10 pre-trip worries

Setting off on a multi-year trip can be terribly methodical at times: months of orderly planning and strict budgeting and practical decisions to make. And before we set off, we want to do our best to capture as many of those matters as possible. Beneath the long list of what needs to be decided and what needs to be done, however, there's a whole stew of emotions that are just as important to acknowledge.

Plenty are good. There's the sheer anticipation of departure, of packing it all up and leaving the rest behind; and there's the jostling thrill of the bike ride itself, excitement for summer in the savanna and autumn in the mountains and winter somewhere wholly undetermined. There's joy in the to-be-realized freedom of such living, the to-be-seen landscapes of such beauty, the to-be-met humans of such generosity. As I look out at the horizon and see a new, raw, wonderful lifestyle marching toward us, I'm overwhelmingly eager to race toward it and meet it halfway.

But that's only partly true. Mixed in with the excitement is anxiety like none I've ever felt before a departure, fear that leaves me doubting the very pretense of this whole trip altogether. My heart tells me that this will be an adventure greater than any I've ever experienced. My brain grants that, all things considered, it's actually not as reckless an idea as it sounds, and things are more likely than not to turn out totally okay. But my gut isn't convinced. It still twists and turns at the suggestion, makes me feel a little queasy at times, fills my stomach with butterflies and pits and worries.

These are the Pre-Trip Jitters. I know them well; they tend to see me off before each one of my adventures. But this time they brought the whole extended family, and amidst my best attempts to pack and plan and prepare, they whisper their worries in my ear. We're here to tell the story of our travels (and the lead-up to them), and it'd be false and dishonest and a tad arrogant to do so as though we have the blind courage (or the happy-go-lucky attitude) of a pair of Don Quixotes. Adventure is a process. Fear is a part of the process. Confronting that fear is a part of processing it. And calling out that fear is the start of confronting it. Here are a few of those fears—to be revisited, and re-examined, after we're on the road for a bit.

[ 1 ] It ends up being really boring.

Disappointment is the difference between expectations and reality, and my expectations for this journey are really, really high. That's wonderful and welcome and actually really necessary in order to be moving forward with such a dramatic life change, but there's a nagging fear somewhere inside me that the reality of a 'round-the-world bike trip simply can't live up to the hype. Vignettes swim through my head of precise moments—the exciting little bits and pieces that make the whole thing worth it—but I know all too well that bike touring includes a whole lot of not-terribly-interesting drudgery. Slogging through a few hundred bland kilometers is just fine on a shorter trip, but I worry that after months and months of it, the mostly monotonous routine of slow cycling and stale peanut butter sandwiches and pitching and unpitching a tent, night after night, can all get to be a little ... boring.

  An awful ride (and eventually walk) along a wet, cold, hilly, gravelly road in Iceland that pushed us to our emotional limits.

An awful ride (and eventually walk) along a wet, cold, hilly, gravelly road in Iceland that pushed us to our emotional limits.

[ 2 ] It ends up being really uncomfortable. 

Boredom can be tempered by new things to think about, new books to read, or new places to look forward to, but discomfort is harder to escape (at least on a budget and a bicycle). Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and walk down to the bathroom, and as I look out the window, sluggish and half-asleep, at the dreary orange city sky, I think I just don't have the energy to bike around the world. In those midnight hours, even walking along the smooth floor of a climate-controlled house to a working bathroom with working lights and sealed walls, it all just seems so hard.

By morning, that melodrama subsides, but still I think of this upcoming journey as the most physically taxing thing I'll have ever done. Without a doubt, we'll be facing weeks of uninterrupted discomfort: whole clusters of dusty days and grimy nights spent over 30C, half-a-month with numb toes here and a frigid fortnight crossing our first or tenth or twentieth mountain pass there. There's going to be sore legs, wet clothes, peeling skin, and there's sure to be worse, too: giardia, malaria, another bout with e. coli, maybe. And so I look forward to June and I can't wait for June and yet my more fragile self elbows me and asks, right, right, but wouldn't it be so much more comfortable to spend the next few years at home on the sofa?

  Another night spent rough camping in a cold, wet, bumpy field in Morocco. With discomfort, perspective is everything, but sometimes (especially when cold, wet, and tired) it can be easy to lose perspective.

Another night spent rough camping in a cold, wet, bumpy field in Morocco. With discomfort, perspective is everything, but sometimes (especially when cold, wet, and tired) it can be easy to lose perspective.

