Learning to go with the flow is the most important part of travel planning. Travel is about letting things unfold and happen naturally. It’s better to see fewer attractions and go deeper into a city or a region than to cast a wide net and go shallow.
Traveling solo, you learn who you are and what you are capable of. You learn how to be comfortable with only your own thoughts for companionship. In this sense, solo travel is a wonderful teacher, because it teaches self-reliance.
When I think of the self-reliance I learned on the road, I think of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous words on the same topic. “Trust thyself:” he wrote, “every heart vibrates to that iron string.… Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.”
I stopped denying it. Yes, I told anyone who doubted me—you’re right. I am running away. I’d been running away ever since I first slung my backpack over my shoulder in 2006. But I’m not trying to avoid life, I’d tell my doubters. I’m trying to avoid your life. I’m not running away from the real world—I’m running away from your idea of what the real world is.
I realized that casting deliberate vagabonds and nomads as crazy, maladjusted, antisocial Peter Pans is just another way of perpetuating fear. It’s a way of saying “our life is the only life, and anyone who wants out of it is crazy.” And when you define people who want out of your life as crazy, you never have to grapple with the shortcomings of your way of living.
You look at someone else—someone with a different story or a different path, a different personality or a different set of choices—and you don’t see a fellow human being, you just see what you are not. You see a defective you, a freak. Some of us become so unconfident in our choices, so dependent on mentally running others down in order to make ourselves feel like we have worth, that we stop seeing other people as anything else but as a means to that end. At the extremes, this is where racism, sexism, and all the other bad-isms originate
When Thoreau said that he wanted to “live deliberately,” that resonated with me. He said that he wanted “to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
But the idea that you can wish a rich and exciting life into being is ridiculous. The real secret to life is that you get what you want when you do what you want. Life is what you make it, not what you wish it. Life is yours to create.
People who travel the world aren’t running away from life. Just the opposite. Those who break the mold, explore the world, and live on their own terms are running toward living. We are running toward our idea of life. We get to be the captains of our ships.
LIKE A DRUG, travel had kept its grip on me long after I thought I was done with it. And like an addict chasing their first high, it was never as good the second time around. So it was for my second trip around the world. I had gone back out to chase the high—imagining it to be a highlight reel and forgetting the ugly parts.
That’s the amazing thing about memory—it sands down the bad parts, the tedious parts, the frustrating parts, the burnout-inducing parts. And it works even when we know that that’s what it’s doing. Back at home, in our old life, we think of all the happy memories of travel and contrast them with our boring day to day. We think of the moments we wish could last forever, and the places always seem to pull us back to them.
I began to wonder if something was wrong with me. Because there was something missing the second time around. Something I couldn’t put my finger on. As much as I wanted to run toward life, to get out there and explore again, the reality didn’t seem to live up to my memories, or my anticipations. It wasn’t as fulfilling. I spent time living in Bangkok again, then moved to Taipei and worked on my blog, then went back to Europe, and in each instance my time settling down brought me more joy than my time traveling.
What really made Thailand so special? It was the people I met. Ko Lipe was magical because of John and Sophia.
But, as Francesco drove me back, I realized Bill and I were wrong. You can return to a place and love it just as much—if not more—than the first time but only if you go back with different intentions. If you go back expecting the same magic to happen, you’re going to be disappointed. You can’t play the same movie twice and if you’re hoping for a rerun, you’re just setting yourself up for failure. People are what really make a destination—a magical concurrence where time and place produced a magical cocktail of friends and experiences. All my favorite memories revolve around the people who were there and how they made me feel at the time. It was never the place. That was merely the backdrop.
As I’ve spent over a decade on the road, I learned that chasing ghosts is just as bad as never giving a place a second chance. I hated Bangkok until I lived there. I hated Los Angeles until I had been there a handful of times. I didn’t love Berlin until my second visit.
On the road, I felt like a king, and more and more it seemed, heavy was the head that wore the crown. Whereas before I could go months without feeling burnout, now it was only weeks before that happened.
Back in early 2012, I began to realize that, while I wasn’t running away in the traditional sense, like a person on a treadmill, I wasn’t getting where I was headed.
On my last night there, I watched the travel movie, A Map for Saturday. As it ended and the travelers interviewed in the movie talked about going home and their sense of loss, I began to cry. No, crying doesn’t describe it enough. I wept. For the first time, I felt as if my travels were truly ending. Unlike before, I would be going home and there were no plans to come back.
