I can’t talk about leaving the rat race because I never entered it to begin with. In 1999 I began traveling, working on the road, living abroad, studying abroad, going wherever and I wanted and could afford to get to. I don’t have a cubicle ditcher story, I can’t tell a “take this job and shove it” tale, I never even had a job for more than a few months in a row. I can only fathom what the 9 to 5 rat race is like. I have no idea what it’s like to have mortgage payments, to take the threats of loan sharks seriously, to have a job that I couldn’t easily walk away from on a whim, to have a domicile that is my responsibility to fix, to have more possessions than I know what to do with, to exist in a complex social network, to have so much money that I need to worry about it, to even have something that could be taken away which would have a real impact. Come to think of it, I don’t have much of anything at all, as I gave up the whole lot on a single gamble for self-determination.
I began traveling at 18 years old, right at the beginning of my adult life, and this is the only lifestyle I’ve known since. There are other people out there with a similar story, but I’d never meet one before I pulled up a bar stool next to Michael Robert Powell last week in Hangzhou.
MRP is the guy behind The Candy Trail. Since 1988, he’s been on the road traveling, working, screwing, learning, boozing . . . He left his home in New Zealand after finishing university at the age of 21, and he’s been going for nearly 25 years. He’s a wandering madman who hitchhiked across the Sahara, was arrested on accusations of being a spy in Iraq, hopped a ride on a Blackhawk helicopter to become the first tourist in the new East Timor, survived riots, cyclones, road accidents, and a mess of other calamities around the world. You may also remember him as Vagabond Journey’s perpetual travel correspondent a couple of years ago or have read his article in Vagabond Explorer.
A conventional life has never interested me . . . No. I took another path.
I’ve never had a permanent job. Never owned a house or car or motorbike (but once had a TV). After graduating from university, I took a 6-month job – then hit the road with the money saved and have never looked back.
Today I remain on the road. Still single, never married, no children, few assets, no social circle or societal niche.
Honestly speaking, pretty much nobody in the world has traveled as long or as far or as crazy as the guy who was sitting next to me drinking a tall mug of Tiger beer. He’s a travel legend, but one who would rather remain obscure, telling dirty, real life tales than wanking the commercial shaft like some kind of faker. From what I can tell, MRP still going strong, with a plan to return to Africa for the forth time and travel overland from Cairo to Cape Town.
But a quarter of a century on the road living out of a backpack has not rendered MRP ragged, weary, and ugly. At 47 or so, his gait still has a bounce to it, his eyes still bright, and his demeanor packed with enthusiasm.
I no longer need assurance that the perpetual lifestyle is sustainable, but MRP did a good job reassuring me anyway. 25 years in, and he’s still hungry. Like a narcotic, the more travel you consume the more you crave. This is an endeavor that lasts a lifetime. It is not possible to travel the world, this is a project that cannot be completed — even 100 years would not nearly be enough time to satiate the drive to experience this planet.
After a shot of tequila, MRP stopped short our conversation and asked me what I think of him.
I thought about this for a moment, and then replied, “You are one of the sanest people I’ve ever met.” I meant it too.
He looked at me puzzled, this was a very odd thing to say to a guy who is known for having absolutely insane adventures around the world.
“It’s insane to me,” I added, “that so many people voluntarily indenture themselves to a job, work 40 hours a week, enchain themselves to a home, and live in a way that truly doesn’t make them happy when they don’t have to. That’s insane.”
He then told me the story about the father of a friend of his in New Zealand who worked hard his whole life looking forward to all the things he would do when he retired. When he turned 60, retirement day came. A month or so later he died from a stroke.
“You never know when you’re going to die, a future is not guaranteed,” he spoke.
I think all perpetual travelers have stories like this. I have a couple. They are frightening cautionary tales of people who made bad gambles with their lives, trading time and self-determination for wealth or possessions or security — or the illusion of such things. The fear of not living life to its fullest extent is enough to drive some people mad. Mad enough to step out of the cycle of insanity and hit the road, head into the hills, or devote themselves to a passion or art — even if they must face destitution to do so.
Wasted money can be earned again, security ebbs and flows, possessions and people come and go, but there’s no redemption for wasted time. Putting up the best years of a life in an all or nothing bet on the future is an insane gamble that I don’t have balls enough to take. But it is a gamble that is so normal in the cultures of the over-developed world that alternatives often seem obscure and distant.
The “what ifs” of life are everywhere, they may not be asked very often of those who trod the beaten path of their culture, but under the surface they’re always there. “What if you get hit by a truck tomorrow? What if your company goes bankrupt and you lose your retirement? What if you get laid off tomorrow and lose everything? What if you can’t really afford the house, car, TV you just bought? What if your medical insurance won’t cover some procedure that you need? What if you lose your health insurance? What if your kids grow up to be spoiled little pricks who don’t give a shit about you? What if your wife leaves you and kicks your ass in divorce court? What if you’re building for a future that never comes? What if? What if? What if?
Life is an investment, no matter how you play it. The returns of any lifestyle may prove sweet but they may also prove bitter and empty — there are never any guarantees. If my life goes bust, I always have the memories of the decades that I traveled the world, living exactly as I determined. Each day I take something wonderful from my investment, and will do so until there’s nothing left.
Sedentary people may look at the life of a perpetual traveler and find fear and loathing and insecurity in it, but that traveler can look at the life of the sedentary with the same critical glare. Life is a gamble and there’s no way to step away from the table. So I cash in my chips as soon as I get them. I play for the present, as it has the highest likelihood of providing a good return.
“People ask me what I’m going to do when I’m old,” MRP spoke. “If I get old and frail and sick, and I’m all alone, and life starts to be a drag I’ll just blow my brains out and end it all. It’s simple.”
I believe him. What sane person wouldn’t do the same?
But I also believe that it would be difficult for someone like MRP to live in misery. Though our friendship has been digital up until last week, I have a theory that it’s incredibly difficult for a generally happy person to be rendered miserable. Once you develop a process of finding intrigue and fascination in the simple things around you it’s hard to be bored. Once you fill your life with projects, interests, and obsessions, and build them up year after year it’s hard for life to lose its meaning. Once you cultivate the emotional self-sufficiency to make yourself happy you become incredibly versatile and able to adapt and change with the shifting parameters that are before you. This is a subjective theory based solely on observation, but I’ve never met a depressed long term traveler before, I’ve never met a miserable person who carved their own path in life, I’ve never met someone who can be mystified by a sunrise, a bird, or a tree who did not delight in waking up each morning.
Life is just a game, you play around for a while, maybe reproduce, smile, fight, laugh, hump, discover, cry, and croak. These are very easy words to say, but far more difficult to put into practice. But when you meet someone who does live like this it’s obvious. Their eyes are bright, their aura radiant, and they seem satisfied enough just to have waken up in the morning alive. Life is a daily gift, anyone who sees it otherwise is insane.
As far as I’m concerned, MRP is the sanest man on earth.