Okay, they don’t always suck. This one didn’t always suck. And not all of them suck. Anthony Bourdain seems to have a pretty sweet gig. But this particular travel job, at this particular point in my life, had turned into something kind of sucky, and here’s why:
Somewhere within the two-page job description was one short bullet point that caught my attention: “requires 90% travel”. In that phrase I envisioned a nomadic lifestyle that wouldn’t disappoint my pragmatic father, turn me into a dreaded white-girl-with-dreads, or require the timely death of a long-lost wealthy relative. Stripped of the obligations of everyday life (cleaning, cooking, running errands, social calendars), I could use the blank slate of anonymous hotel-hopping to map out my life.
Three years later and that single bullet point is still the only part of my job that ever really held my attention. As I sit in a Minnesotan McDonald’s parking lot during an ice storm, the combination of an extreme, likely hangover-induced panic attack and my 26th birthday (aka I’ve scaled the hump year to my 30s) finally extinguishes the last flicker of business travel glamour in my eyes to reveal a stare as vacant and tired as the rooms I’ve been living in. I glance around my rental car at the fruits of my travels: a heaping pile of empty cold brew cups, a few McDonald’s bags, and a stack of clichéd Kerouac-esque notebooks filled with stories of movement and escape and fleeting encounters that have left me no less aimless and apathetic. I breathe in the surrounding air of hollow indulgence and announce to myself, in the words of the great King Curtis, chicken nuggets really is my family.
Like I said, it wasn’t always so sucky, and I remain grateful for all the opportunities it did afford me I drove through Yellowstone during a blizzard and stood mere feet from a snow-covered field of grazing buffalo. I partied on the roof of the Ritz-Carlton in Hong Kong. I watched the Blackhawks, my favorite hockey team, win the Stanley Cup in Chicago. I met amazing people who I now consider lifelong best friends.
But the highs were matched with plenty of lows. For every time I got to visit San Francisco, I was sent to rural Iowa for four weeks straight in the dead of winter. For every time I got upgraded to first class, my bag was lost, my flight delayed (AGAIN), my rental car ran out of gas, and my GPS directed me to the wrong address three times in a row (or, god forbid, to a TARGET STARBUCKS INSTEAD OF A DRIVE-THRU). Once in a while, they would send me to a city where I could visit friends or family, but more often I got sent to suburbs where the closest person I knew was three states over. I went days on end without talking to anyone, excluding the presentation I gave to high schoolers over, and over, and over, and over again. I didn’t care for the work itself – although I was working for a respectable institution, working in college admissions as a way to improve higher education is (surprise!) misguided at best.
I loved to travel, but more often than not, this was not travel. It lacked all the depth, joy, and freedom that make travel so wonderful. I probably should have made a change then. But, when a close family member died, my boyfriend at the time attempted suicide, again, and was committed to a mental hospital, and I lived near not a single relative, I gave up on rebuilding my meager personal life and instead threw myself into forgetting it via anonymous hotel-hopping.
During this time, there was absolutely nothing like the feeling of calm relief that washed over me each time my plane took off, literally flying away from my problems. It was like a drug, except much safer (and more expensive). The view out my various hotel room windows spanned from small town Midwestern cornfields to 4 feet of snow to well-known skylines to suburban shopping centers that could have been anywhere. Inside my hotel, the décor and my living habits rarely changed. My belongings were always strewn all around the room within an hour of my arrival, bras hanging from doorknobs, pistachio nut shells all over the floor, usually a red wine-stained disposable hotel cup on the nightstand, suggesting to the maid that a lot more fun was had in my room than was the case.
I’d convinced myself not only that I enjoyed the hotel life, that it was the right choice for me as a person given all of my oddities and my angsty aversion to having a “normal life”, but that it was actually a productive lifestyle. Hotels gave me the chance to shut out the rest of the world. I didn’t have to worry about cooking, cleaning, bills. Even the task of choosing clothes in the morning was minimized – I had 5-7 outfits in my suitcase, and I would cycle through them, wash them, put them back in my suitcase and repeat. I was in a remote location, far-removed from any troubles I might have had at home and from any people to whom I might be obligated. I had stripped away all the things in life that get in the way, I thought, and now I would be able to sit at my desk with my notebooks and novels, write, reflect on whatever parcel of life I’d taken to exploring that week, and do some light work like, y’know, defining my entire purpose in life.
The funny thing is, nothing happened. My writing (when there was even writing to be had) suffered, coming out mostly in furiously scribbled thought-vomit that felt epiphanic at 2 a.m. but decidedly wasn’t the next morning. A year and a half later, I didn’t feel any closer to “truth”. I had seen a lot, but I mostly saw it alone or with people I’d never see again. I hopped around gaining nothing tangible from new experiences, because they fell through my hands just as quickly as I grasped at them.
The problem was this: I wasn’t trying to build up a writing portfolio, I wasn’t trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, and I wasn’t trying to travel. I was trying to escape life. With the help of some wonderful work friends I’d managed to gain over the years, I realized something. Those things in our personal lives I deemed unnecessary parts of life, those things are life. They are a crucial part of the burden we have as humans to build our purpose out of nothing. We can’t create in a vacuum, a stripped down hotel room removed from all possible attachments. Attachments, deep commitments, (a word you can probably guess has always scared me), are the foundation upon which we build the structure of our passions, goals, and define our lives. I was trying to skip the foundation and go straight for the façade, and it ended up being just that – a façade.
Now, spoiler alert: this did nothing to quell my yearn for travel. If anything, it set my wanderlust ablaze. But it made me think differently about travel. What I was doing was not travel, in the truest sense of the world. I was trying to remove myself from the world instead of engaging with it. I never stayed in a place long enough to really get to know it, or get to know other people. I was utterly non-committal. And ironically, real long-term travel isn’t about escape, it’s about commitment. Committing to the possibility of failure, committing to a new, foreign place where you know no one and might hate the food, committing to getting to know someone as deeply as possible, even though they might have to leave tomorrow.
I quit my travel job to travel. I headed first to Central America. I’m happy to report that I’m completely behind schedule, having only traversed two countries in six months when I planned to have already crossed seven. But if there’s one thing I learned about travel from my travel job, it’s the importance of home-building. So now, I move a little slower, I stay a little longer, and I travel a little deeper.