Lessons From The Road: A Wayward Man's Guide to Long-Term Travel
Updated: Jan 29, 2020
Below, dated over a year ago today, is a journal excerpt from the morning I left on the adventure of a lifetime. I didn't realize it at the time, but the people I'd meet and the places I'd go would change...well, everything. My outlook, my values, my path, and my purpose would be peeled back and irreversibly shaken. Months before I wrote this I remember talking to a friend about my pipe dream to travel longterm across the country. I remember the safety and security of my job, and friends, and newfound 20-something life. I remember putting the idea on the back burner until I was older, or wiser, or had more money, or had more work experience. I had excuse after excuse after excuse. But now here I was actually doing it. I had no job. I had no plans. All I had was the road in front of me and the faint internal pang of a soul I would come to find I never really knew.
Well, it's begun. Not like a wave or a storm, but calmly. Like the wind. I've moved all my belongings, and the remainder sits in my 2013 Toyota Camry. Moms & brothers & friends have been called.
Now it's only me.
Since then I've spent 157 days away from home. I've slept in and adventured through fifteen national parks. I've eaten local cuisine in twenty states. I've slept in over thirty different campgrounds, and worked on three different farms, and bunked in my fair share of airbnbs and hostels (thx hostelworld). I've been to rodeos, crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, seen Niagara Falls from within its magnificent horseshoe, and camped out on the hillsides of backcountry Maui. I've been to Wall Drug, Mt. Rushmore, and rode the Staten Island ferry into New York City. I've fallen in love with the bison of Yellowstone and the bighorn of the Badlands and seen shooting stars sail above the antlers of elk in Glacier.
Over a year ago all of this was just a dream.
That's the beauty of an idea. Once you give it weight, it builds and snowballs, and before you even realize it it's become woven into your reality. My life went from wanting to travel to actually traveling. It wasn't all perfect, though--I had plenty of bouts of discouragement. Hell, in the past year alone I've returned home to stability and quit the same job twice. But despite not being easy, it was worth it. Every single second.
Now, if you're still reading this, I've got a hunch you're either an active travel junkie or an aspiring one. This article is for you. I've compiled a list of seven different lessons that I've learned from my long-term travel experiences.
1. Purpose is everything.
What is your reason for taking to the road? Think about it. Really think, and I mean it. This is your compass. It is your North Star, and when faced with the difficult decisions that come with travel, it will be your saving grace. Personally, I sought a genuine experience of life. I sought to walk about in the shoes of those I encountered, and call the world around me home as I experienced it. When times got tough, or rain fell down, or people were crude, I was rebalanced knowing that this was what I wanted. The beauty and growth that my mind and soul encountered did so as a result of the good and the bad that I encountered. Without both there would be no catalyzing effect. On the farms I worked beside people from all walks of life. People who were homeless, or runaways, or seeking an alternative path. It constantly broke my mind that, to me, this experience was transformative, yet others despised it wholly. The difference? Purpose. I had a purpose, and it was being fulfilled.
2. Maintain an open mind.
Travel will change you, but it may not be in the way you expect. New places, by definition, allow us to reflect upon the places we've left. For some this can be uncomfortable. Travel forces you to go from a passive local in your own life to an active stranger in someone else's. You are in a new town. You are meeting new people with new outlooks. You may have to eat new foods, or do new chores, or partake in a new hobby. Here's a list of some things I experienced for the first time in my travels:
- Harvested apples, pears, strawberries, tomatoes, asparagus, peppers, pumpkins and olives
- Buddhist meditation
- Learning guitar
- Milking a goat
- Creating heavy cream and cream cheese from goat milk
- Attending a megachurch
- Doing things alone (eating, camping, driving, movies, going to the beach, enjoying nature)
- Showering in a McDonalds parking lot
- Tried cactus, homemade doughnuts, huckleberry, trout, and mountain oysters
- Visited Crater Lake NP, The Redwoods, Yosemite NP, Death Valley NP, Joshua Tree NP, Channel Island NP, Grand Canyon NP, Zion NP, Olympic NP, Glacier NP, Grand Teton NP, Yellowstone NP, Rocky Mt NP, and the Badlands NP
- Slept in some really sketchy places in Phoenix, AZ
- Met people who'd never left their hometown
- Met people who'd traveled the world
- Learned how to hitchhike (haven't actually done it)
- Learned how to do carpentry and some permaculture
- Learned how to harvest grapes and make wine...wine!
and much, much more.
But the important thing to note is that you must be open to the journey in order to enjoy it and be changed by it. The narrative you've told yourself about who you are should be left in the place you're leaving.
"I don't eat xyz"
"I don't like to do xyz"
"I am the kind of person who xyz"
That's the person you've been. Let's dig deeper. Let's find the person you are. The old adage "you never know until you try," speaks volumes here.
"Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."
- Victor Frenkl
In that space lies who you've been, who you are, and who you've still yet to become.
3. The people are often, if not always, more lovely than the scenery.
A retired search and rescue officer who travels the backcountry of Joshua Tree to find ancient artifacts and, in some ways, his own purpose. An irishman and Native American woman who left everything at 20 to travel the country in a hippie van, returned home to become teachers and, now retired, play in a local band called "bards of a feather." A girl and her boyfriend who graduated high school and booked it north to work on a farm because they'd never been outside the 30 mile radius of their neighborhood. An old man who confessed to me he can't afford his house on the California coast, but he had always promised his wife they'd have one, and how watching her wake up against the rising sun will always out-beat the weight of his debt.
These are real stories. These are real people.
The granite heads of Yosemite. The deep and rugged valleys of the Grand Canyon. The vast magic of spherical boulders in Joshua Tree. The mighty mountaintops of Glacier.
They're absolutely beautiful, don't get me wrong, but they've been there and will be there for millennia to come.
The people you'll meet. The brief glimpse you'll have into their life story. The drinks you'll share, and love you'll find. That's where you'll find your humanity. That's where you'll get a taste of the moment. Where you'll realize your dreams and goals. Where you'll learn lessons and gain wisdom.
My fondest memories are those of secret wishes and fears shared over the roar of a campfire.
That's the true magic of travel.
4. Log off. Reject old comforts.
Your Netflix, Hulu, Facebook, or Instagram account.
Escapism (n.) - the tendency to seek distraction and relief from unpleasant realities, especially by seeking entertainment or engaging in fantasy.
You are traveling. You are living, consciously and fully, a reality that is full of possibility. Feel the sand between your toes. Listen to the sound of the rain hitting your tent. Smell the freshness of the setting sun. But, for most of this, this is hard. We live lives where we are always on edge, always being productive, and always looking for something to do. If we can't simply be when we're at home then of course we'll have difficulty doing it on the road.
But, I urge you, you must.
Your phone is a distraction. You use it to escape, and it is a habit. Do not carry it into your journey as a crutch. Carry it as a tool. Maps, loved ones, and internet. Trail apps. Hostel apps. Stay away from distractions. The time you spend scrolling you might miss the bluejay land near your campfire, or the Vietnam veteran who escapes to the mountains for meditation therapy and wants to play cards with you.
This is why I wholeheartedly recommend staying away from hotels (unless you're fighting travel fatigue but we'll touch on that later). The chain of habit is too strong when you have comfortability at your finger tips. You arrive to your new destination, and instead of having to set up a tent or map out dinner plans or go get wood, you can collapse into bed and sleep. You wake up and think about going to explore, but instead you flick on the tv and order room service. Congrats! You've just spent a day of travel having a fulfilling experience of sitting on your couch.
Get outdoors! Remove your comforts. Remove your phone from your hip. Put it in the lockbox of your car.
If you want the comforts of a hotel with the pleasure of adventure then opt for a hostel, or WWOOF on a farm, or make a couch surfing account. Anywhere where you're forced out of your comfort zone will help you on the path of true experience.
We live in a time where we project a true experience of life to those around us without actually experiencing it. Don't feign happiness, live it. Don't project the excitement of travel, feel it. Don't travel to find comfort. Travel to find yourself.
5. Relax & recharge.
Okay, this one is one of the most important. Travel fatigue is real. Don't get travel fatigue. Don't ignore travel fatigue. Don't pretend travel fatigue doesn't exist.
Mine hit me my first day on a farm in Arizona. The feeling roared around my head. I was exhausted, both physically and mentally. I'd been moving nonstop for weeks and, despite the excitement of being on a new farm, I was breaking down. I was sad. I was stressed. Meditation wasn't working. I felt ill. I just wanted to sleep and relax my mind, but there were goats to milk and chickens to feed. I was there to work on the farm.
Then I found out about travel fatigue.
Travel Fatigue (n.) is general fatigue, disorientation, and headache caused by a disruption in routine, time spent in a cramped space with little chance to move around, a low-oxygen environment, and dehydration caused by dry air and limited food and drink.
Despite my previous rant about staying away from hotels, I do believe it is important to find a safe space to relax and recharge while traveling. This is the exception to the travel rule where hotels are perfect.
Your body and mind are not used to such a constant strain of stimulus and when you continue traveling for a prolonged they can succumb to a state of exhaustion or illness. This feeling of illness will overcome you and the general antipathy can seep into your travel plans, mindsets, and general well being.
After over 40 days of traveling I finally listened to my body, gave in and got a hotel. It was absolute magic. I ordered a dominoes pizza, a giant cookie, and bought a jug of chocolate milk. I sat on a bed that felt like a cloud and showered and shaved and, just simply, relaxed. It was incredible. It was healing. It was necessary.
