Journalist to Walk the World

For a spine-ripping blast of inspiration check out the story of Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Paul Salopek who is preparing to do a 22,000 seven year walk from Africa across Asia through the Americas, tracing the route anthropologists believe was the first path humans took out of Africa to populate the rest of the world.

The Wanderer by Johnny Cash from Matt Devir on Vimeo.

The veteran reporter says:

I could go back and work for a newspaper as a foreign correspondent. I loved that. But why not use those skills I’ve developed for the last 15 years or so on a project of my own? One that may attempt to add a layer of meaning to international news that is missing in our business.

There is so much to love about this, I don’t know where to start. The brilliance of the idea. The audacity of the goal. The sheer conjones required to set off on foot into the desert.

I suddenly feel it’s time to supersize my ambitions.

What’s your wildest dream?

1000 Miles of America

Drive 1000 miles in Europe and you get through 12 countries. In the US that will take you from California all the way to — Oregon. Specifically, from Los Angeles to Portland.

My 1000-mile adventure began in the mind-bending snarl of LAX, an airport as labyrinth as the freeways in whose tentacles it nestles. Sarah and I had set out from Los Angeles three weeks earlier, armed with an atlas, a kettle, a tent with no poles, and a carton of super-hot wasabi peas. Four-thousand miles, several national parks, one whisky-soaked birthday bash, and a midnight marathon later she was on her way back to London.

All you really need


Everything up to the farewell had been meticulously planned, mostly by Sarah, whose talent for organisation I admire but don’t share. Now the brains of our operation was airborne my only thought was to find I405N and stick to it like rubber cement until I escaped the LA sprawl.

Driving Los Angeles freeways feels, appropriately, like a video game. You need total concentration and whip-like reflexes. One minute you’re bumper to bumper at 70 miles per hour; the next at a 15mph crawl. Cars swarm and dart like outraged insects with expensive exoskeletons. Me and Bobby McGee, our trusty Toyota hire car, could buzz with the best of them, though. I cranked the Lady Gaga tunes, rolled down the windows, grabbed the wheel with both hands and hit play.

It takes about forever for LA to peter out. There always seems to be just one more suburb. Finally the landscape muted as we slipped the clutches of la la land. I had 300-odd miles before my next decision: to fly through central California on I5 or hook a left at San Francisco and follow Highway 101 along the coast.

Gaga gave way to Bruce Springsteen. Apropos, given that central California has more in common with working-class Jersey than it does with LA or San Francisco. Those two cosmopolitan dots on the map mask the fact that most of the enormous state is empty space studded with sullen, forgotten little towns. The beautiful bits are ring-fenced as national parks or were plowed under to feed the nation.

The part I was driving through was demarcated with tubular metal fencing around cattle yards that were heralded, miles in advance, by a throat-closing stench. Imagine hundreds of warm bodies crammed together in pits of putrefying sewage and you have some idea. If I wasn’t already a vegetarian, that would have been my road to Damascus. The idea of putting anything in my mouth that came from that smell was revolting.

Three hundred miles in Europe can take you through a variety of languages, borders and landscapes. California offers no such break from the tedium. The grey slice of interstate drags you on, hypnotised. Approaching the San Francisco junction I pictured myself pootling up 101. I could stop over in San Francisco, eat sourdough bread, smell the sea, take another picture of the bridge, stay in a cosy motel then head homewards at a civilised pace the following day. But Bobby was running on tracks and we had far to go.

For the same reason I only start enjoying a 10-mile run at mile six I kept driving.

Bobby and I whisked past Sacramento, California’s forgettable capital. The next significant town was Redding, 150 miles away, roughly the halfway point of my route. It offers no speciality breads or romantic views. I knew I wouldn’t stop. I was in the grip of distance-related cognitive dissonance, a disease all driving fanatics suffer. On the one hand, I knew it would take me at least two hours to Redding, itself still two hours from the Oregon border. But it was only 150 miles. Just a couple of inches on a map.

Bobby McGee


Redding vanished, taking the stultifying dullness of central Cali with it. I was locked into a mission now: to make it to Portland in one grand dash. Could I make it across 1300 metre Siskiyou Summit before dark? As the sun dwindled I fell in behind a Honda four-by-four and formed one of those informal and, on its part, involuntary road alliances. I have fallen afoul of the California Highway Patrol before, and as Bobby and I climbed there were plenty of places for avaricious traffic cops to lurk. The Honda was cruising at about 80 and I tucked in right behind.

