Jack Kerouac, the beat-generation darling responsible for fueling countless road trips and soul- searching backpackers over the last six decades, once wrote, “The road is life.” This is by far the easiest of his quotes for people of all ages to prophesize, exploit, and it resides among others like, “Live, travel, adventure, bless, and don’t be sorry,” and, “The road must eventually lead to the whole world.” All of which are very catchy and easily tattoo-able. (I won’t mention which quote of his I have inked on my right forearm, but you’re welcome to take a guess.)
Like so many fidgety, anxious, confused, lonely, and pissed-off-by-the-world 24-year olds, I held onto these passages and more like gospel when I condensed my life into a modestly sized backpack and took my first step out onto that road on my own in 2019. And yes, this time in my life was immediately preceded by my completion of Kerouac’s seminal work On The Road, the 1950’s manifesto for getting into a car (or train or plane) and just going. (Objectively speaking, it’s not his best novel by far. My favorite is Dharma Bums.)
The traveler is many things; decisive isn’t one of them. But they are driven by a sort of knowing inside of them, a feeling in their gut or chest or head or spine, or wherever restlessness may lie, and if you ask them, odds are they won’t be able to pinpoint exactly which afflicts them most. Perhaps it’s a little bit of everything. But that’s what the traveler is after, right? A taste of life, here, there, everywhere; anything and everything at all.
Two years ago, I divided most of my time between Florida, Seattle, Spain, France, Monaco, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, The Netherlands, New York, and Colorado Springs, resisting the urge to stay in one place for too long or to sneak away almost immediately to the next spot on my list, all of which came by the way of the equally infamous Hunter S. Thompson’s, “Buy the ticket, take the ride.” I relied solely on my meager post-college life savings that I’d been holding onto since freshman year, a handful of trade-work opportunities, and the kindness of my older sister to let me crash on her apartment floor when I was ‘in-between’ zip-codes for too long. But, in spite of all the instability of it all, I still have trouble believing that I hiked the Italian coastline at Cinque Terre and have seen the Eiffel Tower at night. Call me a romantic, because that’s exactly what I am, but I still try to believe in as much magic in this world as I can — even though that hasn’t been the easiest thing to do for the last year.
On some level, throughout every place I visited, I found the truest version of myself that I have ever come to know. We had some great conversations. It was nice to finally meet me.
Through every city and country and hostel I stayed or worked in, I was introduced to that top- secret travelers code. When it comes to packing for months on end, you quickly learn what a necessity in life truly is. When you leave behind everything you ever thought you wanted you come to find everything you never knew you needed. You also become fearless when traveling.
‘Jump and the net will appear,’ as the saying goes and if it doesn’t, you teach yourself how to swim. You realize this the moment you leave your comfort zone, when you get to see what you’ve been missing all along. Or, sometimes, you accept that comfort isn’t such a bad thing after all.
You will absolutely lose a part of yourself when traveling and will become nearly unrecognizable to the people and life you left back where you started. This sense of self-actualization is the purest form of ecstasy there is in life. Within every single person I crossed paths with, whether for a day or a week or more, I found some sort of universal thread connecting us all. You also learn the lesson of letting go, when it comes to both your material possessions and the people you meet along the way. (Don’t worry; you’ll all follow each other on Instagram, anyway.) There is, after all, a sweet serendipity to life that brings souls together when they need to be.
Yet for everything you come to learn about yourself & the world, much of which I haven’t yet discovered myself, most travelers are still left at the end of the day trying to answer one question: What the hell am I doing this for? Why change old bed sheets all day or empty dozens of trash cans or clean bird shit from fire escape stoops all in exchange for a free spot on some exhausted old foam mattress in a room with nine other people, all doing the same thing? Why leave family and friends in the dust just to stuff your life into a carryon bag, blow all of your money on one- way tickets, and rotate through the same two pairs of jeans & handful of t-shirts for months on end? While many nights are spent in the company of incredibly interesting people with stories to tell from all over the globe, many others are spent entirely, shatteringly alone because as you will inevitably remind everyone you meet in each new destination, you’re not from there, and that can quickly become paralyzing to even the most ambitious of traveler.
But there’s something endlessly noble about this lifestyle, the willingness to throw everything to the wind in the hopes that, one day, you’ll magically wake up exactly where you’re supposed to be, that backpack of yours now full of stories and frayed threads detailing exactly how you got there. Far too many people are afraid of simply saying that they want more out of life than what they currently have. It takes courage to admit that you‘ve been misplaced.
Now, in spite of all the adventure and mystery and enchantment that Kerouac can inspire in so many curious hearts, he also penned later in the same novel upon reaching the end of that story he’d glorified for so long, “I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost.” I wrote once that I was destined to seek whatever it is that I am looking for in life, wherever that may be, never settling for one place or time, drifting from moment to moment and memory to memory, seeking that sweet serendipity of life, collecting all I can about love and life and lust and loss, never necessarily belonging, always simply passing through. But it’s easy to become disenchanted by this lifestyle.
You do eventually become just another person, just another traveler, wandering without a reason in yet another new location, aimlessly trying to find something — anything — that will justify your going in the first place. When you spend enough time passing in & passing through different places and people, you can start to disappear. You can quickly find yourself lost. For even the most starry-eyed individuals, you’ll eventually see the value that can come with being a practical romantic, after all. Sometimes it’s nice to have a dresser to store your clothes in or a private room to sleep in. You begin to appreciate something as simple as a bedroom door. Something which I’m still learning is that it’s OK to slow down for a while; it’s OK to just sit still, which has never been a strength of mine. You learn that no matter where you go, you both cannot run away from or fool yourself for long, and you will come to know what it feels like when you’ve overstayed your welcome — and when you’ve been forced to leave too soon.
Yet despite all of this, so many people still constantly find themselves floating from country to country and city to city, and in many cases, from life to life, and countless more will always do the same, from all ages and walks of life. This isn’t even taking into account the fact that so many borders are slowly but surely starting to open back up. To some, it may just be a way to get highly likable content for their social media accounts; to others, it’s an escape; but at some level for everyone, it’s nothing less than a calling. You realize that the first step away in any direction is really the first step that will eventually lead you back to wherever you were going to get to in the end, anyway. Because while Kerouac and that entire generation of storytellers glorified an endless search for anything, as any traveler will attest, we’re simply searching for one thing in particular, no matter where, when, or with whom we find it.