—as an act I can do—transforms me into something else entirely.

So, get in a car and see the world. But, be warned, as Bilbo tells his nephew, "It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept to."

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is in a theater near you. The book is everywhere. Read it if you haven’t.

Image by Neodelphi. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr. Post written by Jonathan Ryan. Jonathan is the author of the upcoming Urban Fantasy novel, 3 Gates of the Dead, to be released March 2013. He can be found on Twitter at @authorjryan.