Our mechanical dance carried us into the mountains, taking turns to dip in and out of slower traffic, overtake, lunge forward and linger till we were once again moving in harmony. Its taillights led me up the pass and into the fast descent that followed. By then I was in Oregon and hey, Oregon is home. No stopping now.

Mountain sunset


Time and distance started to play accordion tricks, stretching and contracting. I was obsessively mile-counting now: 97 from Medford to Roseburg. The Boss had worn thin. As had the Lady. And everything from Pulp to Jay-Z. Every sing-along song had been sung. My fingers were glued to the wheel and my nerves were stretched like rubber bands. The friendly Honda turned off and was replaced by a looming redneck beast of a truck whose jacked-up suspension and massive wheels put its aftermarket halogens dead centre in my rearview mirror. Every time my eyes flickered up I got a nervous jolt: the retina-stabbing bluey-white looked like police lights.

My speed reflected varying levels of prudence, stubbornness and temptation. The roads were practically empty so I felt safe at illegal speeds. That made me easy prey, though, and after 5500 miles and counting I didn’t want to end my adventure with a massive traffic fine. On clear, straight stretches I risked fast runs, drafting on any available vehicle. When I5 took me past small towns I eased off; nobody wants to tangle with local boys in blue.

I considered stopping in Eugene, where I used to live with my brother. Friends there would put me up, no problem. But I wasn’t tired, just bored — and fixated. It’s about a hundred miles from Eugene to Portland and I know every detail of the road. Familiarity would make the miles fly. For most of the trip I’d made a conscious effort to not think about the destination because it was too far away. Now, as the lights of Eugene and Springfield flashed past, I let myself picture my sister and brother-in-law’s house. With any luck Saturday night socialising would still be in full flow. They weren’t expecting me, which makes for the best reunions.

Home. Sweet!


Willpower-fueled concentration carried me to the outskirts of the city where I promptly forgot which exit I needed. My brain was tottering towards collapse. Was it 72nd Avenue? Did I hang on till Barbur Boulevard? I can’t now remember which I took, only that it wasn’t the one I wanted. This is my navigational Achilles heel. Give me 6000 miles of open road and I’m dandy. Put me on an unfamiliar street in my neighbourhood and I’m screwed.

There was no point in calling for directions because I didn’t quite know where I was. Nor would well-meant advice have sunk in, at that point. Somehow Bobby and I found our way onto 72nd and nosed tentatively along guided by half-familiar landmarks. Then, bliss. I recognised the cut of a particular intersection. Straight down, right then through the traffic lights.

I drove the last mile slow, slipping silently along Tigard’s low-lit suburban streets, uphill and down. When I killed the engine it was a few minutes before midnight. One thousand miles in 15 hours of solitude, splendour and monumental boredom. “The scary thing”, I thought, trudging up the steps, “is that’s only a tiny little sliver of America. Where shall I go next?”

Decision Making

Are you looking for the road less-travelled?


As I’ve chipped away at the Family on Bikes story (a paragraph or two over Saturday morning coffee, a stolen few minutes between advertising case studies at work) one word is always on my mind: choice.

The Vogel’s story is, at root, a story about making decisions. About waking up to the fact that if you don’t call the shots in your life someone else will because someone has to. (Shots get called. That’s how it works.) Talking to Nancy has made me aware of the gap between how we perceive decision making and how we do it. I suspect we give ourselves more credit for autonomy than we actually deserve. We think we’re free-wheeling, decision making machines. But how many of our choices are honest? How often do we stop and reflect on what we really want as opposed to simply reacting to what we think is expected of us?

Nancy bumped up against this when John suggested hitting the road with Daryl and Davy. Her knee-jerk “that’s not what parents do” seemed like a decision until she thought about it, mulled it over, and realised it was just a reaction. Parsing her response helped her choose based what she really valued versus what she thought she was supposed to value.

That is real decision making and it is absolutely a discipline. To make good decisions we have to reclaim our instinctive selfishness. Children, and adults who have a healthy level of self-interest, make decisions based on what makes them happy, satisfies their physical needs, and makes them feel loved and secure. Education warps this innate good sense by teaching that there are more important things than love, health, and self-determination. Money is accepted as a definition of “success” and culturally-constructed notions of what people “should” do are given priority. “Normal” takes over from natural as a guiding principle. The process is insidious. Most people are barely conscious of having sacrificed their freedom to simple convention. Nancy discovered she was not immune. “Quitting your job and putting your kids on a bicycle just wasn’t done. I had no role model,” she says. “Nothing out there that was telling me this was okay, this was do-able. It was an internal struggle.”

