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Travel To Kansas To Film A Documentary

To Kansas to film an old friend of the way.

Wade Shepard with Rolf Potts
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ASTORIA, New York- It seems funny to me how important we thought our film project was then. We were like a robin obliviously chirping away on a telephone wire on a sunny day just before some brat beans it with a slingshot. We didn’t even see it coming.

I laugh now at how lackadaisically, how much for granted I took my last bout of travels before the global lockdown. It was mid-February, and the novel coronavirus was a Chinese thing. But as I now sit here at my command station in Astoria, surrounded by monitors, computers, a wall of hard drives, and a pile of video cameras, I’m struck by just how precious those travels now seem.

***

I woke up at 4am. I ate a bowl of skyr, gathered up my gear, and walked out into the street to meet my Uber for the ten minute ride to LaGuardia. Check in went smooth — my suitcase, which was crammed with video equipment, was just under the weight restriction — and I boarded a flight to Kansas City.

It was the first leg of a quick circuit through the inner regions of the USA — Kansas, Texas, Michigan. The first two stops were for a documentary series that I’m working on with a Portuguese production company about the digital nomad movement. The last stop was to give a talk at the University of Michigan, which I already blogged about.

Read more: Watch my talk at the University of Michigan

Kansas City weatherAfter boarding the plane I began wondering what the weather was like there. This came as kind of an afterthought, as I didn’t bother checking before packing. I truly wasn’t concerned — it was the middle of winter but the temperatures in NYC hovered between 30 and 50 degrees. I expected Kansas to be even warmer. I was going south, and south = warm, right? But when I looked down at the weather app on my phone I experienced a jolt of panicked confusion: the thing said 3 degrees Fahrenheit. I laughed — there had to be something wrong. This had to be Centigrade, right?

Nope. It really was freezing.

I’d only packed a thin leather jacket. No knit hat. No gloves. No wool socks. I began thinking through how I was going to manage this. I would be out filming on a ranch; I would be outside. There would be no time to go shopping. I had no solution.

But then I met Anne at the airport and looked her over: thin little wind jacket, flimsy cotton slacks. She wasn’t prepared either. Actually, she was more surprised than I about the weather, as she was coming from Argentina and had spent the past two weeks sweltering in the summer. She was even less prepared that I, and something about that made me feel better — I guess we’d just be cold together.

We went over to the rental car depot and picked up our vehicle. I rented a giant pickup truck. I wanted Anne, who is from Germany, to have the proper American experience. We were going out into the heartland of the USA, and we weren’t going there in a fucking Chevy Spark. I thought I was just being funny, but as we walked out into the parking lot and felt the three-degree weather and looked at the ice coating on the highway I realized that I’d unintentionally made a very sound decision. Traveler instinct? Probably not — I don’t really plan like that.

Besides realizing that it was incredibly cold in Kansas I also realized that I’d forgotten a quick release plate for my shoulder rig. I had an entire backpack and suitcase full of filming gear, but the absence of this small, cheap hunk of metal rendered my shoulder rig moot. I prefer using a shoulder rig over a gimbal for filming documentaries — you need to be able to shoot live scenes as they happen, and life doesn’t wait for you to balance your gimbal.

So we made a detour to a camera shop and I picked up a quick release plate for $15 and then we went over to a Home Depot to get a bulb for my key light. I’d rather repeatedly buy bulbs at my destination than attempt not breaking them while flying.

We then got some lunch at a natural foods store. Anne wandered around the place looking at the bags of nuts and the piles of burritos as though they were exhibits in a museum.

“I really like looking around grocery stores in different places,” she said.

Supermarkets truly are a litmus test for travelers — the ones who can find them interesting are the hopeless ones who will keep going.

But we lost track of time as Anne browsed the aisles, pondering the cabbages. We still had a four hour drive out to our filming site and Rolf’s sister was making dinner for us, so we shouldn’t be late. I pounded some gluten-free burritos and Anne had some weird microwaved soup stuff.

I sent a text to Rolf with our ETA.

***
Rolf Potts is one of the most influential travel writers of the A–>D (analog to digital) era. He wrote the book Vagabonding, which essentially showed the world what perpetual travel looks like in the 21st century. It was probably the first book that promoted the idea of geoarbitrage — that you can earn money from a high wage country while physically existing in a low expense country — and was a fundamental influence on Tim Ferriss and inspired his Four Hour Workweek.

