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A Brief Guide to Recreational Time Travel

view from 30 rock

Time travel is just like regular travel, except you move around the fourth dimension instead of just the other three. I will explain how. It doesn’t take any special talent but you do need to practice it. You can do it anywhere, even when you’re regular-traveling.

The first thing you should do when you get to a new city, I remember reading in a travel guide, is find the highest point where you can see the whole thing. Before any other sightseeing, you’re supposed to get yourself up to the observation deck at the CN Tower, Christ the Redeemer, Top of the Rock or the Space Needle, and look at the city from there.

The writer claimed this ritual totally transforms a visitor’s experience of a city, because everywhere you go afterwards, you know roughly where you are in the landscape. Otherwise, knowing where you are is a completely abstract exercise. You’re picturing yourself on the map instead of in the territory, navigating colored lines and rows of rectangles instead of the actual streets, hills, waterways and boroughs that make up a real-life city.

This sounded like a great idea and I planned to do it in every city on my big backpacking trip. But I forgot to actually do it until years later in New York, near the end of my trip. I went to the top of 30 Rock and saw the city for what was, I realized, the first time. I took about 500 pictures, but none of them really capture the sense that the city is a great big physical thing, a surreal carpet of buildings growing over what was once probably a very quiet natural harbor. 


The view reminded me of a National Geographic cover that showed Manhattan split lengthwise, the East half the city we know today, and the west half the wild, green island it must have been five hundred (or five thousand) years ago.

It was surprisingly easy to see the landscape this way, without its modern-day clothing, and now I do it almost everywhere, especially in my own city. I look at the contours of the land beneath the infrastructure, and picture what it might have been like to stand there before anything had been built there. Almost every city sits where rivers meet, or where the coastline does something inviting. Most downtowns stand on what would be a perfect spot to pitch a tent if you time-traveled back to the city’s founding. Every city was once just a campsite.

Time-traveling for fun and insight

I’ve been exploring this kind of recreational time-travel, on different scales. If I’m sitting in a bustling public square, I might imagine its post-apocalyptic version: cracked and windswept, visited only by animals. Or maybe I’ll look at it as the unpaved clearing it was a hundred years ago, when it was just beginning its tenure as a meeting place. No cars yet, just horses. Church bells. Chimney smoke.

Or I will look at an apartment building and see it as both a brand new building and a condemned shell, or maybe the forest that stood there long before there was even a city.

The insight happens when you come back to the present and see it like it is right now. Suddenly the old building seems to retain all those faces behind its current one: that of an older building, a new building, a ruin, a busy construction site, and a virgin stand of trees. Its present-day appearance now feels like it’s one of many.

before new yorkThis sensation of looking at something across time is really hard to convey, so I’ll give you a simple example you can try out. Look at the room you’re in right now, and picture it as it will be after you’ve left. If you’re in the office, picture your workstation all closed down, your chair empty, everything where you left it, nobody in the building but maintenance staff. Just by imagining this place in the near future, you can feel a real hint of the mood this space can have at different times. When you let go of the thought and come back to your present experience at work, the room somehow seems bigger—not in its physical size, but in its temporal size. You might get the sense, rightly, that there’s more to this space than how it looks and feels right now, and that that’s true for every place you go.

We tend to view our surroundings only as far as they are relevant to ourselves and our time, but each space has so much more meaning to it than the tiny sliver each of us know. My apartment, which to me has always seemed mine, has spent most of its life housing people I don’t know, each of whom had their own familiar, personal feelings towards this space. The place where I drink my coffee, here in 2015, is also the site of untold breakups, parties, conversations, and arguments, possibly crimes, acts of betrayal or acts of redemption. People probably conceived children in here.

Time-traveling reveals this additional depth because it reminds you that there is a fourth dimension, time, in every apparently three-dimensional space. It doesn’t really matter that you can’t directly experience what a space was like in the past, or will be like in the future; actual time-travel would wreck the stock market and probably everything else. But just by recognizing that things also exist in other times, you gain some insight on how to respond to them today.