The struggle is essential and inevitable. It forces you to decide what you value, which may not be as obvious as it sounds. Fantasising about hitch-hiking across Mongolia is one thing but if you can’t imagine life without HD TV and an espresso machine you need to reconsider. Making good decisions means being honest about what you want, not what you think you should want, or what someone else expects you to want.


Further reading

Decisions
Self-Education
Self-Determination

Family on Bikes – Choose and Act

The continuing adventures of the Family on Bikes. For the story so far read Week 1 – One Revolution at a Time, Week 2 – Sticking Together? and Week 3 – Decisions, decisions and Week 4 – Semi-Charmed Life and Week 5 – On The Road and Week 6 – Leaps of Faith

The paradox of any huge goal is that the best way to achieve it is to forget about the big picture and concentrate on the next step. Otherwise, you risk getting frozen in the Klieg light of your own ambition. Kids are lucky: they don’t have the same hang-ups. When the Vogels set off on their year-long jaunt through the States Davy and Daryl were only eight years old, and content to follow their parents’ agenda. By the time they set off down the Pan American Highway the boys were in double digits and enthusiastic, seasoned travellers, yet untroubled by creeping adult concerns. They were old enough to understand that 17,000 miles is a tremendous distance; astute enough to trace the winding ribbon of road across two hemispheres; experienced enough to expect hills, rain, cold, heat and aching muscles but young enough to live in the moment. To this day, they don’t see what the big deal is about their journey. “To them, it’s just something they did,” Nancy remarks. Set against the scale of the wilderness and the uncertainties of the road Davy and Daryl’s unself-conscious pragmatism was a blessing, a continuous reminder to take the journey one revolution at a time.

 

It helped on days when they faced towering mountain ranges, like the 10,000-foot peaks that shot out of the earth in Colombia like impenetrable green walls; or when they encountered blustering wind; or bears. “I told you about the bear, right? No?” Nancy chuckles and settles into story-telling mode. It was in Canada. They were moseying along, minding their own business. She and Daryl stopped for a breather while John and Davy went on. A dark, low-slung figure caught her eye. The form was familiar from a thousand pictures. “You’re supposed to back away from bears, but that’s kind of hard to do on a bike.” The critter ambled towards them, trailing a moustache of half-chewed grass. Voice low, Nancy told Daryl to pull away slowly, hoping it wouldn’t provoke a chase. A split second later, four legs sprang into action. Time compressed into the stroke of a pedal. Bears can up to 30 miles per hour but, Nancy notes, sufficiently motivated cyclists go even faster.

 

There is a smile in Nancy’s voice as she tells the story that belies some serious thinking. Once the adrenaline rush passed she asked the questions any good parent would: Am I doing the right thing? Is the goal big and important enough to justify the risks? What are my responsibilities? Conventional wisdom would have suggested a swift end to the journey. What kind of mother gambles on turning her child into a bear’s dinner? But Nancy hasn’t spent years asking questions for nothing. The mere act of setting out on the journey demanded a commitment to weigh situations on merit rather than out of habit and to banish automatic judgements. “The vast majority of people aren’t making conscious choices,” Nancy says. Most don’t need to. They have bosses, teachers, husbands, wives, children, parents, preachers, mortgage payments, and television to tell them where they have to be, what they have to do, and how they should live. On the Pan Am highway the Vogles’ only obligation was to each other and their goal. Nobody was there to tell them “go here”, “do this” or “stop now”. Freedom comes with the simple imperative to choose.

Family on Bikes – Leaps of Faith

The continuing adventures of the Family on Bikes. For the story so far read Week 1 – One Revolution at a Time, Week 2 – Sticking Together? and Week 3 – Decisions, decisions and Week 4 – Semi-Charmed Life and Week 5 – On The Road


The paradox of individualism is that it requires community. As the Vogels tackled the steep hills and steeper learning curve of family travel they developed a new paradigm of self-sufficiency. Safely ensconced in suburbia they didn’t think twice about relying on bus drivers to get the boys to school, teachers to educate them, and friends to shape their free time. But when they swapped those socially-approved dependencies for life on the road Nancy felt like they had to prove they could take care of themselves. “We felt we shouldn’t ask for help,” she admits. This reluctance or embarrassment gradually eased as they discovered their limits and the unexpected scope of strangers’ generosity. “People are basically good and kind. Most will do almost anything to help you out – without even being asked.”

