“Do you ever get tired of it?”
Tamara asked me.
It surprised me how quickly the answer came to my lips. “Every day.”
Tamara was one of my CouchSurfing hosts in Salt Lake City during the spring of 2015.
One morning, early in my stay, she’d taken a seat on the living room floor and proceeded to ask me a few of the standard questions nearly everyone asks about hitchhiking, couch surfing, and my life as a vagabond.
Have you ever been attacked?
What’s your favorite place?
Has anyone ever propositioned you for sex?
And in turn, I’d been giving her my standard, well-practiced replies.
Except for this question. No one had ever asked me this before.
Perhaps it was the novelty of the thing or maybe she’d caught me with my guard down. Whatever that case, her question managed to slip through the cracks of my copy-and-paste response mechanism, and touched on something genuine and new inside me.
The fact that I’d responded with such a negative response also caught me by surprise.
But before I could rationalize what I’d said, my mouth began to speak again.
Every day I fall in love with new friends and new places. Whether it’s hitchhiking, or couch surfing, or just being out in the world. It’s one of the greatest joys I find in living the way I do. But with every new love comes a little bit of heartbreak, knowing that I may never speak to these new friends, or see these wonderful places again.”
While I was saying it, it didn’t feel like complaining. It felt like a welling up of something that had long gone unaddressed, and had waited patiently at the door of my mind for the right question to let it out.
And then there’s my family and friends back home. There are times when I miss them so much it’s hard to deal with. It makes me wonder if all this time out in the world is worth the price of being away from the people I value most. Or the price of putting down roots and really having a place to call home.
Sometimes I’m surrounded by new people, and I feel completely alone. Many times I still struggle to connect. I don’t quite know how to open up, and I pull back. I put on a smiling face, I tell the greatest hits of my adventure stories, and try to be entertaining. But it only ends up feeling empty.
And then there are the women I’ve had to say goodbye to because of my love affair with travel. That has been the hardest thing by far. It weighs on me constantly. What if I had stayed? Why did I have to leave when everything was working so well? Am I afraid of them, or just in love with travel and not willing to compromise”
Tamara sat across the room. Her eyes lost in an unseen distance.
When I’m standing on the side of the road for hours on end, watching car after car pass me by. Or when I’m lying awake at 2am on a stranger’s couch. These are the times when I feel it most. All the love I’ve left behind.”
Tamara and I continued to speak on other things, but this little snippet of our conversation stuck with me. Even months after leaving Salt Lake City, the truth of it followed me.
Was it really that bad? Was travel for all its seeming adventure and grandeur really causing me so much pain? Was I trading away the magic of long lasting connection and intimacy for the short term thrills of a life on the road?
Before leaving on the trip I’m currently on (hitchhiking and sailing to South America), I once again found myself in a situation where the prospect of leaving my home base in Colorado meant leaving behind a budding romantic relationship.
Even though it was new, there were still ties that would be stretched and possibly broken under the strain of a long distance situation. As much as I like to pride myself on my emotional self-reliance, the thought of returning to find her in a serious relationship with another man was not a pleasant one.
During the days and nights that preceded my departure, I gave considerable thought to the answer I’d given Tamara. Was it truly worth it? Were the benefits of travel worth the steep price of saying goodbye?
It wasn’t until it actually came time for me to leave that I realized I’d been asking the wrong question.
Taking Love Along
I knew what profound joy and deep, meaningful experiences a long-term relationship can create. And on the other hand, I knew the absolute magic of what long-term travel can bring into my life.
Beyond these, I also knew myself. I knew I wasn’t going to stop traveling, and I wasn’t going to stop loving people. So what was I supposed to do?
And then it hit me. What if I stopped buying into this false dichotomy?
What if my pain wasn’t a consequence of my lifestyle, but the way I’d been living it. The decisions we have to make in life are very rarely so binary.
Do I want travel or love?
Adventure or security?
Freedom or connection?
These were all arbitrary choices.
Travel and love.
Adventure and security.
Freedom and connection.
If I wanted to have more love in my life then maybe all I had to do was learn how to take it with me.
It was not a matter of how often I had to say goodbye, nor of how far I happened to be from the people I cared about. It was a matter of focusing on the love that I had.
I wasn’t going to stop loving this person once I left. Nor, in all honesty, had I stopped loving the others I’d said goodbye to in years before. Realizing this, I saw that the real love I held, whether for people new or old, near or far, had nothing to do with the role they played in my life at the moment, and everything to do with the beauty of who they were.
And that was something I could take with me wherever I went.
Problem solved… Right?
When The Rubber Meets The Road
While this mental methodology looks great on paper, when the person I am seeing in CO and am attempting to love “regardless of their role” tells me she’s going out on a date with someone else, or my when my sister forgets to even spend the five seconds it would take to write “happy birthday” on my facebook wall, I have to recognize there is only so much philosophizing can do to alleviate my pain.
Sure, someday I might achieve a zen-like state of being where I can be completely emotionally independent, and feel just as connected with everyone, regardless of how much they are personally investing in our relationship. I’m just not there yet, and I don’t know if I ever will be.
When I started writing this article, I wanted the reader to walk away with an insight that might help convince them to make the leap into long-term travel, if it was something they were contemplating. A strategy to alleviate the fear of loss that this sort of lifestyle inherently entails.
But now that I’m writing it I realize that’s not going to help either of us.
Because if you jump out and leave everything behind, unless you entirely despise everyone you know, it’s going to hurt.
And here’s the cool part: that’s okay.
It hurts. So what?
Everything I’ve ever done that was challenging, and epic, and worth doing, hurt.
Usually a lot.
These last three weeks have been some of the hardest I’ve experienced in my six years of travel. With being away from everyone for Thanksgiving and my birthday, and getting kind of stuck in the outskirts of Atlanta by myself, things just got really low. I haven’t felt that alone in a long time.
But that loneliness motivated me to reach out and call people who matter to me. My pain made me question a lot about what type of people I want more of in my life. It gave me an opportunity to look at myself, and examine some of the ways I might still be self sabotaging. And it reinforced the importance of practicing loving people for who they are, even if I’m not there yet. Even if I never get there all the way.
Recognizing the value in this experience, and in turn all of my travel experiences, has turned out to be much more important than any quick fix philosophy.
I don’t travel because I expect it to be all sunshine and rainbows. I travel because it wakes me up. Sometimes with unexpected wonder, and sometimes with a boot.
Alex Canby is a guy who loves travel, but hates writing short bios about himself. Check out his blog at alexcanby.com to read crazy stuff about Alex as he explores the world and his place within it.
Alex is a Traveler’s Mindset Ambassador, contributing to the “darker side of travel” series by sharing his real life experiences as they happen and what it means to be challenged and transformed by travel.