For travelers my age, Vagabonding was an era-defining kind of book. Even if you never actually read it, you would still see it everywhere — sitting on the bookshelves of every hostel on the planet next to the Lonely Planet Shoestring guides. It was the kind of book that a traveler would pick up in one place, read, and then leave it somewhere else for another traveler. It was a book about travel that traveled. The copies that you’d find would almost invariably be twisted and beat up, soaked in beer and speckled in crud, dog-eared and have cryptic notations in the margins from previous readers. It was the On the Road of the A–>D age, and planted the idea in 100,000 heads that you really don’t have to go home.

Vagabonding was also a book that defined a generation of travel — my generation — which started out in the analog era of Lonely Planet and transitioned into the digital era of Skyscanner, Google Maps, AirBnB, and Booking.com. It resonated with those who were acculturated into a world of the printed page, magnetic tape, and phones tethered to walls who comfortably transitioned to ebooks, ubiquitous internet, and smartphones.

I would eventually do a review of Rolf’s second book, Marco Polo Didn’t Go There. I interviewed him. He interviewed me. We somewhat kept in touch over the years. However, this would be the first time that we would meet in person. As I drove along the interstate deeper and deeper into Kansas, I felt myself getting a little excited — I was going to meet a friend of the way.

The road itself was absolutely, 100% straight. Straightness and right angles are hallmarks of America. The rest of the world weaves and swerves. The landscape was completely flat and dusted with snow. The fields were empty and seemed frozen stiff. Anne and I talked about the film that we were making and discussed filming strategies, lighting, angles and shit like that.

Who is Anne?:

My name is Anne von Petersdorff, I am a scholar, writer, filmmaker, and educator from Berlin, Germany.

I received my Ph.D. in German Studies and Digital Humanities from Michigan State University where I created my hybrid dissertation which consists of a feature-length, bi-autobiographical travel documentary, and a theoretical-historical exploration of film aesthetics.

In the past I have also produced TV commercials for international brands like NIVEA and Lindt, drove a forklift truck in the Netherlands, worked with NGOs in the US, supervised teenagers in a summer camp in Croatia, studied documentary film in Cuba, and decided that being a multi-hyphenated human being, connecting people and merging experiences and skills, is the way I can best create, learn and contribute inside and outside the academy. I sporadically share my thoughts, experiences, and reflections about travel, artistic-scholarly practice, and other types of border crossings on my blog.

Anne reached out to me some years back after reading a 2011 post on this blog called Digital Nomad or Economic Refugee?. She was working on her phd at the time and told me that she was going to make a film about digital nomads. I was originally supposed to have been a character in it, but as we talked more I somehow found myself on the other side of the camera.

***
In a few hours we pulled off the highway onto a deserted country road. After a few minutes the paved portion of the road transitioned to dirt. The truck rumbled over frozen clumps of mud. Suddenly, we came upon an archway that welcomed us to the Potts family ranch. We drove in along the 500-meter-long winding driveway that cut through golden fields basked in pinkish twilight. Rolf’s log cabin rose up in the distance.

As we pulled up he stepped out of the cabin to welcome us. His appearance was more lumberjack than academic — flannel shirt, carhartt pants, big brown leather work boots; what writers look like in real life. He gave me a big hug and I felt like a shrimp — dude is 6’3″ or so.

We entered his hermitage and he gave us some coffee and broke out a copy of an old travel publication called Holiday magazine, and we leafed through it as curiously as I imagine my kids would my old Lonely Planets. I began filming. Rolf speaks as fluidly as he writes.

We then went over to his sister’s house, who fed us beans with beef and rice and green salad. We drank some wine and hung out in the living room in front of the fireplace with Rolf and his sister’s family. We talked about transitions in the travel lifestyle, digital nomadism, and the places we’ve been. They told us about the hermits they had living in their woods.

Day 2

Rolf PottsI woke up early and went out to shoot some outdoor scenes. It was about one degree out. Yes, a single degree. It was so cold that I missed my focus on a couple of shots because the screen frosted over … and I didn’t want to take my hands out of my pockets to turn the ring anyway.