Using this power for Good

Although it’s fun—and strangely reassuring—to look at places across different times, this kind of time-travel has some more specific applications. In the classic stress-reduction book Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff Richard Carlson recommends looking at every person as both a defenseless infant and a 100-year-old senior. The extra perspective gained from contemplating a person’s often-ignored fourth dimension makes it almost impossible to view them without compassion, even if they’re currently annoying you.

Eastern sages have given us the similar advice to “see the glass as already broken.” The idea is to look at any possession with an awareness that one day it will break. When the glass does get knocked over and smashed on the floor, instead of loss you feel gratitude. Its destruction was already a given, and in a sense it was always a part of it. When you can picture a thing’s destruction while it is still intact, you get a much more acute sense of what it is doing for you now. Ideally, we would see everything as broken, because contemplating a thing’s loss makes its value clear.

Looking at loved ones in this way reveals how powerful a practice this is. Life is precious to us only because we know it can be lost, but when it’s still present we can easily overlook that preciousness. I’ve written several times about a simple time-traveling exercise that will fill you with gratitude:

When you’re with friends or close relatives, in an ordinary moment—maybe at dinner or while a group of people is talking—zoom out for a second and observe the person as if you’re only remembering them, from some time in the future when this person no longer around. Don’t worry about why they’re gone, just look at them as if they’re out of your life now, and you’re only remembering what they were like, their voice and their mannerisms.

If you can feel this person’s gone-ness for even a moment, then when you come back and remember that this isn’t a memory, and that you are actually seeing them, live, the gratitude you will feel can be staggering. It seems like a small miracle has happened: this wonderful person is still here, and you are living in that precious time when your lives are overlapping. You are just that lucky.

For anyone who’s ever felt the hole left by a lost loved one—this is the opposite feeling of that. We have a chance to feel it every day, if we can find the necessary perspective. If you have that experience even once, then you can appreciate the immense value of recreational time-travel. It creates perspective about the present we couldn’t otherwise have. Everything exists in four dimensions, but for one of those dimensions we’re stuck at one location: the present. So in a way, we only see life’s surface. But we can at least get a sense of how deep things go beneath it.


Photos by David Cain. National Geographic cover by National Geographic.
Akhil August 18, 2015 at 5:52 am

Beautiful article. I loved how you used time travel as a concept to explain how to cherish the good people you have in your life and just be thankful that you’re with them. Good luck with your future articles.

David Cain August 18, 2015 at 8:50 am

Thanks Akhil

oneWEIRDword August 18, 2015 at 9:53 am

I do this too with cityscape and landscape! It makes me happy/sad.

Art August 18, 2015 at 7:32 am

Cool idea David. Did any specific book spark this idea for you?

David Cain August 18, 2015 at 8:49 am

I don’t think so. I am always thinking about time travel… I only included a few of the many ways I do this.

BrownVagabonder August 18, 2015 at 8:02 am

“If you can feel this person’s gone-ness for even a moment, then when you come back and remember that this isn’t a memory, and that you are actually seeing them, live, the gratitude you will feel can be staggering.”
That is such a powerful way to get back into the present moment. Nowadays when most of us spend all of our ‘quality’ time with family and friends on the phone chatting with someone else or checking out someone else’s lives, to do some time-travelling and realize this moment is all you really have and this person will not be here forever with you – it’s so important. Thanks for the tip on time-travel and this post.

David Cain August 18, 2015 at 8:51 am

It is a truly amazing experience. And you can do it with anything you value. Sometimes, instead of a particular person, I do it with a particular place, or a particular activity that I love. One day the experience will end. It will be not-happening for much longer than it’s happening, and it’s amazing that I happen to be here for it now.

