December 2013. Madison, Alabama.
My breath warms the frozen passenger side window as the family car glides over silken suburbia. The restaurant food in my distended stomach weighs me down like a ton of bricks; we eat out nearly every night when I visit home.
Outside, the Christmas lights flicker in a festive frenzy. Explosions of technicolor briefly offer distraction, but my attention reverts to the grayscale of my mind’s eye. Depression has a way of sneaking up on you in the most inconvenient of times.
I know that my life is charmed. I make good money, my social life is decent, and I’m a fairly interesting person. I am ashamed that I’m not happy with it all.
I am filled with existential dread. I am wholly disconnected from the world. I am drained of dopamine and stuck in emotional squalor. I strum the same chords on repeat, expecting my life to erupt in brilliant fanfare. Meanwhile, my Facebook feed is full of blissful faces that seem to have it all figured out.
I decide in this moment that I am tired of the silent melancholy. I need to renew myself. I am defiant with purpose.
“I’m going to quit my job in three years. I’ve just decided. I think I’ll travel some.”
The words plummet from my mouth like black sands, each grain dissolving into the darkness.
Family, friends, and coworkers alike gradually accept that my excursion is going to happen. I receive rote words of encouragement, attaboys, exclamations of jealousy, and obligatory small talk. I detect more than a hint of apathy, disbelief, and annoyance.
In the end, I knew I was going to have to see this through on my own.
I wanted to taste and smell foods completely alien to me. To get lost in excitement and fear. To hear French and Spanish and Swahili and Khmer and Japanese and the nearly unrecognizable Scottish dialects of my own language. To climb mountains, sand dunes, church steeples, and glaciers. To have no plans except that which the world made for me.
* * *
Dust drifts in a foggy window sunbeam. Each mote seems frozen for a brief moment before falling. These forlorn snowflakes are characteristic of my early morning hours. So often I wake to find myself caught in descent, no match for the inertia of dreams.
I’m slowly rousing from slumber when a friend sits down, coffee in hand. I’m shipwrecked on the couch. We are both recovering from his housewarming party; it was the last time I’d see our set of friends for some time.
No one had asked about it yet. My plans, my adventure, my journey – whatever you’d want to name it. “It” was presumably somewhere down the docket, below college football, the latest superhero films, and the omnipresent politics. We just hadn’t the time to explore further topics in one evening.
I’m tying my shoes to leave.
“So, about this travel thing… we haven’t had a chance to talk. Are you okay?”
I laugh – my default defense mechanism, a trusted companion through years of graceless maladjustment.
“Yeah, why do you ask? I’m not going to the heart of darkness or anything like that. I’m not running away.”
I was, in fact, going to Cambodia. Just not the Hollywood version. Not the hell-on-earth Khmer Rouge version. The last thing I wanted was to meet a brutal end on the edge of the earth, crushed like a fly who never served his purpose.
“We just wanted to make sure you weren’t having some sort of bipolar episode. We know people that have done similar things. Now they’re back in the real world.”
A rush of recognition fills my face. The crazy card has been pulled out of the deck, waved tentatively, and gingerly placed back into hiding.
I’m used to the feeling, and I don’t blame him for asking. I can imagine the machinations and assumptions that lead to such a conclusion. Occam’s Razor wouldn’t necessarily disagree with it.
* * *
In the following months, I dance wildly in Montréal, masquerade as a gruff Parisian, and gorge on street churros in Barcelona. I relish in the sight of happy potheads in Vondelpark, Amsterdam and the severe features of a glacier in Iceland.
I bring friends on my next trip to Central America, during which I experience my first taste of truly different cultures. I snorkel for the first time, opening up an entirely new universe for exploration. I am having an experience.
Even still, I’m searching to share these experiences in a more meaningful way with others. And I’m having to come to terms with this reality: No one cares if you quit your job to travel the world.
The most enlightening conversations I’ve had remain with my new acquaintances from the road. Backpackers, vagabonds, and scamps. They’re more willing to share in my journey because they are on a journey of their own. They are my peers, my family, and my comrades; we are at war with normalcy.
And that’s the problem. The demonization of the “normal” 9-to-5 world is a huge barrier between “us” and “them”. It’s all very tribal. We are constantly finding new ways to distance ourselves from other human beings.
On the cusp of a new adventure, I accept these boundaries. I can only hope that everyone can respect my choices.