Two years ago on March 21, 2016, I left San Francisco for Buenos Aires, Argentina. At the time I didn’t anticipate traveling for more than nine months, but the longer I spent on the road the longer the road grew before me.
After landing my nine months extended to a year. Soon that year expanded to 18 months. Eighteen months, to the dismay of friends and family, evolved into two years. Then two years exploded into more.
Now the actual horizon appears not-too-far off in the distance, and believe it or not I’m grateful. At times I’m so very tired. And I don’t want to travel forever. Though I couldn’t have articulated this on the way to Buenos Aires, someday I want to put down roots and plant seeds.
As much as I’m an adventurer at heart, I am equal part farmer.
DOCTRINAM CONVERTI EX DOCTRINA EXCULTI
Along with self-knowledge the road has given me innumerable gifts of experience, from the mundane to the once-in-a-lifetime, from tragedy to triumph, and every point in between. Some I sought, some I stumbled into, and others sought and stumbled into me.
It’s one thing to learn from these experiences, however. It’s another to learn what I’ve learned.
In other words What Does It All Mean? In the not-yet-final analysis, what have I gained from my travels so far? Besides 7,326 photos (and counting), friends around the world, a handful of insanely cool stories, and an abundance of hopefully-unforgettable memories?
Because while yes those things are all priceless, they’re not enough, for me. That’s not greed talking, either. It’s the part of me that I think set out on this journey in the first place, not the adventurer nor the farmer but a secret weaver, who by his nature ties threads together until they collectively sing of something none of them could voice alone.
Fortunately, long hours and stolen moments lost to thought have revealed the outlines of patterns and shapes. They’re beginning to bind my experiences into something more than ornamental, but something real, practical, and life-affirming.
In other words I’ve discovered What It All Means, to me. Some of it, at least. And the weaver continues gathering his thread.
So the following are two things I’ve learned from what I’ve learned. In Part 2 I’ll offer more, though there are many others.
My backpack lacks the space for trinkets. Instead I carry treasures.
8:00am. Xi’an, China.
The ticket agent at Xi’an North Train station hands me my ticket and dryly tells me in accented English, “This is wrong station. You need go to Xi’an Station.”
My eyes go wide. I know immediately what she’s talking about.
Like many Chinese cities Xi’an has two train stations: one newer, outside of the city, built for the high-speed bullet train network; and the other older, within the city limits, for the slower trains that still connect much of the remote regions of the country.
I arrived to Xi’an via the high-speed station, Xi’an North, and assumed I’d be leaving the same way. But I knew that my departure train was a slow one, meaning it would leave instead from Xi’an Station. I just hadn’t put the pieces together.
Maybe reading that paragraph, you can understand why.
Suddenly I see all my carefully laid plans for my next destination falling apart, and the domino effect that might have on my remaining weeks in the country. I have 30 minutes to get via taxi to the correct station to catch my train, which I know I’ll fail to do.
So I have to start putting the pieces back together in a different way as fast as I can, because every minute’s delay could mean additional expense or worse, sold-out trains.
In that moment there’s no one there to make decisions for me, no one available to help talk it all through, or to bounce ideas off of. It’s me in the back of a cab slipping through morning traffic in a rainstorm, with only my aging iPhone and hopefully four bars of mobile signal, processing a matrix of train and hostel reservations, hopes and desires, potential routes, and goals for this experience, in half-an-hour. That’s the amount of time I know I’ll have to focus.
Oh and I need to find someplace to sleep in Xi’an tonight.
Situations like this happen frequently. I don’t mean missed trains or planes (in fact that was my first in two years!), but balancing a complex set of variables in a short space of time to try and arrive at the best possible outcome, and the only person who can establish and work towards that outcome being me. I can get advice from fellow travelers, input from locals, and guidance from a book or website, but somehow it’s all got to synthesize in me towards something that I, and only I, find satisfying and fulfilling.
That’s the joy of travel, right? Total freedom to chart a course and see it through. But in that, I’ve felt a great deal of responsibility, as this trip doesn’t happen on its own. Behind the scenes are long sessions on my laptop, researching; thoughtful walks through unfamiliar streets, considering; extended conversations with backpackers, listening; and sleepless nights in a bunk bed in a dorm room, my face lit by my phone as I’m scrolling, scrolling.
It’s all on me.
But hey, I got this.
Where I stumbled early on, and still do, I’m much more proficient than I used to be. I know myself better, am more confident in making difficult off-the-beaten path decisions, take better responsibility when things go wrong, and see the humor and adventure (not to mention entertainment) in tough situations.
I feel like I can handle more, because I have handled more, including situations far less benign than my example. I do so on my own, over and over.
Then I show up the next day and make my train.
As you may have noticed, I’m a thinker. I use phrases like “processing a matrix”, for example, because that’s what it feels like. Inevitably in that I encounter my arch-nemesis: analysis-paralysis.
In a small country like Colombia there are a multiplicity of sights to see, routes to see them by, time frames in which to see them, and budgets with which to accomplish that.