We got some shots of Rolf trying to feed his donkey. His donkey didn’t like Anne and I very much and and wouldn’t come over to get his carrots. He grunted and groaned. Rolf pleaded and reasoned. It didn’t work out as we planned, but something about the realness made the scene better.

Anne and I took turns interviewing Rolf as he sat in a big green sofa chair in his cabin. The contents of this will be included in the film.

***
Rolf’s cabin is like a museum of himself. His accolades, achievements, photos of the places he’s traveled and the people he’s met. The temporal markers of his life surround his work station. It left me sort of inspired.

I’d never collected anything in my travels other than stories, photos, and videos. I never thought about the environment that I work in or the places I stay as anything other than walls and a roof to keep out the rain and cold. It just never really occurred to me that I could hang things on the wall. So when I gave my talk in Ann Arbor a week or so later I was sure to grab the poster advertising the event. When I returned to Astoria I framed it with the intention of hanging it up above my work station … like Rolf.

Two months later it’s sitting in a pile somewhere.

Filed under: Digital Nomad, Documentaries, Kansas

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3618 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

Support VBJ’s writing on this blog:

VBJ is currently in: Astoria, New York

24 comments… add one

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  • Trevor Warman April 25, 2020, 11:43 am

    Vagabonding is an awesome book. Have the paperback in my dads house.

    Dude, now that you have a home, you can buy stuff to hang on the walls and things to put on the shelves… me, am still nomadic. Get that poster up!

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    • Wade Shepard April 25, 2020, 2:09 pm

      Haha, yes, you’re from the Vagabonding generation too.

      We’re actually talking about leaving. Just an apartment no different than in China, etc. Once you start hanging stuff on the walls there is a change of state.

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      • Trevor April 26, 2020, 12:11 am

        You are leaving already? I thought you liked it there? Or you just getting a new flat? Down grading or up grading?

        All these years, the only thing i collected was the money/notes as souvenirs. Dt do that any more. In the early days i bought my family ‘things’ but mostly i bought T shirts to wear on the road.

        A base of operations has its appeal. If i had one/ could afford one thats probably where i would have bolted to amid Covid.

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        • Wade Shepard April 26, 2020, 9:09 am

          Not sure yet. Yeah, it’s not bad here. But a base of operations is really just a place to process content so it could be anywhere … anywhere that has easy access to an air travel hub. A lot depends on where my wife wants to work. Considering going back to Prague or Taiwan.

          However, I really like my set up here — stainless steel tables and shelves for video gear. Giving it up would pang the heart. Funny, after all these years it’s fucking stainless steel tables that I’m in love with haha. But I guess it makes sense, as space to work is really the only the thing you really lack when on the road.

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          • Trevor Warman April 26, 2020, 9:42 am

            But what about ur girls having friends and seeing the grandparents that you talked of.

            See you in TW guess.

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            • Wade Shepard April 26, 2020, 11:16 am

              Ah, they’re travelers. Their school here is pretty good but we’re not sure if it’s going to exist anymore after the lockdown.

              Also, their teachers are Chinese (except for one dude) and most of their classmates are Chinese or Russian or Latino. I’m not sure if there’s any other honky kids at their school at all. They’re just as comfortable in Asia as they are here.

              However, I don’t want to give up my stainless steel tables haha. My priorities are fucked.

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      • Jack April 26, 2020, 5:51 am

        Leaving??? Where to? Hitting the road again?

        Ultimately the traveling is probably why you never had books to sell at your speaking engagements. It’s hard to travel with a suitcase full of books. Trust me, I have done that!

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        • Wade Shepard April 26, 2020, 10:37 am

          Haha exactly. I don’t really feel as if I’ve gotten enough out of my investment here in NYC. The pandemic really screwed up a lot of the benefit of being here. I got a few months of being able to jump in and out of here to various places around the world — I was doing a run out a month and had that pace set all the way to summer. But now I’m just sitting around, finishing a book and thinking about all the other places in the world that we could be based. But I have to admit that with a new book coming out NYC is definitely the best place to be.

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  • MRP April 26, 2020, 5:50 am

    Great travelogue, Wade.

    And for you to meet/film Rolf Potts, finally.

    While I begun traveling before his book, I read it many years later. And was impressed. Truly, a cool, wise book on How To Travel. Probably, never to be surpassed, ever. Essential reading for all aspiring vagabonds, even in 2020, and well beyond.

