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7 Lessons From a Year on the Road

April 27, 2011
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Cadillac Mountain

One year ago today we set out on a grand adventure. At the time we had no idea how things would turn out. Whether we’d take to the road or return home with our tails between our legs was a complete mystery. Well, a year later we’re still going and have no plans of stopping anytime soon. But as much as we’re enjoying ourselves, no life altering change can happen without learning a few things along the way. Here is my list of the seven biggest lessons from a year on the road:

7) Less is more. Soon after the alarm clock rang for the first time to wake me for a job I didn’t like I realized that every dollar I spent was a claim on my time. Everything we consume, every monthly payment we make, every gadget we need to repair or replace in the future, is an obligation we need to work to support. In that sense, every purchase is a minute, an hour, or month out of our lives. And although each obligation may be small, they can accumulate into Lilliputian bonds that tether us to a job and a place.

Last year we reduced our living space by two-thirds and needed to get rid of more than two-thirds of our things to do so. Are we two-thirds less happy now? Absolutely not. In fact, we’re far happier with fewer items cluttering our life and more time to devote to the things we truly enjoy. Clearly there is no positive correlation between things, and happiness, at least not for us. So why on earth would we spend an hour working at something we don’t want to do to pay for something that doesn’t ultimately increase our happiness? We wouldn’t. I’m not sure why anyone would.

6) Realistic expectations and flexibility are keys to happy travel.The surest way to spoil a trip is to expect too much from it; or to expect it to be something that it is not. We tend to be pretty good travelers in this regard. We try to take destinations for what they are,

If Boston is so great, why did I have such a lousy time there?

rather than what we think they should be. But nobody is perfect. All of our bad experiences basically boil down to our own bad attitudes. We were frustrated with Naples because it wasn’t the Everglades. I was cranky about Boston because I’d traveled there dozens of times for work and wanted our trip to be completely different from that.

After a year on the road, we’ve yet to encounter a ‘bad’ destination. But we have come across many fellow travelers who ‘hated’ this place and warned us not to go to that place. Whenever we probed deeper, the problem was almost never the destination, but a disconnect between what the destination is, and what the traveler wanted it to be.

To get the most out of our experiences, we really need to be open minded and flexible. If something isn’t to our liking, or exactly how we’re accustomed to it, maybe we need to change our likings and our customs. After all, if we want everything to be the way we’re used to, or how we imagined, why bother leaving home? The whole point of traveling is to see and experience new things. To do that, you have to be open to them and appreciate them for what they are, rather than trying to force them to conform to preconceived notions of what they should be.

5) There is never enough time. Before I left my 7 to 7 job, I thought the 70 or more hours I’d gain each week by not working and commuting would be all the additional time I’d ever need. Some folks even cautioned me that I’d get bored with the wealth of free time I’d soon inherit. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, I don’t know how I managed to fit all of those working hours into my life before. Where did they come from? More importantly, where did they go?

Shannon and I have had zero problems filling our days. At times we even feel frantic. We have hobbies, and sightseeing, and trip planning, and yes, chores. When all of that is done, we have a back log of things we’d like to do, but never seem to have enough time. The trick is to accept that we are each responsible for our own happiness. If I’m ever bored, I have nobody to blame but myself. Thus far, that hasn’t been a problem. I don’t expect it ever will be.

4) It’s not a vacation. It’s a lifestyle. The frenetic pace of a typical vacation isn’t sustainable week after week. In our previous life, we often came back from a whirlwind trip more tired and worn out than when we left. On vacation, we felt the need to see and do everything because we didn’t know when, or if, we’d ever return. But as full-time travelers we have to be more discerning, with both our time, and our dollars. We simply don’t have the time, energy or money to live every single day like it’s a vacation.

It is not always a day at the beach. Some days, we prefer the pool.

But more to the point, every day is not a vacation. It’s normal life for us. We don’t have hotel maid service to clean up after us. We rarely dine out. So cooking, cleaning, laundry, paying bills and all the other nuts and bolts activities of living a traditional life are still very much a part of our daily routine. Whereas a vacationer puts all of this stuff on hold and steps out of their normal day-to-day activities to go somewhere else, we’ve simply incorporated the ‘somewhere else’ into our normal day-to-day activities. It’s not uncommon for me to go grocery shopping in the morning, and sightseeing in the afternoon. After all, this is not a vacation. This is our life.

