… and where I’m going to.
ASTORIA, NYC- I went for a walk today. I arrived at the cafe where I was going to do a little work and just kept on going. I went down to the tracks. Looked at some trains. I didn’t get my work done but I didn’t really care. The value of the work I do these days is hardly any more than what I get paid for doing it …
Walking aimlessly was something that I used to do for long stretches of time daily. It was a matter of traveler virtue for me — how many hours I could spend just out walking was a measure to me of how much I was consuming a place … but these long walks are something that I’ve given up since I began working as a journalist … and needed to be a little more purposeful with my walks.
This wasn’t a bad thing. Lives are made up of phases — too many do-nothing phases in a row add up to a do-nothing life, which is probably the worst thing you can end up realizing you had … and you really only ever realize this in retrospect when it’s already too late. While I’ve often enjoy romanticizing do-nothing, it’s something that I haven’t particularly been very good at until recently.
When I was in my early 20s I would set out around the world with my only ambition being walking around and looking at things (apparently). I walked around a lot of places and looked at a lot of things, but ultimately ended up discontent and lonely — i.e. bored. I didn’t know how to “dig in” then, didn’t have a reason to dig in, and just thought adventure would be handed to me if I only walked around enough places and looked at enough things. I initially thought that travel was broken, but soon realized that travel was fine but I was just doing it wrong.
Adventure, like everything else, must be earned.
So my life became more purposeful and I earned my adventures. I discovered how to dig in and spent the next phase of years entrenched in do-something. I wrote hundreds of articles for big media, wrote books, made documentaries, traveled around giving talks, blogged, consulted … you know, something.
But now that I’ve done-something I’ve found myself delving into do-nothing and not feeling so bad about it. When you’re young you’re obsessed with time — you’re obsessed with not missing opportunities, of not accomplishing what you’ve set out to do, of not becoming the person you think you are. You inject your life with undeserved doses of importance and you think you’re way better, smarter, and capable than you really are.
This delusion isn’t a bad thing; it’s what gives you the guts to put yourself in situations you have no business being in and to push you to test the limits of your true potential. I should never of been able to do what I did, and the only reason it happened was due to an irrational belief in my own story. But eventually your youthful narrative wears thin and you find out you what you really are. Youth is for finding out what you could be, adulthood is for finding out what you are …
… and being content with this is a vital part of moving into the next phase of life.
When the pandemic hit it was like I ran into a brick wall. As I mentioned before, I never had a contingency plan for not being able to travel, so everything that I was doing, everything that I’d built over the previous twenty years just ground to a halt … and then fell apart. Apparently, momentum was the only thing holding my career together. I watched as six months of travel for projects and speaking engagements vanished one by one.
For the next six months I sat around in disbelief. Yes, people really believe the corporate media and government agencies. I thought we all knew that these entities basically exist to do little more than the bidding of their backers. Even where there was mountains of evidence, studies, and expert opinions which contradicted the official narrative (masks, lockdowns, the snake oil …) a critical mass of people just unquestioningly believed what they were told, China style. Doing otherwise was a sheer indicator of being the Other … a not-one-of-us … a Tucker watching Trumpster. It wasn’t a matter of science, it was a matter of tribe. I had clearly underestimated how powerful a thing orthodoxy is. We will believe anything — no matter how blatantly wrong — just to avoid looking like we’re on the other side.
And I received a first-hand look at how atrocities like China’s Cultural Revolution could happen. We’re the same dumb bunch of animals we’ve always been.
I stumbled around in disbelief for six months anticipating some kind of V For Vendetta awakening … but then I just got over it.
When you come to the end of one road you choose another. While I complained about the nonsensical policies of tyrants and all that they stole from us, I actually no longer cared very much. I slipped through the cracks in NYC, as a traveler tends to do, found other critical thinkers, started up new projects and built my film company. I shot for a big doc about the culture wars, continued editing some of my own films, and helped start up a cable news show that’s doing well.
Most importantly, I made the most of my unexpected downtime and hung out with my wife and kids … perhaps making up a little for the lost time when I was on the other side of the world trying to become a something.
I stayed put for exponentially longer than I had since I left home at 18, and eventually got the hang of it. I started to even like it — but I’m sure it helped that I was in New York City, a place that really does have everything, even during a pandemic.
I knew the way I was living before the pandemic was viable but it wasn’t sustainable … if I wanted to stay married. I was too obsessed with my work and even when I was with my family I spent most of my days battling at the keyboard. I was missing my kids growing up and, while I didn’t conceptualize this at the time, I treated my wife like a ball and chain — how far can I go before my shackles snap taunt?
