Thanks to a man I never met, my soul found its way back home

The "John L. Stoddard Lecture Series," including photos such as this one of the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt, illustrate the Victorian adventurer's travels around the world.
The “John L. Stoddard Lecture Series,” including photos such as this one of the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt, illustrate the Victorian adventurer’s travels around the world.
(John L. Stoddard)

My most influential friend in my growing-up years had been dead for 40 years by the time I met him.

I ran into him by chance one Sunday afternoon as I browsed through my grandparents’ bookshelves. Tall and handsome, he stepped from the pages of a set of faux red leather volumes called the “John L. Stoddard Lectures.”

Once we got to know each other, a path opened that eventually led me to become a travel writer.

In the late 19th century, Stoddard traveled the world from Boston to what was then called Bombay, India (now Mumbai), delivering reports of his adventures to packed lecture houses throughout America and writing books based on those presentations.


I’m not sure how those volumes ended up at my grandparents’ house; perhaps they were a garage sale find or maybe hand-me-downs from a neighbor. They were old by the time I first encountered them, and their musty, moldy smell escaped with every turn of a page.

As the daughter of an Iowa dairy farmer, I had never traveled far because cows have to be milked twice a day. My family never went anywhere for other reasons, including money, but we also weren’t the sort of people who would have traveled even if we had the wherewithal to do so. My family was mystified by why anyone would want to leave home for pleasure. Think of the multiple ways things could go wrong, including restaurants where we wouldn’t know what to order or food that could upset our stomachs.

As the adults visited each Sunday, I immersed myself in Stoddard’s books, becoming a world traveler through osmosis.

In Kyoto, Japan, we marveled together at dancing geishas, their elaborately coiffed hair shining like a raven’s wing. In Jerusalem, I joined him in shuddering at the sight of lepers begging in the streets. He tried to teach me — he was wildly incorrect, I learned later — that Spain was so dangerous that people should prepare by visiting a priest for absolution, a doctor for medicine and a lawyer to make a will.

I loved the photographs and engravings even more than the purple prose, which also included some cringe-worthy prejudices that I knew enough to reject. The sepia-toned illustrations showed worlds removed from me by time and distance. I realized that these places had changed since he had traveled there, but in some mysterious way I felt that they were still intact and that if I stared at the images long enough, I could stand on the Palace Quay in St. Petersburg, Russia, or climb aboard an elephant in India.

Stoddard turned me first into a traveler, then into a writer, although it would be years before I would get the chance to follow in his footsteps. What he did then is what I do now: experience faraway places, then tell other people about their wonders.

There’s another curious thing about Stoddard, something that makes me wonder whether there’s a karmic connection between us. He was raised a Protestant and was, at one point, a seminarian. Then he was an agnostic for 30 years before becoming a Roman Catholic. He wrote a book about his conversion called “Rebuilding a Lost Faith,” a work that was popular for many years.

I suspect something happened to him that also happened to me: His travels sparked a spiritual quest, and his journeys of adventure gradually became pilgrimages of the heart. My trips to holy places around the world — sites such as Ephesus, a Greek city in Turkey, Lourdes in France, Machu Picchu in Peru and Thomas Merton’s monastery in Kentucky — have given me essential keys to understanding what was happening in my inner life.

They have challenged my assumptions, forced me to confront my fears and prejudices, and deepened my faith. Among other changes, they eventually led me to become a writer specializing in spiritual travels.

The road can be the best spiritual teacher of all, I’ve found, because once you set out on trips to sacred sites, if you’re paying attention, your life will change. In journeying far, my soul has found its way back home.

Departure Points explores the ways traveling changes us, whether it’s a lesson learned or a truth uncovered. You may submit a first-person essay of 700 or fewer words to using “Departure Points” in the subject line. Please include your first and last names and your contact information for editorial consideration.

Lori Erickson’s latest book,Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God” (Fortress Press), is a memoir told through trips to a dozen holy sites around the world.