After six years on the road, I was going home to Boston. To apartment hunting, furniture shopping, cable bills, traffic, and making sure I have gas in my car. My future held book tours, conferences, work, and deadlines. Responsibility had crept back into my life.
So, inspired by Scott, I decided to finally take the trip I had been dreaming of for years: one final trip through Southeast Asia and South America. I wanted to try once more to get it out of my system, or at least to confirm that, whether I liked it or not, I was a nomad who was destined to always travel. I needed to find out who I was. I needed one last big trip. I needed to know, to try to work on finding a balance, to come to terms with myself and what I really wanted. Travel had done that once before for me. Maybe it would do it again.
Here’s the thing about trying to escape: Your feelings come with you. They sew themselves into the nooks and crannies of your backpack and hang there like dead weight, digging into your shoulders as you carry them from one beautiful place to the next.
We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time. —T. S. ELIOT
But, as time wore on, I struggled with a secret, one I kept inside for fear of losing what had become my identity. The thing I craved most of all—more than anything in the world, no matter where I was at any point during that decade—was a garden. I had stood on mountaintops with soaring views, been awed by ancient temples, seen oceans that stretched to the furthest horizons, and traded stories in seven different languages before the day was out—but the thing I wanted to do most of all was come home to a fucking garden.
A garden requires constant attention. Attention that can’t be given when one leaves every few days. To have a garden would require me to settle down. A garden would be an act of commitment. A hobby that required myself to be rooted next to my rooted plants. To take them inside and turn them into a meal. In my own kitchen with all the tools never found in a hostel kitchen.
But they were always right. It was a lie. I was trying to have it all. I understood now why alcoholics in a 12-step program give themselves over to a higher power: It’s because you need something big and powerful in your corner when you’re fighting an addiction. You need something to surrender to, someone to hand the wheel over to.
I wasn’t the same guy who was coached by some backpackers in Thailand to cast out and set off for the unknown. I had a deeper sense of who I was, because I had seen the moon shine on the other side of the world. I couldn’t let go of that self. I knew that my longings for family and a relationship and some stability weren’t just stray thoughts that popped into my head. They were real things I wanted. I was ready for them. I was trying to beat these thoughts back and tune them out. If I go away on one more trip, they will go away. But your demons and desires travel with you. And I could no longer ignore them.
We began to fight about our expectations and our desires. My panic attacks revealed the nature of the stress my dual life was causing, I realized something else: I wanted routine and a schedule; the white picket fence, kids, a dog, a family. I wanted to wake up, go to the gym, write, run my blog, start that garden, and see my friends. I didn’t want to travel the way I had been traveling anymore. I had seen the world from a backpack enough times. Charlotte went to travel with her friends around Cairns, while I went to Perth to visit a friend. Away from her and with time to think, I realized I couldn’t go to New Zealand. All I could think of was home, my bed, my roommates, and a stable life. In Perth, I realized the truth: my travel burnout was permanent. It was time to put away the backpack. I didn’t want to travel anymore. I wanted the exact opposite of that. I knew in my heart this was the right thing to do—the same way I knew leaving all those years ago was the right thing. I had grown over the last decade, and the last six months had given me the answer to the question Scott’s death had brought up: what did I really want? I wanted a home.
She cried and said she understood. Over the months, we stayed in touch, but our chats grew less frequent. A gulf of my own making had developed between us. She traveled all over the country and I laid the foundations of a routine. My passport collected dust in my drawer. I woke up early every day. I went to the gym again. I started cooking again. My eye twitch faded away. My anxiety became less severe. My panic attacks went away. I grew more peaceful. I never once missed travel. But I did miss Charlotte. As I lay in bed at night in my apartment, I wondered what she was up to. What was she doing over in New Zealand? I had no idea, because she went longer and longer without updating me.
And now it was too late. She was going back to New Zealand, and I was home where I wanted to be. There was no way to go back to where we were before. It would be like chasing ghosts. There was nothing left to say. We got up and hugged, and then I watched her walk away. It’s strange seeing someone walk out of your life after envisioning a future with them—marriage, kids, old age. Like a writer getting a blast of inspiration, I saw how the story developed, played out, and even ended. But then an unexpected wind blows all the pages out the window and the story is gone forever.
My friend Bill likes to say that trees grow because they have roots.
To me, travel is the act of going somewhere new, doing something new, meeting someone new, and connecting to as much of it that feels right and good to you.