I've decided to add this mindset into my own travel adventures. After a week or two of heavy movement or travel, I highly recommend giving yourself one day with a nice bed in a warm room. If you plan to travel for 3 or 4 weeks I recommend taking a 5-7 day hotel break before you set out on your next journey.
Don't be like me! Combat your travel fatigue and plan ahead of time.
6. Maintain a healthy skepticism.
I love my rosy eyed sunglasses. I love seeing the best in people, and the wonderfully beautifully possibility that travel holds. I love talking to strangers and wandering through the woods and sleeping in campgrounds.
Unfortunately, however, these rosy sunglasses need to be tinted with preparedness, awareness, and a healthy dose of skepticism when you're traveling.
The rules are simple:
Trust your gut: If it looks fishy and smells fishy and walks fishy, it's probably fishy. Your intuition is key here. If you don't feel safe at a site then leave the site. If someone is making you uncomfortable then find a way to leave the situations. Err on the side of safety. You're going to have a great many opportunities while traveling. You'll be invited to different homes. You'll be asked personal information. You'll find yourself alone with a stranger in the middle of the woods. Do not fret, but maintain a healthy skepticism when approaching situations that set off the "warning" light in your head. I never encountered anything that I deemed dangerous, but I also avoided a few circumstances that may have been.
Be prepared: This one not only goes for defending yourself from people, but also animals. I carried a hatchet for cutting wood and a pocket knife for cooking, but if you think that was my only purpose with em you'd be wrong. I would carry my pocket knife with me at all times. Paranoid? Nah. Just prepared. If you're in bear territory then you'd better have bear spray. And it's more simple than that even. Have firewood with you for eating. Have non-perishables in case you get stuck without food. Bring a first aid kit and bandages and rope incase you find yourself in a sticky situation. Bring iodine tablets incase you can't find clean water.
Just to be clear: I never encountered a situation where I had to use any of these but, if I had, then I would've been prepared. That's the key here. You have the knowledge to be prepared. Don't waste it. Do your research. Print out hiking maps ahead of time. Don't get caught wishing you had done your due diligence.
7. Don't plan too much. Fall in love with the experience of living.
To travel in a literal sense is to simply leave our home behind. To travel in a more realistic sense is to leave everything behind. Your job. Your friends and family. Your worries and your stress and your sadness.
That may seem grim, but it's not. You'll be back in a few days, weeks or months. Use this time to embrace something you haven't had since you were a child.
Complete and utter freedom.
Most of us, when faced with travel, are worried about hitting all the highlights. We plan our schedules to the brim and, instead of having an enjoyable time, are stressed about completing an impossible list of our own creation. We end up discouraged and upset that even though we did see the Grand Canyon, and Horseshoe bend, and Zion, we didn't get to see Havasupai falls. We conjure up false expectation and forget the true purpose of hopping on the plane to begin with.
To truly experience what we see, hear, smell, touch and taste. To truly inhale the moment and view and life that is before us. Traveling reminds us that we're alive. That there are things we still have yet to see, and emotions we have yet to feel. It reminds us that home is just another town in all the madness of this universe, and that's what makes it beautiful.
Commit to the moment. Be ready and willing to take a detour. Live as if there was nothing before and nothing to come. Read every road sign. Drink from every river (clean it first). Hike every trail. Swim in every waterfall.
Live, live, live like its all you were meant to do--because it is.
All this creation. All these mountains and rivers and streams. All these faces and souls and hearts. All the animals and oceans and stars.
We humans created a world where we need to sit behind a computer to live, but we need to travel in order to survive. We need to escape our comfortable shell and explore new horizons. We need to realize that other people think and bleed differently than we do. We need to explore the world we've been given because the more we do the more we realize that we are all apart of one grand moment. We are all alive right now. We are all breathing right now.
Travel teaches us to live.
Travel teaches us to love.
Travel teaches us to believe in something bigger than ourselves.
Travel teaches us that we are all one. One people. One heart. One life.
Even now I sit in a cafe in Manahawkin, NJ and look at the tables around me. Four women playing cards to my left. A group of teenagers doing homework across the way. A man with a yellow cap and graying hair reads a novel on a black leather loveseat. It's busy in here, and you can feel the humanity of it. Laughter, lots of laughter. Smiles. A palm to one girls face when a friend tells a cheesy joke.
I guess what travel really gives you is a new pair of eyes. Eyes that allow you to see beauty whether you're miles away from home, or simply watching two friends sharing a beer after a hard days work.
There are all the excuses in the world not travel. You only need one good one to book the ticket. I hope I've given that to you.
Your adventure is waiting, and if you let it, a new life will be waiting on the other side too.
PS: Call your mom. You scare the #$@# out of her when you don't check in. Thank you for all the love, support, and understanding you've given me on my journey. I love you momma.