And so we returned home, having conquered that which we set out to do. We walked from sea to shining sea. When we left, we didn’t know what lay ahead of us, what would happen to us along the way, or who we would be when we arrived on the other side. We just knew we would get there. With our feet. And now that we have, we begin the struggle to understand what it all meant – what it means – and how it has changed us, because there is no question that it has.
After all of that wide open space and dynamic state of being, the contrast of living in a house is overwhelming. A house. A life where you leave your house, walk around in circles all day, running laps around a little neighborhood-shaped maze until you return home – back to where you started. And you snuggle in and bide your time until you get up and do it again tomorrow. Progress is no longer measured in miles. There is no little line inching across the map that traces your accomplishments day by day. We are stationary.
Off the road, progress and accomplishment are proving to be very abstract concepts. They are not measured in states crossed, miles left to go, or friends made. Progress shows itself in home improvement projects completed, money deposited, a promotion landed, another holiday or birthday gone by – but there is no concrete way to know that you are moving closer to your goals. At least, not in the tangible fashion that we have grown used to.
When you are walking toward a coast, the beach doesn’t get up and walk away. It doesn’t change it’s graduation requirements or interest rates. It won’t decide you aren’t right for the job, or become obsolete due to advancements in technology. It just is. From the day we started, the end was certain. We just needed to walk west and we would inevitably run out of land. It’s strange how frightening that realization became as the numbers ran low on our “miles to go” counter. Whether we could comprehend it or not, we really were about to run out of land. And then, incredibly, we did.
In the panic of realizing that this life we had grown to love and thrive in was about to come to an end, we began asking ourselves the inevitable “What have we learned?” and “How can we take this home with us?”
When you reduce yourself to such a simple existence, your daily life becomes a running metaphor. Perhaps the most simple and important metaphor is “The Trip” – that life, marriage, college, or any experience is a journey to be cherished – not just a means to arrive at our destination. We shouldn’t live our lives in a hurry to get to the end! The spaces in between here and there are where the adventures lie. Our lives are The Trip – a journey through our time on this Earth – and we should cherish every moment.
The depression after returning home is undeniable. But over the past three months I have started to understand what I miss about our life on the road – and begin learning how to bring it into my everyday domestic life. Call them teachings, lessons, mantras, or just inadequate words, but here is some of what we learned in our past life on the road:
Life is not a trap. Your job is not a prison. Nobody is holding a gun to your head (I hope.) You are as free as you want to be. The only thing keeping you from changing your life is you. You don’t have to quit your job and abandon your responsibilities and give up your possessions to be free; you just have to truly know that you can. Recognize that you have a choice, and there you go: You’re Free.
Plans are made to be broken. They exist to provide a trajectory and a structure to base your decisions on. However, when life and chance reshape and redirect your plans – and they will – you really have no choice but to roll with the punches and revise the plan. If you stay flexible and adapt instead of clinging to what should have happened, life has a funny way of working out. Some things are a natural fit – so let them be.
Never underestimate the power of an animal to show us who we really are, and what we really need. Over and over, we watched our dogs work their quiet, subtle magic on people from all walks of life. Their love is unconditional, and the comfort they bring people is undeniable. And all they ask us for in return is adventure and food and snuggles. Our dogs have shown us every day how simple and beautiful life can be.
Bear with me, this next one is proving difficult to explain.
Try to see everyone as if you just met them. Drop your grudges. Drop your preconceived notions. Forget what you heard about their family, their neighborhood, their job. Take them for what they give you – who they are – at that very moment. We were gifted with this incredible opportunity every day on the road. As we passed through towns and cities and pinpoints on the map, we got to know hundreds of people in moments and we learned that everyone has a story to tell. Everyone has something to teach you. Let them be who they are, not who they were yesterday or last year.
Don’t waste your time on friends that don’t make you happy. Your family is the family you are born with, but your friends are the family you choose; so choose wisely.
Love everyone. Don’t judge people too harshly. Most of the time, there is more going on in someone’s life than you are aware of. Remember that every person you pass on the street has a life as rich and complex as your own. For the first time in my life, I was the smelly homeless-looking kid sitting outside the gas station with my backpack and my dog. People walked past me, as I used to do, avoiding me with their eyes and thinking who knows what. But then there were people like the woman who stopped and squatted down in front of me to say, “Sweetheart, do you have somewhere to go?” I chuckled and hugged her. And she was surprised to find that I wasn’t homeless, I had a reason for being where I was, and quite a story to tell.
Find a way to enrich the lives of other people. It is easy to get cynical, and forget that we are all in this thing together. The way you treat the world and the way you treat yourself are closely interwoven, so treat them with respect and consideration. Hold the door for a stranger. Tip your bartender well. Wish everyone good day – yourself included.
All the times strangers took us in, pulled over, or fed us, I asked myself: “Would I have done that? Would I have helped? Would I have had the faith to be that kind and generous?” And so many times, more than I’d like to admit, I had to tell myself, “No, I probably wouldn’t have.” Bless you all for leading by example with your kindness and generosity.
Be honest with yourself. Be honest with others. Be honest with yourself.
Most of these lessons we learned center around the tried and true Golden Rule; but I think the most important lesson we learned is that your world is a mirror. You create your experience in life based on what you put out into the world. The way you choose to look at the world defines how you respond to the world. Look for assholes, and you’ll find them everywhere. Or, as a good friend told me, “Smile at the world, and the world will smile back.”
Living in a city again is difficult. These lessons we learned are not exactly in sync with many of the values of city life. Over-stimulation forces us to put the blinders on and try to filter what we do and do not wish to engage. We can no longer be wide open to everything without risking our sanity.
I met a stranger at the bar a few nights ago and we talked about life, travel, and reconciling our views of the world with city life – domestic life. He told me that when you are a traveler, you are choosing to be open to the world and to allow the world, environment, and everything in it to act upon you. You give up control precisely so that you can see what happens – and you learn more about yourself by finding out how you deal with it.
When you are home, you are in control of your environment. You choose where you live, the people you spend time with, the colors on your walls. Rather than letting the world shape you, you must shape your own world. You must act upon it. Alex, if you’re reading this, thank you.
I have projects in the works and am finding the courage to begin tackling them, one step at a time. Most of these projects are ideas that were born of and during the walk. It isn’t time yet, but soon, I will tell you about them. In the mean time, shape your own life. Make plans and then let them change. Chase your dreams. Help someone else chase their dreams. Share your dreams and listen to the dreams of others. Everything in our world started as an idea – a dream someone had.