February 24, 2007

Wandering as a Life

People often look at me and seem puzzled by my 'wandering'. It's as if I have chosen a path they didn't know existed. They ask simple questions, hoping for complicated, difficult answers. They look at me in amazement. But I can't see why, I'm just an ordinary guy with 'itchy feet'. Then their brain kicks in and then think I'm just crazy. Not ordinary at all, I guess.

You might wonder what sort of circumstances led me to this path. I could tell you about growing up without a father, struggling through college, maybe that first year as a graduate engineer, or any of the bumps life throws at you from time to time. But it still wouldn't give you the right idea, the right perspective. It all boils down to choice. One moment I was like everyone else, the next, I was on a journey to the unknown. Because I chose.

"I never met anyone who has been to Africa." was the seed that wouldn't stop growing. I chose to go on an outdoor education course for two months in Kenya, after only reading a little ad in the back of Outside Magazine for a school called NOLS. I think my family and friends thought it would be just what I needed to leave behind a late-blooming childhood. I'd come back a man, settle down, start establishing myself in career and my community.

But I chose. I didn't rebel against 'normal life' as most people call it, I just chose differently. In our modern world, we get so few chances to chose our path. It seems that there are few discoveries to be made, so few things unknown. But the birth of the modern age was because of those individuals who looked into the unknown, and chose differently.

My reward is the journey itself, because there is little of value left to measure by normal standards. A career is difficult if one is traveling more than the standard two weeks a year, let alone two or three months at a time. I have friends all over the world, but few to head down to the local pub for a drink and conversation. I'm spending my retirement money experiencing life, while I still have the health to enjoy it. Can many of you say you could carry your life in a backpack and have more than enough? I have no debt but then again most of my equity is in memories. Ah, but those memories - Priceless!

My first real trip anywhere was to Africa. It wasn't always fun. After traveling for 48 hours, I got mugged my first day in Nairobi. While my classmates were climbing on the cliffs of Mount Kenya, I stayed in camp because the my hands were so dry that the skin cracked open at all my finger joints. I witnessed a riot of 400 Masai warriors back-to-back with an unknown classmate. I saw first hand poverty and disease not seen in America. I struggled with loneliness in a crowd of much younger students from social circles I couldn't have dreamed of.

But that all pales in comparison to the other memories. Like smelling the earth on a different continent. Breathing the thin air near the top of Mount Kenya. Calming a student while the instructors planned her evacuation off the mountain. Drinking a cup of hot chai with an elderly woman in her Masai boma. Watching a pair of lions hunt as a team. Feeling the earth shake beneath my feet as a water buffalo charged. Dancing badly at a wedding at a fishing village off the coast. Or making friends with my classmates despite out difference.

Yes, I had changed that summer. But not in any way my family, friends, or I could have predicted. Pulled by society norms, I went back to school, settled down, got a job, even dated a bit looking to start a family maybe. Then, one day, almost ten years after I returned from Africa, I came upon a book called 'Walking the Appalachian Trail'. Page after page, I soaked it up, watering those seeds left dormant in my memories.

After much planning, a year later I was on the trail in Georgia, attempting to walk over 2000-miles to Maine. Everyone thought I'd be back in two weeks. I was struck by how many experiences on the trail brought back vivid memories of my time in Kenya. Two very different adventures on two different continents with totally different experiences, but the same none the less. I was so happy, to be 'out there', where what you are on the inside is the only thing that matters. Where taking the slow road opens up infinitely more experiences, with nature, with places and with people, especially people.

A two-week vacation just would never be the same. Before I even reached Mt Katahdin after almost six months of hiking, I had thought of several more adventures I would love to do. And I now knew that I had a real choice, that whatever my decision was, I could make if from the heart, without worrying about societies approval. The path of a wanderer was before me, and I've never looked back.

I've biked across the USA, coast-to-coast border-to-border. Walked the St James Pilgrimage across Spain. Celebrated the 200th anniversary of the Lewis & Clark Expedition biking from St Louis to the Pacific along their route. I even spent several weeks biking with friends in New Zealand. I don't really have a home, and I've grown away from many of my friends who followed the traditional paths of career and family. But I've also seen wonderful places and met so many kind people along the way too.

A man traveling alone under his own power be it by bike or on foot. seems like a thing of the past, an apparition, a dream. No matter my look, or my smell [laugh], I have rarely experienced anything other than openness from those I have met along the way. It's as if my vulnerability allows them to open their hearts, just a little bit; a moment to let the light shine. They make a conscious choice to accept me as I am in that moment instead of letting the fear of the unknown dictate their actions.

There was the man who picked me up hitching into to town, just because I really looked like I needed a lift. Or there was the elderly woman who paid my tab at the diner while I was in the bathroom. She was gone before I came out. Due to some miscommunication, I ended up spending the night with a large family who had no idea who I was or how I got there phone number. Or that blessed soul who found my journals online and decided to give me the keys to his house, even though he was on holiday with his family elsewhere. They all made a choice, to listen to their own hearts and minds, instead of reacting to the fears of society when confronted by someone different.

It is hard to be cynical when moments like these happen again, and again. Maybe that is why I love to 'wander', to see real humanity in so many places. It definitely gives me hope in our future.And every once in a while I see the 'wanderlust' in someone else's eyes. In the young, I see dreams that can be reality. And in those older, I see a kindred spirit even though they kept to the path taught to them by social custom.

But what really keeps me returning to the trail, despite misgivings or apprehension, is knowing that I'm not the only one who feels this way. Every time I hit the trail, or pedal down the road I meet others, kindred spirits along the path. We 'wanderers' are young and old, men and women, from all walks of life. We make a choice away from the conventional, from societal norms. Knowing there are others who choose to see, to wander everywhere and anywhere tells me that I'm not special, different, or odd. But just one of a large human family. That in the human spirit there will always be the courage to look into the unknown, the unconventional, the path less traveled and see a universe of possibilities.

Will I ever stop wandering? Probably not, but nothing is for certain. In this complex organism called Earth, each of us has our purpose, a connection to the whole. Maybe mine is to take a little bit of my family, my friends, my history, my community, my culture out into the world. Those seeds of ideas, thoughts and dreams might just grow in harmony elsewhere. But then when I periodically return, just like the birds and butterflies, maybe I bring other ideas, thoughts and dreams from out in the world and see if they might grow here too.

What do I hope to pass on to you, what words of wisdom or insight? Nothing that makes sense but it explains everything. In each of us is the universe. Look to the smallest cell in our body, and we can see the interdependence of every part that makes up a living organism, just as can be seen in a person, a nation or a world. No matter what we are taught or what we think we know, we can never understand each other until we understand ourselves. By wandering, learning about the world I learn about myself. By active choice, I try to see myself and the world around me as it is, reveling in the complexities and unknowns around me instead of withdrawing in fear of differences.

The world is my classroom, where I learn every moment is alive. For others, it's their children, or their church, or their community. Other experiences but not really different. The lesson is always the same; all there is is life. Pure and simple. To live to the fullest, do your best and try not to hurt many along the way. There is no reward but life itself, no punishment other than the waste of it.

Related link: Travel Disclaimer by solbeam.com
Nomad extraordiniar writes about 'this wandering life' much better.