Losing what you worked many years for and starting up from the bottom again is often an oddly anti-climatic affair. I always thought my career as a perpetually traveling international journalist would blow up in glorious display of pyrotechnics. Instead, I just woke up one morning and realized that I don’t do that anymore. I felt as if I retired, capped off one phase and started another without even realizing it.
I could get back at it, sure. I could leave today and in a month’s time basically be back to where I was. But why would I want to? I lived rough, ate horribly, drank a lot, slept not enough, took stupid risks, and worked as though I was on a chain gain … article, article, article … for a fraction of the money that I make now. What was it that I loved about that life? What was it that I was working so hard for? I thought that I could get ascend to a level that I could solidly stand at indefinitely. I didn’t know that the handrails, the stairs, and the floor are sinking nearly as fast as I climb. As I learned in Montreal in 2019, you can never arrive:
The journalist’s message was clear: even if you rise to the top of your profession, win an Oscar, you will never get to a place where you can sit back and say “I did it.” There will always be people above you to put you in your place — the will always be the downward pull of gravity no matter how high you soar.
When applied to my situation, her advice was clear: there will never be a time in my career where I will be able to sit back and say I’ve made it.
I was expressing a concern that, at 37 years old, I may be running out of time to accomplish my objectives. She told me point blank that I will always feel like this no matter what I achieve. She was probably right. If I write ten books I wouldn’t feel accomplished until I write 20. If I start making bigger budget docs I probably wouldn’t feel that I got anywhere until I won an Oscar. If I won an Oscar …
You can never arrive.
For the past year I was able to hide behind the travel restrictions. But this excuse has worn thin. I know I can go. I have the money to start up again. But I’m doing whatever I can to avoid that little spark of a feeling that sends me to the other side of the world.
I woke up the other day thinking about Japan.
When I was walking down the street yesterday I picked up a scent that reminded me of Penang.
Today I began feeling elevated envisioning the act of driving through South Dakota.
I know what’s coming next.
About the Author: VBJ
I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. VBJ has written 3657 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.
VBJ is currently in: Astoria, New York
May 20, 2022, 4:00 pm
First off, it’s good to see your words again!
We change, what was fun and the way I lived a couple of years back has changed. I’m still happy though..
That’s the question that I ask myself from time to time, “am I still happy?” Most days, that’s the important question.
How about you? Are you still happy?
May 21, 2022, 8:23 am
Glad to see you back.
As we grow older, and things change, it seems very difficult to stop doing what we’ve been doing even though it’s time. Planning trips of a certain kind because that’s what you’ve always done.
Choosing what to do in the next phase, or just recognizing what the next phase is, that’s the real challenge, the real adventure in life.
May 21, 2022, 9:14 am
It is good to share your “Journey” in the fullest sense of the word.
Your memories and musings and, dare I say, meditations, are so welcome.
Relevant to my life? Not sure. Perhaps, at age 72, I am just a very very slow learner.
All the best, always, Terribleterryc
May 29, 2022, 6:37 pm
Nice to get another read from you. Pandemic really did change a lot of things. I’m still on the border building an off grid ranch. I’m dealing with frustration because I want to be traveling and exploring but I’m here building something I can always come back to. It’s tenacity and that’s what keeps us going in this life.
September 22, 2022, 2:52 pm
Great post Trevor. I came to the same conclusions around the age of 41 and decided to “retire”. Working 16 hour days for 20 years and unexpectedly at a burnout point made me ask the same questions you did. What was I doing this for? What was the goal? I think it’s important for everyone to do this at some point in their late 30’s-early 40’s. Retire. Or better stated, figure out what you are going to do when you retire. It took me 3 or 4 months. Waking up and asking myself “What am I going to do today?”. I was around too many people that were working mad hours, saving for retirement, and killing themselves for a company that could drop them in a second. Most of them when asked, couldn’t tell me what they would do when they reached the ultimate goal, retirement.
Thankfully I figured it out. I already had my own small IT company and I know I want to do this forever. Not everything, just a part of it to keep it running, let the techs shine doing what they do best. I can do that from anywhere, so, like you, I planned on traveling and working remotely. I say planned because as you already know, you change over time. The priorities you had 5 years ago will change. Best of luck to you in your transformation. The journey isn’t always in the motion of the foot, instead it’s sometimes found in the change of the soul.