This is a striking contradiction to the received wisdom that humans are inherently selfish, if not downright ill-intentioned. Aren’t we supposed to avoid strangers, lock our doors, keep a close grip on our luggage and look out for suspicious behaviour? Nancy doesn’t think so: “I’ve been around the world a few times and my belief comes from my experiences. There are very few bad people. Most will help if you need it.” Ask for examples of uncommon kindness and she chuckles: “How long do you have?” She rattles off a list of spontaneous gestures of goodwill: the man in Mexico who pulled over and offered them a gunnysack of fresh tomatoes; another Mexican family who filled their panniers with oranges; a date-farmer in California who invited them camp in his fields and let Davy and Daryl help out the irrigation system. “If we asked for help people would respond, no problem,” Nancy recalls. “Most of the time though they came out of the woodwork and just offered. This gives you a sense of security, a willingness to put yourself in a situation you wouldn’t otherwise.”

The family’s next epic journey put this trust to the test as they set out on a 17,000 mile traverse of the Pan-American Highway. Before the first turn of the wheel Nancy and John had to make a major decision. The Pan-Am highway, which was built in a desperate hurry during World War II to provide a land route for Allied war shipments, does not have a single, definitive official route. They could credibly begin in Anchorage, Alaska, or even Canada. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, however, the highway stretches from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska on the shore of the Arctic Ocean. If they set off from there Davy and Daryl would be eligible for a World Record. The chance to be in the Guinness Book was a big deal for the adventurous ten-year-olds. They had no qualms about Alaska. But Nancy was nervous.

When she and John initially decided to travel with Davy and Daryl their mantra was: “Expect them to go out and have the time of their life, to love the freedom and opportunities, and they will.” The boys had proved their mettle in the States but they couldn’t possibly understand the scale of the new challenge. The Dalton Highway, which makes up the Alaskan stretch of the Pan-Am highway, crosses five hundred miles of mountain and tundra, uninhabited apart from a couple of erstwhile mining villages. The Vogels would be out of reach of phone signal, back-up supplies and extra food. If a bike broke down or one of them got sick or injured they would be on their own. Once again Nancy wondered what her responsibilities were as a mother. She took leap of faith: they would start in Prudhoe Bay. Life is risky. Was the Dalton Highway more dangerous than Boise? Maybe. But they were a team. Davy and Daryl had more than lived up to John and Nancy’s faith; now it was their turn to trust and respect the boys’ wishes.

The official northern end of the Pan Am Highway is Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, which lies seventy degrees north of the equator on the shore of the Arctic Ocean. There is nothing in the stark landscape or local legends to reassure a mother with two young children. Kevin Sanders, who leads motorbike tours down the Dalton highway, knows the challenges: “You don’t know what’s coming. We’ve had sunshine in July and we’ve had blizzards. There’s two hundred miles between towns that’s nothing but wilderness and bears. If you get in trouble,” he adds, “no one’s coming to the rescue.” The Official State of Alaska Travel Information warns that: “[Dalton] is also one of Alaska’s most remote and challenging roads. The road is mostly gravel, and motorists need to watch for ruts, rocks, dust in dry weather, potholes in wet weather… The volume of truck traffic… can be high and it is recommended motorists give these trucks the right of way.” It doesn’t say what cyclists should do. Presumably officials don’t expect anyone to be crazy enough to try it on two wheels.

The limitations of peddle power weighed on Nancy’s mind. They had never attempted such a long, remote ride. If they got into trouble there would be no one to call for help. Davy and Daryl were full of the insouciant confidence that comes with being 10 years old; John was physically the strongest. It was left to Nancy to wonder: will we have enough food? Will the boys stay healthy? Will the bikes break down? Will my troublesome knees be up to the task? Any one of these questions could have been an excuse to call the trip off or, at least, confine it to more civilised roads. Most dreams die because the dreamers can’t take the requisite and always terrifying step into the unknown. The best laid plans and sincerest intentions are no protection against the stomach-lurching sensation when you let go of the lifeline.

Nancy drew on a core of courage developed, pearl-wise, throughthe years. She knew that sometimes you have to just go. Confidence comes later. “At time I was so nervous I didn’t realise that Alaska, and especially the tundra, would end up being one of my favourite parts.” No amount of trust could alter the fact the four of them were alone, together, in a land that was vast beyond imagination. The sweeping, treeless grasslands stretched as far as the eye could see, the green rippling like a sea beneath the driving wind. Herds of caribou grazed free. Snow-capped mountains shrugged jagged shoulders against the clear arc of the sky. They set off in high summer, where 2AM and 2PM looked identical beneath the unblinking Arctic sun. The road offered no comforting illusions of security: no houses, hospitals, gas stations, power-lines, police, or any of the other taken-for-granted tokens of civilisation. “I felt overwhelmed by Mother Nature,” Nancy recalls. “Everything was so big and we were so small. We were dwarfed by the sheer magnificence of nature.”