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    • Wade Shepard April 26, 2020, 10:33 am

      Hello Michael,

      Yes, I was also traveling for some years before it came out. For a while I thought I was too cool for it haha. But then I snagged one from a hostel once and read it secretly and found it pretty right on. Very true, it really lays down some of the concepts of vagabond travel that are still relevant today.

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  • Jack April 26, 2020, 6:07 am

    I’m sorry I have never heard of him or the book. I am not that hip. 🙂

    The one question I always wonder (and don’t know if you asked it in the interview) is why did someone settle back down in your home country? It’s something I ask nomads I run across who are back living in their home country once again. It can be a tough change. Some are perpetual travelers at heart, others are just traveling for a time and plan to go back home wherever that is.

    I know the husband of a friend who committed suicide after spending most of the 2000’s living in Asia. He came back to the US and was back for several months when he decided to end it. I didn’t really know him well. He left a wife and a young child behind in Asia.

    I know it can be very tough to make the transition. I’ve been back for a few years on and off but I don’t really consider myself settled here. I’m always planning my next trip. I think I’d die if I realized that I’m going to stay living in this small Iowa town for the next 20 years.

    But I also know that I’m not normal. I don’t know if that is a good thing or a bad thing. I just never had a home growing up. I wasn’t really homeless growing up (just a few times), but my family bounced around a lot. The only place I kind of consider to be a hometown is a place, except a year when I was in high school, I haven’t lived in since I was 8 years old. When you are approaching 50, can you count a place that you have lived just 7 or 8 years of your life as your hometown? The longest continuous time in my life in a single residence was just over 2 years in an apartment in Thailand. Next up was my place in Baja. I lived in one place for 14 months and moved 100 meters away to another house where I stayed another 15 months.

    I’m a stranger wherever I go, but at least outside the US, people know I am a stranger and let me be. In the US, I’m expected to be like other Americans.

    And this comment has turned into nothing about this post. 🙂 Or maybe it does.

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    • Wade Shepard April 26, 2020, 11:11 am

      Hello Jack,

      That’s an interesting topic. We didn’t touch on that at all but it would have been interesting to hear what he had to say about that. His cabin on his ranch is like the most idyllic writer’s hermitage. I’d like to retreat to a place like that in the summer.

      As for me, it sounds odd but I don’t really count NYC as part of the USA. It’s its own thing. When I go outside and nobody is speaking English it doesn’t seem like the place I came from. This is probably the only place in the USA that I’d even consider having a base of operations. This country is a little soul sucking.

      No, I think all countries are soul sucking for the people who come from them.

      It’s a strange thing fitting into a culture — or appearing as if you do. There are different expectations. People automatically assume they know who you are and what you’re about and they get pissed if you violate their assumptions. They don’t ask questions and seem to think it weird if you ask them questions. I have no idea how people make friends in their own culture.

      I’m sort of writing about that today.

      Where are you going next?

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    • Bob L April 26, 2020, 5:07 pm

      “I’m a stranger wherever I go, but at least outside the US, people know I am a stranger and let me be. In the US, I’m expected to be like other Americans.”

      What a great statement.

      I traveled the last few years since I retired, mostly by motorcycle, although none of my travel was exactly budget travel. I had taken many trips in the past, but they were measured in weeks, not months. I found my recent traveling rather comfortable. I was not really sure why, as I spent most of my time alone. I did occasionally spend some time with friends, new found or old, but always for short bits. Any time I came home, I felt a little like a visitor, but after a month, I was feeling too, something, something I could not identify. Then the virus hit. I am currently spending most of my time alone, with occasional time spent with only a few people. It is as comfortable as when I am traveling (although a bit boring). I always knew I was an introvert. I had just never realized how much of one. I really like my alone time, as long as there is SOME time spent with people I like. I kinda’ like being a stranger. Suddenly, with the virus, everyone else is acting like me. Weird. Maybe, for some of us, traveling isn’t so much a way of seeing new things as it is to put us in a social environment we are comfortable with.

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      • Wade Shepard April 27, 2020, 12:58 pm

        “Maybe, for some of us, traveling isn’t so much a way of seeing new things as it is to put us in a social environment we are comfortable with.”