Martin Kelley August 18, 2015 at 8:31 am

I always do this sort of time travel. I’ll study maps to figure out which are the older roads and where creeks have been diverted underground. When I saw the primitive Manhattan I recognized it instantly: it’s the NJ Pine Barrens where I live. Now I go there and try to imagine subways and skyscrapers among the cranberry bogs and feel thankful there’s at least some protection. I like NYC but I also like piney woods. :)

David Cain August 18, 2015 at 8:53 am

I am really interested in how cities are layered over time. NYC especially has been rebuilt a lot, and the underground is full of abandoned tunnels, pipes, trolley stations and forgotten spaces, each of which were new once.

joyful2bee August 18, 2015 at 8:46 am

What an amazing concept! As a nurse when I cared for an elderly person I tried to imagine them as a young mother or father, see them as if they were me in order to remember that they were once just like me in many respects. Your trips are certainly more imaginative but just as wonderful!

David Cain August 18, 2015 at 8:55 am

I think it is most poignant when you apply it to people. Everyone is on a long trip, and we change so much on the way.

Seán August 18, 2015 at 9:14 am

At the end of the movie “Gangs of New York” there is a scene where Bill the Butcher’s gravesite is shown. Then there is a timelapse forward to modern time showing how the grave is quickly overgrown, forgotten, and built over. This scene struck me as particularly poignant and I think it’s a good illustration of what you lay out here. Great piece David.

David Cain August 19, 2015 at 7:11 am

Yes, that is a perfect example.

Chris August 18, 2015 at 9:18 am

Great stuff. I know there were two families who lived in our home previous to us. It’s strange to think about but also nice. I like the idea of re-using and re-purposing, and we’re doing just that.

On top of that, it’s crazy to think about how much we take for granted with loved ones. Just a simple day trip can be perfect. We recently had one with my parents where we didn’t turn on the TV once all day. It was so nice to talk, eat, and just enjoy a nice day together.

I don’t like thinking about the fact that my parents will get older. It’s disconcerting, but then again, they are going through the same thing with their parents. It’s something that’s inevitable.

I guess that I get a whole lot of weird feelings (all the times I was rude and inconsiderate to them over the years, especially as a teenager). Then I think about them being in the same stage of life as I am now and how I’m a lot further ahead than they were because of the hard work and sacrifice they went through.

It’s good to think about this stuff even when it’s uncomfortable. Thanks for the nudge.

David Cain August 19, 2015 at 7:14 am

The other day there was a thread on reddit asking “What’s the worst thing about getting old?” and the top answer was “Watching your parents get old.”

Deb August 18, 2015 at 9:27 am

I love this! I needed a reminder. I used to do a version of this when my children were small and acting up or irritating me. I would imagine that they were now grown and I was miraculously given one day to be with them when they were small again. It always had a profound and immediate effect.

oneWEIRDword August 18, 2015 at 9:55 am

That is a great idea!

David Cain August 19, 2015 at 7:16 am

Ah that’s awesome! That’s exactly what I’m talking about. It’s great to hear other people have been doing things like this.

Tony August 18, 2015 at 9:29 am

“Its destruction was already a given, and in a sense it was always a part of it.”

Sounds exactly like Vonngut’s Slaughterhouse 5. If you haven’t read it add it to your list.
It’s about a man who becomes unstuck in time and has the same appreciation of the 4th dimension you state here. Not only has will someone die, has died, and always dies; they are alive forever in the past. So it goes.

David Cain August 19, 2015 at 7:19 am

I read it back when I was a teenager, and loved it, but I think I would get even more out of it if I read it now. I forgot how big a component the time-compression was in it. My favorite passage, one that I post every Rememberance Day, is this:

“It was a movie about American bombers in World War II and the gallant men who flew them. Seen backwards by Billy, the story went like this: American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.

The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers , and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans though and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.
When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.”

Free to Pursue August 23, 2015 at 9:44 am

Wow. I recently visited the Canadian Museum of Human Rights and reading the above feels nearly as powerful as that experience.

Luna Darcy August 18, 2015 at 10:19 am

Hi David,

I’ve always been intrigued about time travelling. I loved how you covered it in this post and I love your imagination and power. I agree that we only have the present but if we try this concept, we would appreciate more about life, and that may just make us live wiser moving forward.

You are awesome!


