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Vagabond Journey

Psychology of Long Term Travel

OAXACA, Mexico- The most difficult art of travel is perhaps nothing more than being able to move through places, cultures, and people in serial succession for many years on end and remain sane. Many travelers cannot handle this — they either go home or end up in India trying to convince you that their name [...]

OAXACA, Mexico- The most difficult art of travel is perhaps nothing more than being able to move through places, cultures, and people in serial succession for many years on end and remain sane. Many travelers cannot handle this — they either go home or end up in India trying to convince you that their name is Catharsis and that they just lost their spiritual virginity while hallucinating apparitions of  floating Geneshes or some other such nonsense. In point, living a life that is not tied down to a place, a group of people, a family, and being in an ever shifting environment allows the sense of self identity drift and wane — it is easy to become lost and end up renamed Catharsis.

I have met many travelers who have gone off the deep end. When I meet a long term traveler I know that this person is either very psychologically and emotionally strong and solid in their skin or there is something wrong with them (and I should get away fast). It is an odd thing for someone to want to drift without social bearings as a lifestyle, and doing so often makes or breaks a person.

The traveling life is not an ordinary option in any culture. Even nomadic or other migratory groups travel in packs and their members can maintain a sense of social place with each stop. It is my impression that the human animal, in general, has severe migratory urges but is also not inherently prepared to make good on this of their own accord.

[adsense]This is perhaps the great contradiction of travel: the urge to move coupled by the psychological and emotional need for regular companionship, love, and a sense of place within a community. People have an urge to travel but they have a NEED for other people. Taking one at the expense of the other is often to leave the self with an internal imbalance.

I have great admiration for the emotionally self sufficient traveler, I have no respect for the broken man on the road.

A traveler needs to be solid in their personage, the myth of themselves, to remain sane. On the open road there is no one else to hold your nuts and bolts together but yourself. Successfully doing so is perhaps the most difficult challenge of the traveling life.

Getting to places is easy. I don’t care how far flung the destination or arduous the road the challenges cannot compare to the inner battle of emotional and psychological self-sufficiency when traveling solo. A traveler can leave any place, but they can never leave himself — and it is this entity that they need to keep packed together, solid.

The power of a community is that it can keep each member true to how the group knows them to be. More than anything, “culture” is the gang practice of enforcing certain patterns of behavior. “The nail that sticks out gets pounded back in,” runs a quote of Mao, and this is often how communities keep their members in tact. Humans are psychologically social animals, we have grown to depend on a community for our inner well being. The community is often an ingredient of the glue which holds its individual members together.

I can remember one time in the midst of some standard USA teenage identity crisis I did or said something which provoked my best friend Erik to turn to me and simply say, “That doesn’t become you.” These small words tied me back down to my base pattern of behavior, it made me get off the stage and stop acting, it pinned me back to “myself,” or at least my community’s idea of who I was.

That doesn’t become you.

A traveler often does not have someone to remind them of this. A traveler, in a very real sense, is off the cultural grid, they are social free radicals: they do not need to be accountable for their actions, if things get hot they just leave, when they arrive in a new town nobody knows how they acted in the previous one. This is the liberty which, I feel, is partially responsible for people becoming hooked on travel, the force that makes it difficult to go home. Home means having a social box, a place, people telling you what does and doesn’t become you. After experiencing life outside of this structure it is difficult to go back in.

In point, someone that I meet on the road could never say to me, “that doesn’t become you,” because they don’t know me. I am, in essence, a new man in each town. It is my own responsibility to know what becomes “me.”

Wade with his childhood friend

But knowing “me” is perhaps the key to keeping me sane, to keeping me on the Path, not losing the plot. In travel, you either sink or swim: you solidify your character or you rename yourself Catharsis. It is easy to become a derelict on the road: who is there to stop you?

If you screw half the planet in travel who would be the wiser? If you steal who is going to know enough to label you a thief? If you lie who can fact check you? Nobody.

When people say that travel makes them feel free, I do not interpret this as meaning the ability to move from place to place on a whim but as meaning that they are free to act outside the bounds of their character, to not need to conform to their self created, community enforced, patterns of self — there is nobody around you keep you inside your character’s box, nobody to proofread your script — you are improvising your life. This, I suppose, is liberty.

Personal liberty is one of the gems of travel, though sometimes too much liberty grows to feel empty. Liberty often means, “an absence of.” Liberty in travel means an absence of a daily schedule, of a fixed social place, social restriction, sexual bounds, a shared history, an absence of work, of a lasting reputation, of romantic relationships, and the forces that tie you down to a single place on the globe. This absence of restriction feels good, this actualization of liberty is often addictive, but too much absence can leave behind an empty shuck of a human — an empty vessel.

But liberty does not always need to be pushed to extremes to be reveled in. Many people appreciate the open doors on their cages from the inside. I eventually found myself limiting my liberties of my own accord: I gave myself a daily schedule, daily work, projects, relationships, and, eventually, a family. And these actions were, perhaps, key for me to maintain sanity on the road. To act within the cage of your socialization, your acculturation, when there is no gatekeeper to keep you on the inside is the hallmark of becoming solid in your personage. To remained cultured outside of the bounds of your culture is one of the arts of travel.


There is a reason why solo travel is used as a coming of age ritual in many cultures. The Australian Aborigines had their walk about, Buddhist monks wander on pilgrimage, the Amish encourage their teenagers to temporarily leave the fold to evaluate themselves and if they want to return to the community. A person who acts the way they do out of social compulsion is a time bomb waiting to explode. The key in culture is not to mimic the rote lessons of your upbringing, but to test them and believe in them enough to pass on to subsequent generations. Travel is the test of becoming solid in your socialization from outside of its bounds. Travel is a test, a way to cut away your cultural fat to see what is left. What remains is you. All too often, travelers travel themselves home, they become solid in themselves, or they fall to pieces. This is one of the greatest psychological benefits of travel.

Long term travel is a litmus test: it either makes the mind or breaks it.

The successful traveler often becomes a cultural amphibian: raised breathing water for a life breathing air. They are able to move between locales, cultures, and people and remain emotionally and psychologically intact, constant, solid: the frog still knows that the pond is home.

Filed under: Travel Philosophy, Travel Psychology

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 88 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3367 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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