        Yes! Exactly.

        This should be the mission statement for this site.

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  • Tristan April 26, 2020, 12:58 pm

    I feel you with the decorations thing. I’ve been in this place 8 months a year for 5.5+ years now. After years of blank walls, I decided to decorate with some of my old maps… But the mentality never leaves you… I can have the maps folded and in my back pocket within two minutes if it’s time to move on.

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    • Wade Shepard April 26, 2020, 1:42 pm

      It’s kind of a strange thing. The idea that you can shape and mold a space in your own image is kind of lost on many travelers. I’m trying hard to relearn it. Each day I say, man, I’m going to hang up that poster … but I never actually do it. I also don’t really even know how to hang a picture. I’m pretty useless.

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  • Jack May 23, 2020, 11:50 am

    When I find I have an information gap, I try to fill it. I started reading Vagabonding the other day. It seems worthy of a read for me and as I picked up, I realized why I hadn’t heard of it before this article and hadn’t heard of it before I hit the road…I hit the road in the 90’s. 🙂 My travels are older than the book! Nevertheless, the stuff in it is awesome. It’s as valuable now as it was back then.

    Looking at it did another thing. It got me to thinking about what influenced me to get out there and travel and explore. For me it was the People’s Guide to Mexico. I still have a copy on my bookshelf. I’ve bought new copies of it, stolen copies out of libraries, bought copies in used stores, lost copies, and gave copies away. It wasn’t really a guidebook, but it was a way of approaching travel.

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    • Wade Shepard May 27, 2020, 9:57 am

      Yes, it’s kind of a timeless sort of book. I should probably start writing those types of books …

      People’s Guide to Mexico? Never heard of it before. I thought I knew of all the classics of travel … I guess not. I will check it out! Thanks.

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      • Jack May 31, 2020, 12:24 am

        Really? It’s a classic and very dated in so many things. I gave it to a friend who read it expecting it to be a guidebook and he hated it. It wasn’t a guidebook, it’s just about teaching to you to find your own adventure in Mexico. It’s really was what put me on the road and leave the US. My first trip to Mexico outside of a border town was a trip to Mexico City on the train from Juarez. That was a big deal for someone like me and with my background. It’s about a different lifestyle.

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        • Wade Shepard June 1, 2020, 10:30 am

          Those are the kinds of travel books that can live forever. The deep methods of travel have always been the same and they will never change.

          I’m just trying to figure out now how to travel again with all the restrictions. In and out trips to various countries seem possible soon but longer overland trips through many regions is seeming tough. Also, Georgia’s new rule that you need to have proof of a negative C19 test within 72 hours of entry is making this seem pretty grim — imagine if you had to do this every time you wanted to cross a border?

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          • Jack June 1, 2020, 8:30 pm

            I hold out hope that this isn’t going to be the new normal and soon we will see things start opening up. I think countries are being extra cautious because they don’t want to explain to their citizens why they opened up so quickly. But countries that rely on tourists can’t keep closed up forever.

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            • Wade Shepard June 15, 2020, 10:55 am

              Yes, it’s pretty nuts. At this point it’s my impression that it’s way more about political reputation and face than science. I don’t believe that this had enough natural bite to create a “new normal” but we seem to be creating one intentionally. If societies collectively believe something it tends to happen.

              Hopefully we can open up too fast for them to implement more serious measures, like tracking apps and forced vacs.

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          • Trevor Warman June 2, 2020, 1:38 am

            Yeah will suck for a while yet. A friend in UAE said they got from today a week of city lockdown.. no travelling out of the city. but curfew now starts at 10pm.
            Estonia lets Euros in but with isolation for those with some passports like BRITS.
            Kenya is said to resume flights from June 8. That means in theory that the partial lockdown will be lifted and also countries will start accepting international visitors. Lets see what happens.

            I wrote to a few hostels in various African countries:

            “No gov has given any indication as to when land borders will re open.”

            If i can get out to some suitable country it maybe time to bail out. 11 weeks here is surely enough.??

            Though for the time being all is still ok here. No riots.

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            • Wade Shepard June 15, 2020, 10:57 am

              Yes, a change of scenery would probably do you well at this point. Have you considered bailing to a different region? Mexico seems pretty good to me right about now.

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