Sam August 18, 2015 at 11:19 am

great read. reminds me of Colin Wilson’s Philosopher’s Stone

Derrick & Heather August 18, 2015 at 11:28 am

Best article I have read in a long time! I’ll apply what I’ve learned in your article to every trip I take from now on and I think it will make every trip even better and give the trip a whole additional quality. I’ll also try my best to apply it to encounters with friends and family too- that is even more important and will have huge effects.

Thank you for presenting the opportunity for a wonderful way of thinking! Great blog!

David Cain August 19, 2015 at 10:44 am

Thanks D&H. The friends and family reflection is really amazing. All you have to do is remember to do it.

StephInIndy August 18, 2015 at 11:47 am

love it. i do this a bit, but not nearly as much as i could–and will–now that i’ve read this articulation. it was a blast just to read. thanks David!

David Cain August 19, 2015 at 10:44 am

Thanks Steph.

Maria August 18, 2015 at 12:12 pm

Wondering if you’ve had a chance to read The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. It may have been the inspiration for that NG cover photo, not sure. As for imagining our world without a loved one, the real deal always comes too soon. However, if you are gifted with the chance to offer care and presence before their departure, it makes you both stronger and softer.

David Cain August 19, 2015 at 7:23 am

Sounds like a great read. I remember being really moved by the title of the first chapter of Michael King’s History of New Zealand. It was called “A Land Without People” and it described the island group as it must have been before the Maori arrived, when it was inhabited only by animals.

Nicole August 18, 2015 at 12:46 pm

Great article. I’ve lost a lot of people in my life, but when my grandmother got sick, I knew she would soon pass. I forced myself to imagine life after her passing, so that I wouldn’t fall apart when it finally happened. As expected, I handled the moment of her death much better than I would have otherwise. What surprised me, however, is how well I’m handling it even now. Imagining life without her while she was alive allowed me to recognize her (and my relationship to her) outside of her physical body. If I could miss her while she was here, there’s nothing to stop me feeling close to her now that she’s gone.

David Cain August 19, 2015 at 7:25 am

I had a “glass is already broken” moment too when my father died. I had already seen his loss many times, even dreaming about it. And when he died I wasn’t upset, it was more like “And there it goes.”

Tim August 20, 2015 at 10:11 am

I had a similar reaction when my wife died earlier this year after many years of declining health. I wondered at my lack of grief, but a Methodist minister friend gave me a great gift in the form of a concept called “anticipatory grief” which turns out to be a kind of time travel like that which David describes.
Thank you, David, for sharing these thoughts with us!

Rain Waters August 18, 2015 at 2:02 pm

Did you ever notice how a place retains it’s basic charachter despite changes in constructed artiface, landscape and artistic enhancements? Someone asked me to look for this ten years ago. This person called such ever present features “Insitu”

David Cain August 19, 2015 at 7:26 am

Yes. When I picture my apartment as a post-apocalyptic ruin it still has a lot of the same personality as it does today :)

Jay August 18, 2015 at 2:08 pm

I really liked this! You remarked how actual time travel would probably wreck the stock market, etc… Maybe we should expand that perspective and use it to identify the things that people (either as individuals or even societies as a whole) currently see as useful, but really aren’t – like the stock market. It would make for somewhat of a litmus test of actual usefulness or benefit; eg. if going back in time could cause something to get “wrecked” on purpose, then maybe it isn’t worth having to begin with. Imagine how different things might be if this became a standard pre-mortem-type test for things… Thanks for your great writing!

David Cain August 19, 2015 at 7:27 am

Maybe! It would also “wreck” our current understanding of space-time, which would only allow us to know it even better. You don’t know what you got till it’s gone, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing.

Julia August 18, 2015 at 4:02 pm

I do this all the time!! Beautiful concept. :)

David Cain August 19, 2015 at 10:45 am

I was wondering if I was the only one. It’s nice to know I’m not :)

Barbara August 18, 2015 at 4:34 pm

Thanks, David, your writing is always so appreciated. It seems to nibble away into my vulnerabilities and my joys so that I become more purposeful in the way I am living my life.

