Pico Iyer on Finding Nowhere

And how no place is uninteresting to the interested eye.

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It was a missed flight to Osaka that led Iyer to explore Nowhere. Photo by Who is Danny/Shutterstock.

Nowhere is the place you never want to go. It’s not on any departure board, and though some people like to travel so far off the grid that it looks like Nowhere (or Nome or Nuuk), most wanderers ultimately long to get somewhere. Yet every now and then—if there’s nowhere else you can be and all other options have vanished—going nowhere can prove the best adventure around.

One beauty of Nowhere is that it’s entirely uncharted; you’ve never read a guidebook entry on it or followed Paul Theroux on a train ride through its suburbs. Few YouTube videos exist of it. And this leads to the second grace of Nowhere, which is that it’s cleansed of the most dangerous kind of luggage, expectation. Knowing nothing of a place in advance opens us up to a wide-awake vitality we seldom encounter while traipsing around Paris or Kyoto with a list of the 10 things we want—or, in embarrassing truth, feel we need—to see.

I’ll never forget a bright January morning when I landed in San Francisco from Santa Barbara, just in time to see my connecting flight to Osaka take off. I hurried to the nearest airline counter to ask for help, and was told that I would have to wait 24 hours, at my own expense, for the next day’s flight. The airline wasn’t responsible for fog-related delays, a gate agent declared, and no alternative flights were available.

Millbrae, California, the drive-through town that encircles San Francisco’s airport, was a mystery to me. With one of the world’s most beautiful cities only 40 minutes to the north, and the unofficial centre of the world, Silicon Valley, 43.5 kilometres to the south, Millbrae is known mostly as a place to fly away from, at high speed. And an unanticipated delay is exactly what nobody wants on his itinerary.

But what I found, as I dropped my checked-in suitcase off at a left-luggage counter, reserved a room at an airport hotel, and walked out into the winter sun, was that Nowhere can have grace notes that Anywhere would envy.

It was a cloudless, warm afternoon as a shuttle bus deposited me in Millbrae. Locals were taking their dogs for walks along the bay while couples sauntered hand in hand beside an expanse of blue that, in San Francisco, would have been crowded with people and official “attractions.” I checked in to my hotel and registered another advantage of Nowhere: Nobody knew I was here, and there was nothing I had to do.

Suddenly I was enjoying a luxury I never allow myself, even on vacation: a whole day free. I ordered a salad from room service—healthier and much tastier than anything I could have eaten in seat 17L—and then noticed that The American, a movie I’d longed to see when it sped through the cineplex, was available on my TV.

illustration for Pico Iyer story

Illustrated by Jon McNaught.

The movie and meal behind me, I went for a walk, and, looking in on the Marriott down the road, found myself caught up in the last dramatic seconds of an NFL play-off game on a giant screen, doubly exciting for one who doesn’t have a TV set at home. The whole event was made festive by the conference goers who had turned the impersonal space into a weekend party. Heart still pounding as the players rushed the field, I stepped out again, strolled along the water, and caught sight of yellow arrows pointing to the finest burgers in the West. My dinner at In-N-Out cost me all of $4.27.

Nowhere is so far off the map that its smallest beauties are a discovery. And as I made my way back to my hotel, lights began to come on in the hills of Millbrae, and I realized I had never seen a sight half so lovely in clamorous, industrial Osaka. Its neighbour Kyoto is stunning, but it attracts 50 million visitors a year.

Not so Millbrae. I had the waterfront to myself and no need to dodge tour buses or postcard peddlers. Back in my room, I saw that the irresistibly unbuttoned Golden Globes were on—I’d never managed to catch them before—and I was reminded that one of the blessings of any trip is that it can open your eyes to what you’d never take notice of at home.

Next morning I headed back, uncharacteristically refreshed, to the airport and collected my suitcase from the left-luggage counter. I arrived there to find a slim silver laptop opened to YouTube. On it, Martin Luther King, Jr., was extolling “the fierce urgency of now” and his dream of the glorious day when “the rough places will be made plain and the crooked places will be made straight.”

I looked up and saw that the manager of the left-luggage counter, an older black man with a greying beard, was standing beside me, eyes welling, as moved as I was. We stood together in silence, and it came to me, belatedly, that this was Martin Luther King Day. If my trip had gone according to plan, I’d have missed the day almost entirely, turning my watch 16 hours ahead and arriving in Japan just as it was all but over.

I’m not sure I recognised the smiling traveller who boarded his flight to Osaka, newly aware of both this particular holiday and the meaning of every holiday. I’d slept well, and I’d seen a pretty, unpresuming town that I’d never thought to explore before.

Who knows if I’ll ever visit Millbrae again? But I’m confident that Nowhere will slip into my itinerary many times more. And I’ll relish whatever it serves up to me. No place, after all, is uninteresting to the interested eye.




  • Pico Iyer is the author, most recently, of The Man Within My Head and The Art of Stillness, and is based in Nara, Japan. He has written extensively on both East and West.


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