3) Spontaneity is overrated. When we first set out, we thought we’d travel as free spirits, venturing here or there on a whim; staying and going as we please. But it turns out, that isn’t a very practical way to travel.  We learned very quickly that scrambling for second-best alternatives after being shutout of our first choice isn’t a particularly desirable aspect of spontaneous travel. There are places we simply had to book far in advance if we had any hope of seeing them. If you think you’re going to roll into Key West in January on a whim and find an empty campsite, you’re going to be disappointed. And it’s a long drive back to the mainland.

This sunset brought to you by significant advance planning

But needing reservations isn’t the only reason we plan ahead, or even the major one. We’ve also found that the seasons are relentless task masters, continually forcing us North or South whether we’re ready to go there or not. If we spend the summer wandering aimlessly and don’t get as far north as we’d like before the weather turns, then we’ll either have to skip that northern destination, or backtrack as much as 1,500 miles the following year. Neither of those options is appealing to us. Far better, in our view, is to plan a logical route that takes us to as many great destinations as the calendar will permit in a single season. That kind of planning is a chore, but there is a whole big world to see and we don’t want to waste our valuable time covering the same ground repeatedly.

2) The path is beaten for a reason: It is possible to take good advice to such an extreme that it becomes counterproductive. I see that happening with the admonishment to ‘get off the beaten path’ when traveling. So much so that a false distinction has become conventional wisdom in some circles: that there is a difference between ‘travelers’ and ‘tourists.’ Supposedly the traveler cuts new trails and finds ‘authentic’ experiences that the guidebook-bound tourist misses. Perhaps. But my experience has been different. While it is certainly good to go your own way at times, it is also important to recognize that the path is well-worn for a reason: because it leads to places that are actually worth going. Our backcountry treks in the Everglades were great, but we saw far more wildlife on the most popular trail. Why would we skip one experience in favor of the other when we can do both?

Going your own way can be fun for its own sake, but often the best sites are found on the most popular trails

You can diminish an enormous swatch of the globe by looking down on popular tourist destinations and attractions. After all, there is very little in this world that hasn’t already been discovered. It’s as foolish, in my mind, for someone to ignore guidebook destinations as it is for someone else to visit them exclusively. Close-mindedness is never a path to wisdom. And that’s true regardless of whether you consider yourself a tourist or a traveler.

1) How easy it is to not follow your dreams. Inertia is an incredibly powerful force. It’s far easier to follow a routine, even a hated one, than it is to do something risky, unfamiliar, and meaningfully different.

We started planning in earnest for our journey at least five years before we disembarked. We talked weekly, if not daily, about ‘the plan.’ We changed our lifestyle to accelerate our savings and basically pulled all the levers at our disposal to get in a position to do what we talked so frequently about. That was the easy part, though. Actually putting ‘the plan’ into practice was terribly hard.

Part of the difficulty arose from the simple logistics of doing everything that needed to be done. We were surprised to learn just how complicated it is to walk away from your life (more here and here). But the greater challenge was simply letting go; to take the risk. So many questions could only be answered in retrospect: Will we like it? Can we afford it?  How will so much togetherness affect our relationship? What happens to a career I spent a lifetime building?  What happens if we fail? The only way to find out was to do it. The only alternative was to forget about doing it altogether.

Harder still was the fact that there wasn’t a single point of no return in our decision making process. Instead we faced a series of steps that gradually increased our level of commitment. It felt like jumping out of an airplane in stages.

Stage 1: Tell our friends and families about our plan.
Stage 2: Fly to Texas to establish a domicile.
Stage 3: Commit a large sum of money to buying an RV.
Stage 4: Resign from a very good job.

Before each decision, we’d ask ourselves, and each other, ‘are we really doing this?’ After each decision, the consequences of backing out grew more severe.

"Sooner or later you are going to realize, just as I did, that there is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path." - Morpheus

A year latter we can confidently say we made the right choice. But that was never a foregone conclusion. We experienced a fair amount of angst and second guessing along the way that needed to be overcome to make our dream a reality. And even after we pulled the trigger, we still worked hard every day to make our experience a good one (see item six above).

So what advice do I have for someone looking to make a major life change? You may be surprised to learn that it’s not ‘Just do It,’ at least not straight away. While that may be a great product slogan, it’s a fairly reckless way to approach life altering decisions. Instead, I advise reverse engineering the process. Ask the question ‘Where do I want to be? or ‘What do I want to achieve’ and then think very hard about all of the steps needed to get from where you are now to where you hope to go; keeping in mind that not all of those steps are necessarily forward, some may take you sideways or even backwards. This is true regardless of whether your objective is to change careers or change continents.