Alistair Morris August 18, 2015 at 4:38 pm

I’m so happy to have found your site! Reading your ideas feels deeply familiar as I’ve often had similar thoughts, although I currently haven’t chosen to record them. Thank you, David!

Sally August 18, 2015 at 7:40 pm

Fantastic concept-wish I had thought to get a birds-eye-view of London, because I was always confused in the rabbit tunnels of the underground! As for time-travel, I think I have always viewed places in past and present. It may give others the impression I’m an airhead, when actually I’m existing in a constant state of awe.

Curtis Smale August 18, 2015 at 11:33 pm

Hi, David. I’m -usually- not an overly-gushy person, but, with this post, you have upped your style, your writer’s voice, and your content and insights to the next level. This is my favorite post of yours so far, with the one about “living in the now,” a close second. As a writer, I appreciate the time and craftsmanship and caring it takes to put out something of this -quality-. Your blog is one of the best things I’ve found on the Internet. To give you an idea of the company your blog keeps, here are the names of the few other blogs I read: Karen Salmansohn, Roger Ebert’s site, and Mr. Money Mustache (recommended by you). Thank you.

David Cain August 19, 2015 at 10:46 am

That means a lot to me Curtis. This idea is huge in my life, and while I don’t think I did the best job at conveying it, I guess I did get it across. There’s a lot more to it and I’ll revisit it later.

trillie August 19, 2015 at 4:42 am

Man, this blog is a real gem, David. I’m glad to have found it. Hope I’ll be able to write such powerful stuff some day!
Maybe it won’t be so bad to ruin the stock market through time travel.
Then we can finally do away with all this fictional money nonsense, no? ;-)

LennStar August 20, 2015 at 8:14 am

You are aware that you have gone very stoic with this post?

I think MMM wrote a similar one.

olinda roque August 21, 2015 at 7:58 am

hi, david
see this – similarly to the national geographic cover, just using a more sophisticated technology, it illustrates beautifully the time-travel exercise: http://interactive.guim.co.uk/embed/2014/apr/image-opacity-slider-master/index.html?ww2-dday

Free to Pursue August 23, 2015 at 9:41 am

These contrasting pictures are powerful. Thank you for sharing the link.

Free to Pursue August 23, 2015 at 9:40 am

Interesting to see so many takes on a similar theme in the comments.

I’ve found this approach valuable both while travelling and at home when it comes to considering places, activities and people. It seems to keep hubris and presumption at bay (side benefits of a little reframing).

shreen August 24, 2015 at 8:30 am

This is how I practice gratitude for the things I already have – imagine a time when they’re gone. It’s something I do fairly naturally anyway but usually with a negative spin (becoming sad thinking about a future without people I care about) but after reading about stoicism it has taken on a more positive vibe, allowing me to appreciate that I still have those people (or whatever) in my life and to appreciate them right *now* ! =)

Ife August 25, 2015 at 9:24 pm

I went out west this summer to visit a friend who’d moved to Wyoming. I was constantly struck by how the landscape seemed so BIG and VAST, and anything man-made in it felt so small and out-of-place. I was never able to shake that feeling, even after a week of being there. It struck me as I was reading your article that perhaps part of the reason why the west seems so big is that it evokes the past. The landscape we drove through looked almost unchanged from what it would’ve looked like 100 or 500 or 1,000 years ago, save a few fences and a strip of road.

maria mcadams September 10, 2015 at 10:45 pm

Thank you David, another gem, sharing it on my page. The reading – and reflection – helps me understand better the spooky feeling of traveling in time when I go to museums and galleries, when I spend time with patients in hospitals or visit old folks homes, when I go to funerals, weddings and baptisms… I am still learning to find God and be Grateful for everything that arises.

Laura November 17, 2015 at 2:40 pm

Great piece, David. Have you seen “Here”, a graphic novel by Richard McGuire? It’s the story of a corner of a single room in a house and what has occurred there, jumping back and forth through time from the present, to the future, and back through hundreds of thousands of years. It has had me looking at places in a very different way.

David Cain November 17, 2015 at 3:01 pm

Oh wow that sounds amazing. I think about that kind of thing all the time.

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