Well, I think I left all you guys hanging somewhere on an island in Thailand. Obviously, a lot has happened since then, but I don't want to get into details right now. I think it's time for the big picture to finally emerge.
Perhaps the main reason for my silence had to do with me coming to terms with the end of my 9 month odyssey. It was a slow process, one that took a long time to sink in. It finally hit me as I was sitting in a window seat on my flight out of Bangkok and the flight crew started the pre-takeoff ritual (the one with seatbelts and oxygen masks and all that). Then, all of a sudden, I knew it was over, felt it was over, and I couldn't help but shed a few tears. At the time, it seemed like a great loss...the end of the road. That loss, however, has been offset by the incredible gains I have made along the way.
People seem to want to know if I've had some sort of epiphany as a result of my travels...whether I've "found myself," or discovered the secret to life, the universe, and everything. The answer to all those questions, unfortunately, is no. But now that I think about it, none of the other travelers I met along the way had these revelations, either. So I don't think that my failure to achieve nirvana on this trip has made it a "dud" in any way. It seems that it would make more sense to conclude that anyone who transports himself to the highest Swiss peak or the lowest Cambodian river delta and expects to suddenly become enlightened is headed for disappointment.
Despite my lack of any "ultimate wisdom" as a result of this trip, I have learned a few important lessons en route, and these are what I want to focus on for this post. I'll try to keep things as simple and brief as possible:
Value space and silence. This lesson goes hand in hand with countless more practical lessons I learned in the backcountry. The fact is, as more and more of us fill cities across the globe, space and silence seem to be the only remaining commodities that we can't obtain through our on-demand, instant gratification lifestyles. And even when we make concerted efforts to find space and silence, we take our lifestyles with us and suddenly find ourselves unable to appreciate the very things we were looking for in the first place. But when you have the time to slow down and step back, your perspective changes. You're able to appreciate simple things like a drink from a clear, cold stream. Or a cool rain after a long walk. Or a panoramic view from a mountain peak. Or just sitting on a rock, watching the world go by, and realizing that it isn't going anywhere after all! When you realize just how rare these experiences are, you're able to appreciate them more fully, and that's when your soul really benefits.
Everyone you meet has a story. Be a part of it. When you travel, you can't help but notice how your life interesects with those of the people you meet along the way. The act of physically separating yourself from home's typical work/friends/family relationships tends to make you more receptive to creating new ones. Simply taking the time to listen to the stories people share often reveals fascinating aspects of life that you never knew existed. It's amazing how rewarding it can be to discover these stories, and perhaps help in the creation of future chapters.
It's okay to love your home. (Even if that home is America). These days it's very fashionable, especially among my generation, to bad-mouth the USA. Hey, guilty as charged. I will be the first to agree that there are innumerable reasons to jump on that bandwagon: Americans of all stripes do a lot of stupid, destructive shit. But it seems that everyone is so caught up in all this negativity that they completely ignore all the great things that happen here, the things that fly under the radar and don't make the evening news. Even if your relationship with your home country has been suffering, after spending the best part of the year on the road you can't help but acknowledge that it's your home nonetheless, and that maybe, just maybe, there's still a soft spot for it in your heart.
Let freedom be a means to an end, not the end itself. This, I think, is the single most important lesson I learned on the road, and probably the least intuitive one as well. In America, we are part of a culture that is obsessed with the idea of freedom. Politicians invoke it to gain votes. Marketers associate products with it to convince us to buy. Hell, lots of people seem perfectly content to regard "America" and "freedom" as practically synonymous. Freedom is a concept that enjoys nearly unanimous praise across the world. When you get down to it, though, it's really a negative term. You can't have freedom without something "bad" to be free from...otherwise the word would have no meaning. Attaining freedom requires that you successfully escape whatever negative entity it is you're running from.
Before I embarked on my journey, I was practically drunk on the promise of freedom. That, I had decided, was what I was after, and I knew I was in for a lot of it. And I looked at everyone I was leaving behind in the USA, and I saw the things that were keeping them from following me: homes, spouses, children, and so on. I began to regard these things, which have huge, meaningful significance to most people, as little more than anchors, slowing one's pace in the sprint towards total independence.
As I experienced the liberty I'd been dreaming about, in places such as New Zealand's national parks and Norway's high country, I took stock of my situation. Could I be any freer than I was then? Perhaps, but when I extrapolated the concept as far as it could logically go, I came to a harsh conclusion: complete freedom demands complete solitude. That is, the more free you are, the more alone you become.
I realized that when you chase the specter of freedom, you really aren't chasing anything. You're running away. This led me to my next conclusion: if you are going to strive for a goal, strive for something beyond freedom. Rather than searching for what is most free, search for what is best. I know that sounds incredibly nebulous and probably raises more questions than it answers. But I think that this sense of what is best is something that's intrinsic in each of us. And I think that only when we allow this sense to guide us will we be steered toward the personal satisfaction that we all seem to be after.
Hmmmm. Looks like what I actually ended up writing was neither brief nor simple. Oh well.
I guess the only remaining question is, what's next? Well, while I certainly enjoyed my freewheeling, vagabonding lifestyle, the downside of it all is that it's ultimately unsustainable. Which means that I have to go back to work and make a living. But now, at the very least, I can do it knowing that I saw that big "something else" that most people only dare to dream of. I was there. I have the t-shirt to prove it.
As far as this blog goes, I'm tempted to simply take it out of commission. Now that I'm back home, mission completed, there isn't much reason for it to exist anymore. But I think I'll keep it around. While there won't be any more updates, I'll leave the site up to serve as an archive of my trip for anyone interested. And who knows...maybe the highway will call again one day and I'll have some new material to write about. After all, there's always the final verse of the song that inspired this blog:
Just be everywhere at home
Tomorrow is a brand new day
Let's go somewhere else
Until then, this is the Universal Traveler, signing off.