If you’re realistic about this initial process, you’ll develop an appreciation for the kinds of sacrifices you’ll have to make to achieve your goal. And there will be sacrifices. Everything worth doing requires them. Identifying those sacrifices, and accepting them early, is a pretty important determinant of success. But once you’ve done that, then all it takes is the discipline to walk the path you’ve planned for yourself. If you do it consistently, you’ll eventually arrive at a place where you can make the change you want to in a responsible way.

And the great thing about knowing the path, and the destination, is that there won’t really be any question once you’ve arrived. You’ll know. That won’t stop the second guessing entirely, but it should give you the confidence to look past the inevitable fears and uncertainties. After all, you’ve done a lot of hard work to get prepared. Now just do it.

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17 Comments leave one →
  1. Sarah permalink
    April 27, 2011 9:53 am

    Really, really nice. Thanks for this, on a day where the comfortably well-worn work handcuffs are chafing more than ever. What a great synopsis of your first year and the necessary perspective to make it happen.

    • April 27, 2011 11:06 am

      Hi Sarah,
      One thing I didn’t mention is the diversity of people we see out here on the road full-time; everyone from old people with disabilities to young people with families. Everyone who is doing this had their own laundry list of potential excuses why they couldn’t, or shouldn’t, do what they wanted to do. In many instances the difference between those doing it and those dreaming about it isn’t the obstacles in front of them, but the tenacity with which they were willing to work to overcome those obstacles. I think that is true in all aspects of life.

      Happy travels,
      Brian

  2. April 27, 2011 12:22 pm

    Great Post Brian! I’m considering something similar in the coming years. I’m in the initial stages of planning and my business is all virtual, so I can be anywhere in the world where there’s an internet connection. It’s an intriguing thought.

    Stay safe!
    susan

    • April 27, 2011 12:41 pm

      Hi Susan,
      Great to hear about your plans. We’ve had good luck on the road with internet access using a combination of a Verizon aircard and campground Wifi, when available. Internationally, internet cafes abound, along with hotel/hostel availability. Being able to work virtually is an increasingly viable option for people looking to explore the world. We’re thinking hard about a multi-month trip to Central America over the winter and we’ll need to stay wired during that time. We haven’t worked out the details, but we’re comfortable with the fact that it can be done.

      Let us know if we can answer any questions that will help get you out the door.
      Cheers,
      Brian

  3. grant permalink
    April 28, 2011 10:05 am

    Most blogs suck. This blog does not suck. This particular blog post was amazing.

    This post was an accumulation of hard-core travel wisdom and incredible experiences which liberated you from an brutally oppressive daily grind. An inspiring post – even to us seasoned travelers. Even the most experienced and knowledgeable traveler would remember and contemplate why they travel after reading this post.

    And forgive the snooping! Several months in Central America during the winter? Why have I not heard of this before? If I may make a suggestion for your blog – how about more details about where you will be heading in the future and your thoughts on possible future destinations… Just a thought.

    Enjoy it you two….

    • April 28, 2011 10:58 am

      Wow, thanks for the nice comments!

      Central America is something we just recently started considering. The idea came up after we left FL this past winter and started thinking about where we’d spend next winter. We spent 4 months in FL this year and were delighted to find enough stuff to keep us busy, even with moving every week. One of the things that surprised us is how far south you need to get to really beat the cold weather (RV insulation blows). This year we’ll probably be in Texas, which is a big state, but only the very southern part will be warm enough for us (we’re delicate, hot-house, flowers these days). We don’t think there is enough stuff to keep us busy for the whole winter and we don’t like the idea of just sitting and waiting for the seasons to improve. Instead, we’re thinking of parking the RV and heading a bit further south. Both Central and South America are possibilities, but we’re leaning toward Central.

      It’s certainly possible for us to write some posts about future destinations. We have a good idea where we’ll be through next November, and as you can see from the prior paragraph, we’re already starting to draft plans for early 2012. I need to think about how to make those posts interesting to read, though, and that isn’t immediately apparent to me. If I can come up with a good angle to make them engaging, I’ll definitely do it. After all, we don’t want to loose our status as a blog that doesn’t suck. 😉

      Thanks again for the comments, and for following us on our journeys.
      Brian

  4. May 1, 2011 9:42 am

    Fantastic post – I agree with everything you’ve said, and you said it very well.

