There’s a topic I’ve chosen not to address in this blog: romance. Watch any adventurer like Nathan Drake or Indiana Jones and romance is a meaningful component of their stories. Probably because discovering a new part of our heart is as exciting as discovering a new country.
But as important as that subject is, I don’t talk about that side of travel here for a few reasons. First, it takes on voyeuristic connotations in a public forum.
Second, this blog is about my story. Discussing other people risks objectifying them, making them into “episodes” rather than individuals with their own stories that I’m a part of.
Finally, the romantic side of my life is private. There are sides of me that I’m content to give away, but not that one. I’m a person, not a movie character.
But I can’t talk about the final chapter of my travels without embracing this subject, if only so you can understand how I came to be back in the United States and everything it means. So I’ll say this:
I fell in love.
I fell in love with a country.
I fell in love with a culture.
I fell in love with a way of life.
I fell in love with a neighborhood.
I fell in love with a family.
And I fell in love with a woman.
I want to show you pictures of her and the family that treated me wonderfully, and tell you the stories of the places we visited, the adventures we shared, and the unforgettable good times we had together. But I can’t.
Suffice it to say, though, that as I sat on the mountaintop in Nepal, I considered the paths before me: to continue traveling (which wasn’t really an option), to return to the U.S. somewhere, or to move to New Zealand and try building a life with the woman I loved who lived there.
In May 2019, after months of contemplation, I chose the last of those options. In June I flew to New Zealand, following my heart to a place that looks like this:
A NEST TO LAND
I was excited. I thought I had done it. I thought I had won.
To conclude my adventure in a jewel of a country felt like a blessing beyond measure. New Zealand is the only nation I’ve explored to the same extent as India. I’ve written previously about NZ here and here.
I also attended New Zealand’s Outward Bound Master’s Course for adults, a revered national institution. It was a huge test for me and played a major role in two later experiences, including HMI.
To be living in the land of the “Lord of the Rings” movies also seemed like a poetic end to two decades of my life.
But most of all, to be welcomed home to loving arms, a comfortable bed, and home-cooked meals felt like a gift I never could have dreamed of when I left the U.S.
I unpacked my clothes into a closet with hangars, slept for what felt like days, rented a car, signed up for cooking classes, and applied for a resident’s visa, planning to become a dual-citizen – something I’d never imagined doing.
To paint a picture of the mental and emotional state I was in when I landed, though, I had become agoraphobic. I didn’t leave the house for weeks.
When I finally went to buy new clothes in Auckland – a relaxed city by any standard – walking around downtown had me feeling antsy and on-edge, averse to everyone. That was the cost of ascending and coming down from the mountain.
Fortunately those feelings passed after a couple months, and my partner and I set about laying the foundations of our life together. We talked about marriage, a honeymoon, travel, kids, and camping vacations at Christmas, when it’s summer down there.
I reckoned I’d never get used to that. Probably.
Meanwhile, in the rush of a busy life already-in-progress, I forgot where I’d come from. I tucked my backpack away on the top shelf of a closet. My camera sat unused, its batteries slowly dying.
The echoes of my travels receded, and I slipped into a comfortable, suburban existence by the sea.
I felt loved. I felt loving. I also felt a little lost.
And underneath it all, things weren’t working.
Saying more is inappropriate, unnecessary, and too difficult to recount.
Over the next several months I slowly, painfully, and as gracefully as I could manage had to leave a situation I helped create, and into which I had poured my dreams, my heart, and myself.
It hurt more than anything I could imagine.
I arrived back in the U.S. in February 2020, landing in San Francisco on the evening of Saturday the 8th.
I stayed with my longtime friends Geoff and Lila at their apartment. We ate pizza, then Geoff and I celebrated my return with whiskey and cigars on his outdoor deck.
On Monday the 10th I rented a van, drove to my storage unit near the airport, and loaded up all my worldly belongings for a two-day drive to Phoenix, my hometown.
It was the only place in the U.S. I could imagine living, and where I felt I needed to be, close to my family if nothing else.