Family On Bikes – On The Road

The continuing adventures of the Family on Bikes. For the story so far read Week 1 – One Revolution at a Time, Week 2 – Sticking Together? and Week 3 – Decisions, decisions and Week 4 – Semi-Charmed Life

Nancy moved back to Boise with the boys in February 2005; John followed at the end of the school year. She knew in her bones it was the right thing to do. For the first time in years they could spend time with family without casting one eye ahead to goodbye. Davy and Daryl could revel in Fourth of July firecrackers, Thanksgiving turkey and a white Christmas. It felt odd to put the boys on a school bus and not see them till the end of the day, but after the emotional and physical strain of the Vogel’s final months in Malaysia Nancy was prepared to accept daily separation as the price of much-needed stability.

So when John came home after his bad day and suggested taking the boys on the road Nancy’s response was reflexive. It was an absurd idea. “That’s not what parents do,” she reiterated when John kept talking about it. A week passed, then two. They stopped by to visit her mom and John, to Nancy’s surprise, talked about the mooted trip as if it were a solid plan. His determination was infectious and she found herself wrestling with two diametrically opposed value systems.

On one side everything cautious, conservative and conventional argued against the idea. She rationalised that it was normal for families to lead separate lives – mom and dad at work and the kids at school – and that it was normal for husbands and wives to communicate in hurried conversations between carpooling and ticking off the to-do list. Every time Nancy sat in a school meeting, or chatted with other parents on the sidelines at soccer practice, she heard the same thing: separation is normal, this is how people live.

Weighed against social expectations was Nancy’s long-cultivated habit of considering the options and choosing based on the merits of the situation. Though she struggled to reconcile her notions of responsibility and freedom, the more she thought about John’s plan the more Nancy felt like she was the crazy one for clinging to staid ideas about what parents do. “My boys were never going to be eight years old again. If I didn’t spend this time with them I was going to lose the opportunity,” she says. “Life is short. You have one chance and you have to grab on to it.”

Once the decision was made Nancy and John acted swiftly. Within weeks they commissioned a custom-built bicycle for three, recruited family members to housesit and packed their panniers. In  June, when school let out, the Vogels strapped on their helmets, mounted up and became the Family On Bikes.

What was their biggest worry as they faced the unknown? Nancy chuckles: “Our only real concern was that the boys enjoy themselves. We were afraid they wouldn’t like it.” It didn’t take long for more pressing issues to arise. From Idaho they peddled into the tawny expanse of the Oregon desert, which stretches for hundreds of thinly-populated miles. “I’d driven through it numerous times but I had no concept,” Nancy admits. “I didn’t understand how remote it was.” They soon discovered that just because a town was on the map was no guarantee it would provide anything as useful as food and shelter. Early on, they found themselves working through a string of hamlets too tiny to even have a grocery store. After one leg of the journey fuelled by potato chips and candy from a tavern they began to quiz the locals as they planned their route. Other challenges included waking up to find their water-bottles frozen solid and, once, leaving their gear out only to have it drenched in a midnight downpour. Each minor catastrophe added up to another piece of wisdom: no matter how tired you are, always repack the panniers and cover everything in a tarp before you turn in; keep a water bottle close so you can at least clean your teeth on an icy morning. “It felt like every time we figured out the rules the whole game changed,” says Nancy. “There were so many things we hadn’t thought about – that we didn’t even know to think about.”

The one thing they needn’t have fretted about was the boys: Davy and Daryl were too young to worry, or second-guess their parent’s decisions. They took life on the road at face value. It was Nancy who was the family worrier during that first, year-long tour of the states. Each day a knot of tension would clench her stomach as the afternoon waned and they needed to find a camp site. John had a knack for spotting a good pitch, though, and gradually she grew confident he would find them a safe home for the night. Touring together was a daily lesson in trust: trust in herself, her husband, her children, their physical strength, their relationships, and in the kindness of strangers.

Relying on others runs counter to America’s superstitious belief in self-reliance and at first Nancy wasn’t comfortable with the idea of relying on anyone else. “We felt we shouldn’t ask for help,” she recalls. Over time and distance, though, they encountered warm hospitality, freely offered. One time a farmer pulled up alongside and asked if they’d like some dates from his orchard. They followed him to his farm and wound up camping on his land and the boys got to help run the irrigation system. Generous residents offered food, water, directions, advice, sometimes even a place to stay. The graciousness they encountered helped Nancy develop a new perspective on self-sufficiency. She and John tried to be prepared but plainly they couldn’t control everything. Nancy began to embrace spontaneous kindnesses as a “huge source of comfort.”