    • May 1, 2011 10:42 am

      Thanks, Diana. That is quite a complement coming from someone who’s been doing this for a decade.
      Brian

  5. flyfishnevada permalink
    May 1, 2011 4:19 pm

    Congrats on your year out wandering! Great post. A lot of your lessons I have also learned and in many cases am still learning after 10 months of being retired. Especially number 7 and 5. Good work!

    • May 2, 2011 2:32 pm

      Thanks for stopping by, and congrats on your retirement.

  6. May 2, 2011 3:41 am

    Brian, Thank you so much for the wonderful post. We are working through all those steps to be free – seems like getting the house ready to sell will never end. We keep going through all the stuff we have and finding ways to relieve ourselves of them. We have the motor home, it’s in storage and it’s calling to me – we so want to be living in it. We’ll get there.
    I discovered your posts several months ago and have enjoyed them very much, but this one was the best. Congrats on your one year anniversary, thanks for all the lessons learned.
    Enjoy your travels and some day we may see you on the road. We’ve thought about Texas next year as well…who knows.

    • May 2, 2011 2:34 pm

      Hi Donna,
      Getting ready to go seems like such an overwhelming chore, but everything eventually does get done. What follows is pretty amazing.
      See you out there,
      Brian

  7. Heather H. permalink
    May 3, 2011 9:35 pm

    I will try really hard to keep Lesson 6 in mind while we are in London next week! I think about you guys often, especially when the weather is a little crazy. Be safe out there!

    • May 3, 2011 9:48 pm

      Hi Heather,
      The weather has been nuts. Half the state park where we are now in Tennessee is flooded. I guess Lesson 8 could have been “Always have a plan to escape tornados.” Rest assured, we don’t mess around with that stuff. When in doubt, we abandon the RV and head for sturdier structures.

      Have a great time in London. Check out the Cabinet War Rooms where Churchill stayed during the Blitz. It’s a secondary site in London, but I recall it being a highlight of our first visit there.
      Brian

  8. July 6, 2011 8:36 am

    Brian & Shannon –

    Wow. I am slightly paralyzed after reading this. I work in high tech and my wife and I have been habitual savers for years. We are at that stage where if we hunkered down we could live and survive comfortably w/o my current job (which leans on the very high demand side). Our reasons for not doing so? An awesome nine year old son and eleven year old daughter and a perception that we are ‘not quite there yet’.

    Our interim step is what we call http://www.peekfamilyadventures.com/ . Our objective is to live our lives as an adventure week in and week out without completely throwing in the towell on work. We have moved to Maui for the summer, RV’d for weeks across the SW US over last winter, do awesome vacations in the Spring, Summer, and Fall and are going to Australia for a little less than a month this winter. My job is global and can be done from anywhere and generates frequent flier miles and hotel points which help offset family travel costs.

    My wife (the super smart one – really!) jumped ship from corporate America May 2010 and is building her own business which can be done from anywhere. My question to you if you are interested in pondering or have thoughts is ‘How do you do both?’ We live the life of our dreams but I more often than not cannot get my mind out of work. It drives me bonkers (major stress) not to excel at my job and I have a million reasons in my head as to why this is so important (livlihood of teams working for me, my professional reputation, fear of job loss for high income job that enables our lifestyle, etc.). You guys have traveled many journeys – both mental and literal. If you have any wisdom or thoughts, I would love to hear them.

    God bless you guys and if you see a brown Bounder RV cruising down the road with a mid 40s guy smiling but looking half stressed honk and wave.

    Mike

    • July 7, 2011 4:30 pm

      Hi Mike,
      Thanks for stopping by and for your comments.

      I think the answer to your question “How do you do both” is that we don’t and, probably more to the point, we don’t try to.

      This may be sacrilegious to say, but I’m not a big believer in the ‘American Dream,’ at least not how it is normally configured – dual income family, with two high-power, prestige, jobs supporting a big house, lots of stuff and expensive vacations. I’ve never met anyone pursuing that ideal who is truly content. The two may even be mutually exclusive. I much prefer balance.

      It was helpful in my case that I never let my career define who I was or let it become a major component of my self esteem. Although it was exclusive, and prestigious, and full of self-importance, it was still just a job. When looked at objectively, it was a really very meaningless pursuit. I think most jobs fall into that category, if we’re really honest about it. And once you see the world that way it becomes increasingly painful to spend the majority of your waking hours working to excel at something that, in the grand scheme of things, is not really all that important.

      I doubt any of this constitutes ‘wisdom’ but it is a line of thinking that has lead me to a place I’m very happy with . . . dare I say content. Your mileage may vary.

      Happy travels,
      Brian

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