I arrived on Tuesday the 11th to my dad’s apartment, not far from where I grew up. I felt full of positivity, energy, and hope for the future.
And I didn’t know it at the time, but I was numb. I suspect it was a trick my heart played on me to get me through.
I turned 42 a few days before leaving New Zealand. My partner and I celebrated in Wellington, attempting a “conscious goodbye.”
- my trip from Auckland to Wellington
- a stopover I made in Melbourne for a business meeting
- Geoff’s apartment near San Jose
- a night in a motel north of Los Angeles
- and my dad’s place in Phoenix…
between January 30th and February 11th, I slept in eight different beds in six cities – across three countries and two hemispheres – plus one night on a plane.
Then, on February 13th, I crashed. The weight of everything I’d been through, everything I’d lost, and everything I experienced that would never be again landed on me.
In that moment, I came home.
In the movie “Fight Club,” the mysterious Tyler Durden says, “It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.” While I hadn’t technically “lost everything,” I understand some of what he meant.
One minute I had the entire world plus a backpack. The next, just a backpack and memories.
I wouldn’t have been able to pull off this transition without the help and support of my dad and my good friends Eddie, Tim, Jamie, Travis, and Geoff. Thank you, guys.
Of this fine group of gentlemen, I was the last one to understand what was happening to me.
I hope now it’s clear why this chapter presented its own challenges that kept me from writing: I moved across two sides of the world, two countries, two cities, and two ways of being in the course of an international flight.
I fell asleep in one half of my life and woke up in another.
The good news, though, is that life does abhor a vacuum. It took a couple months but I’ve found my feet, more or less. Things haven’t gotten any easier, as I think we all feel, but I’ve started building a new life. I’ve got a car (used):
A couch (from IKEA):
And a balcony with a west-facing view, so that I can watch my beloved Arizona sunset every night.
I’m looking forward to that first hot blast of summer, too. I’m a desert kid, after all.
Never in my life did I think I’d return to Phoenix, but it feels good to be home. It feels like where I belong.
SO, WHAT HAPPENS NOW?
That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it?
This isn’t the end of The Lost Pilgrim, not by a sight. I’ve got a thousand stories to tell and at least as many photos to process. Like everyone else, I’ve got nothing but time to do both.
This isn’t the end of my travels either. Even in the short term I’ve got a car and I live in an incredible country. I’ve seen enough of them to be proud to say that.
In closing, I’ll say that my “global” research project was successful. I have a couple regions I still need to see – the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa are at the top of the list – but I think I’ve learned enough about Earth, the World, people, culture, and God to make a few reasonable conclusions.
My “personal” research project was successful too. I hope to show you those results over time. Though that’s also an incomplete project and always will be.
As for my former partner, we’re still in touch (she read this before I posted it), and I often hear from my New Zealand whānau (family) on Facebook. Sometimes I long for the air and spirit, or māna, of that magical land that is a part of me now and always will be, like another home. I can’t help but imagine what might have been, and if things could’ve turned out different.
Then I remember the words of the poet Kahlil Gibran from, “The Prophet”:
“Then a woman said, Speak to us of Joy and Sorrow.
And he answered:
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.”
It’s hard to think like this all the time, I know. There are days, especially lately, when it seems like the struggle never ends and that it keeps coming long after the heart’s grown tired, and the spirit too.
But good times end, as well. They’ve got to. Otherwise we’d never build anything stronger, rooted deeper, or that reaches higher.
That’s what struggle is about, I think, learning to dig down so we can reach up. And reach out.
March 21, 2016 and March 21, 2020
Hi, and thanks for reading the final installment of my Homecoming series. If you missed them, you can find Part 1: India here and Part 2: Nepal here.
And as I said, this isn’t the end of this blog. Not even close. I’ve got many more stories and photos to share. So please subscribe below for updates, leave a comment and let me know what you thought, or share this post with a friend.
I’m excited about what’s coming next. Thanks so much.