By contrast, in a massive country like China – where the Lonely Planet guidebook weighs 42 pounds in paperback – the sights/routes/timeframes/budget combinations number in the millions. Sometimes it all becomes too much.
In those moments of overwhelm, though, a decision must still be made: this destination or that, which bus/train/plane to get there, and one place to stay or another.
More truthfully my inner dialogue sounds like this: Where will I be safe? How can I best balance the energy I have to spend on arriving in a place with the energy I hope to spend on being there? In what bed will I be able to sleep restfully? Where can I make home for a night or two, or do I have time for the luxury of three? Once I’ve found that center from which to proceed, where and how will I do my proceeding? What looks most enjoyable? Then where to?
I have asked these questions countless times. When I am done traveling I hope not to take for granted that “home” offers its own contrasting blessings not to.
When asking them gets to be too much, and when my cognitive and emotional resources are exhausted, as they often are, what then?
Building on my independence I know that I can only fall back on myself to show the way – no flipping coins, drawing straws, or having a stranger make a choice for me. I both need and want the impetus to come from me.
This is my life, my journey. Someday it will be over and when that day comes I want to know I “left it all out on the road” in the same way an athlete “left it all out on the field.” So to whatever limited (and possibly illusory) extent that I can be master of my fate and captain of my soul, I choose to live in that way, or try.
Those moments I’ve learned to look within, to an inner resource I have long known is called my “intuition.” I’ve only recently learned the word derives from the Latin for “inner teacher.”
I cannot concisely explain what intuition is. I am not yet that grade of mystic. So instead of what it “is”, perhaps a better way to illustrate intuition is through some of what it has done, for me.
When the “numbers” had been crunched to their limit and I had to decide whether or not to backpack in the pristine Patagonian wilderness of Torres Del Paine, overnight trekking for the first time in my life but likely doing so alone, just as I was about to drift off for a self-sabotaging, time-squandering nap a voice in my heart spoke to me clearly: GET UP. GO.
When I was hungry and searching for something to eat for breakfast in Hong Kong, where I don’t speak the language and breakfast isn’t exactly “a thing,” intuition led my steps around the corner from my hostel to possibly the most divine food I’ve ever tasted: Shanghai-style pork and truffle dumplings.
While wandering across the Orkhon Valley in Mongolia, following the sun and river towards a small moment that gave me a giant gift, what could it have been besides intuition guiding me?
And most recently while daydreaming during my initial days in China, a thought seemed to verbalize in my mind from nowhere, “I should seek out the birthplace of Daoism.” I hadn’t thought of Daoism in years. Yet here was the result of pursuing that thought:
This was my actual 2-year traveling anniversary. Considering that one year earlier I was on the Abel Tasman Track – renowned as the greatest of New Zealand’s Great Walks – what I ended up doing for my second year exceeded any expectations I could have had. (The story will receive its own entry someday.)
I chose these four examples but there are many like them. They bring my journey to life.
Advice I get from a guidebook is the what, when, where, how, and how much. These four moments I’m describing? They’re the Why. They strike me in my heart, making me ring like a bell with gratitude. That’s a pretty good Why.
There’s a story behind each of them in which my conscious deliberations are only a part. That knowledge is humbling. I hope I have never pretended that I “have it all figured out.” I don’t.
But while I do get lucky at times, what I’m describing isn’t luck either.
These moments and others on a near-daily basis are not the product of my cognition, they are the product of listening. I am listening to things that aren’t my thoughts, but are interjections in the long, ongoing inner dialogue I have with myself. They don’t always come in the form of words, either.
For example, in big cities I often “listen” to the sensation of people crossing a street in one direction versus another, and that’s the way I go. Another time I “listened” to shadow that fell around a corner, which told me to turn around and not walk a step further in the direction I was going.
I’ve “listened” to hollow feelings in my gut, butterflies in my back, and the eyes and body language of a strange foreign man who tracked too closely two traveling girls walking past him into a convenience store.
I stopped, listened, and turned to watch him. He saw me watch him. I continued watching him, now unmistakably. He took one last look at the girls inside the store and strode away. Maybe he was merely curious, but I didn’t like what I saw.
As for those times when I didn’t listen? Let’s just say, with humility and no small measure of grief, they’ve taught me to listen too, in their own ways.
Not every act of “listening” results in a transformative or even noteworthy experience. But is every conversation between friends a deep and meaningful one? Or do we listen to our loved ones because they’re speaking, because we care about them or are curious, and for the sheer pleasure of listening, no matter what they’re saying?
Like a friend, intuition speaks to me because I have learned to listen. Sometimes my friend says more important things than others.
Undoubtedly some reading this will smile at this idea, and others will skeptically furrow their brow. I welcome both responses.
Addressing the latter group, I encourage you to consider the depth and quality of my experience. Look at my photos (on Instagram and 500px), read this blog, ask me questions. I assure you, I’m not smart enough to pull this off on my own.
Because I’m not. I’ve made a friend, hopefully for life.