It wasn’t hard for me to dream up this trip. Before I left, I went to work; I went out for beers; I went home to watch “the game” or “my show”; I went to fabulous cookouts with friends and exchanged book recommendations; I split my two weeks of vacation between the mountains and the beach. But then I realized something was missing, and my mind started to wander.
The planning for this trip wasn’t a huge undertaking either. It wasn’t hard to get the necessary immunizations and visas. It wasn’t hard to go shopping for supplies or to load up my pack, and when it came time for me to say my final good-byes to the family, even Ma didn’t shed a tear.
Indeed, the only difficult part about taking a trip like this is gathering the moxie to declare to yourself that you’re actually going to do it. Everything else—the planning, the pricks in the arm, the packing, the departure at the airport—is really no sweat at all. Anybody can dream it up, but having the balls to convince myself I was actually going to follow through with my dream? Challenging. It was tough to think about everything I was giving up to take this trip: time with the family; time with friends; weddings and other special events; my savings; comfort; security; my career; and a year’s worth of foregone earnings. No question it would sting to return from a trip like this jobless and broke.
I made the assertion early—perhaps to convince myself to go, and perhaps because I actually believed it—that this would be the best year of my life. I promised myself I wouldn’t leave any presented experience on the table.
Don’t. Leave. Anything. On. The. Table.
But questions remained: How does a person muster the courage—or recklessness—to put it all to the side for a year? To shelve responsibility? Alongside heaps of motivation—new places, new experiences, new foods—why does one decide to go and another doesn’t? Whether escaping the mundane or chasing excitement, why do some people talk about their dream to do something anomalous and others actually do it?
I’m sure there are some fascinating psychological explanations, but I’m also convinced that heredity has something to do with it, whether via inspiration or out of spite. Growing up, my parents never allowed my brother and me to watch TV during the week and granted us only an hour a day on the weekends. They always encouraged us to go out and play, whether out was outside in the yard or outside the country.
On the other hand, many have defiantly set off into the wild to counterbalance the stiff paradigms of their upbringing. For them, it’s an act of rebellion.
Many casual theories appeal to me—related to my parents, my mentors, my peers, my tolerance for risk, my persistent curiosity. Every book I’ve read about another castle or coastal village or fishing expedition or volunteer opportunity or run through town with a herd of bulls tight in the wake has made me want to see it all for myself. But the biggest motivation for me, the deciding factor, was my seventy-year-old self. When one hits seventy, the dust and blur of his or her life clears and reflection sets in. Looking back from that point, would I be happy with the life I’d lived, with the decisions I’d made? Had I soaked up every moment? Did I matter? Had I made this world a little bit better?
These aren’t easy questions, the answers either crushing or uplifting.
My seventy-year-old self lives in a three-bedroom house, one-level. One of the bedrooms is an office and the other is a guest room for family. The kitchen and living room blend into one, spacious enough to allow guests the comfort to spread their wings but compact enough to keep the electric bill manageable. There is a small pool in the backyard flanked by a garden of tulips and roses and carnations and a dark green, eight-year-old Honda Accord in the driveway. He’s had a hard life, but a fun life. He lives modestly, but this is how he always wanted it. He explored rather than hoarding material wealth. Maybe he reached his professional goals and maybe not, but he was sure to carve his own path. He learned and he taught, he gave affection and received it, he took some punches and threw a couple of his own.
He made some good decisions and some bad ones—like putting “grow a mullet” on his to-do list—but he never lay in wait. He always said, “Okay, that was fun,” and then quickly added, “Now, what will I do next?”
Doubts attach to many decisions. Which college to attend. Career moves. Cars and houses and watches to buy. Even those lucky couples who are madly in love—who quickly resolve conflict, have fun together no matter what they’re doing, converse with ease, and can’t imagine spending the rest of their lives with anyone else—approach the altar and think, Really? Is this it? Am I sure? It’s a fleeting thought, and it’s more for reassurance than anything else.
Yeah, I’m sure.
It was the same with a trip like this, though admittedly on a much smaller scale than marriage. And I did have my doubts. But I owed obligation to no one, and I understood the opportunity costs. I speculated what I had the potential to gain by leaving home for a little while. I mused long over it—it consumed my thoughts and kept me up three or four nights in the process—but once I made the decision, one-hundred-percent yes, I bought in completely.
I had my doubts. But somehow I found my backbone. I walked onto the plane. And into the world.