[ 3 ] It becomes a destination with no journey, or a journey with no destination.

In long-term travel, pacing is everything. We're not biking around the world just to get back to where we started, because if that was the objective there'd be no reason to take the long way around. But the world is big and our bikes are slow, and when looking at the distance we're planning to cover, there's a fear that—as time ebbs on, savings shrink, discomfort grows—we can fall into the same trap of so many others, orienting our days around how much ground we'll cover, living in the future instead of existing in the present, focusing on the destination (the next country, the next continent, home) without enjoying the journey.

Or the opposite could happen. A few years ago I spent three months wandering Europe by train, and after two months of pretty cathedrals and cobblestone streets and steamy espressos and charming stonework, it just started to feel like drifting. It takes a few solid weeks or months of travel to really start learning some things—about yourself, about the world—but if you keep traveling and the environment around you stays roughly the same, you start experiencing diminishing returns. Each day you learn a little less than the one before, and you maybe become a little less excited than the one before, and so I worry, as we prepare to embark on what is, in many ways, a very redundant exercise, that the diminishing returns will come quickly and fall sharply, and the whole thing will end up feeling like a long block of listless drifting.

[ 4 ] It ends up feeling too "unproductive."

I come from a society and a country and a city where the value of career-oriented work is exaggerated and the value of life-oriented self-discovery is diminished. I reject the notion that living is all about climbing over others and stashing funds away in a bank account and accumulating lots of stuff and cultivating lots of exploitable relationships, but that doesn't mean I haven't been conditioned to judge, on some subconscious level, a few years spent wandering as "unproductive."

It's easy to quantify things now. Every two weeks, as I squirrel my paycheck away, my savings increase. My time spent at my job grows, too, and with it a higher salary, more responsibilities, more connections. My purchasing power in the world goes up. None of these things mean a whole lot to me on an intentional, deliberate level, but it's easy to feel like I'm doing something that's good for my future (even if, rationally, I know it's not time well-spent). 

A few months ago, I wrote about the opportunity cost of a trip like this: not just the dollars spent, but the dollars not earned, the house or car or retirement not saved for, the career not furthered, the widening gap of the Western notion of success between us, as we bike around the world, and our friends and acquaintances back home as they keep doing the Western notion of the Adult Thing. It's a notion I'm eager to escape and an opportunity cost I'm hesitant to entertain, but still the fear lingers: what if we find ourselves stuck in some town in Kazakhstan or Malaysia or Peru for a month or two awaiting a new visa or a new wheel and I get to thinking, y'know, I could've been doing a lot more for my future self if I hadn't quit my job and left home?

[ 5 ] We run wildly over-budget.

I wrote above that discomfort is hard to escape on a budget. Without a budget, it's (usually) pretty easy. We have a budget—$7,000 to $7,200 per year, with another $3,000 of self-insurance, and that's all for the two of us, but that doesn't exactly leave a whole lot of room for comfy hotel stays and fancy meals and nights on the town. In cold, windy Iceland, we got a little too used to warming ourselves up and drying ourselves out over extended lunches and dinners in the country's pricey restaurants, and a beer here or an entree there quickly ballooned into a pretty sizable food bill after about a month. Having a cheap trip is easy, and having a comfortable trip is easy, but having a cheap, comfortable trip is (sometimes) pretty hard. Quitting our jobs and leaving our houses and shipping ourselves and our stuff to Botswana is a lot of work, and I worry about finding ourselves, six months later, avoiding discomfort, but doing it at the cost of hemorrhaging our savings and needing to plan an early return to the daily grind (uncomfortable in a very different way).

[ 6 ] It ends up feeling self-indulgent.

Even if we do it on the cheap, there's an immense amount of privilege that goes into taking a trip like this. We'll be riding, as American citizens with expensive bikes and top-notch gear, to pretty much anywhere we want, for pretty much however long we want, meeting people along the way who could never do the same. We have passports that (with some exceptions) are well-regarded at borders the world over, and a skin color that seems to get questioned and hassled a whole lot less than others. We have savings and no family or children that need taking care of and providing for. Much as we may want to be citizens of the world, finding the commonality amongst us all, the truth is that there's an unavoidable cultural and socioeconomic and geopolitical chasm we're going to experience (and that I've experienced on past travels) that leaves me feeling, hard and spartan as this trip may be, a tad selfish, self-absorbed, and self-indulgent. This isn't a trip for charity (and I'll explain why at some point) or some greater good (at least not directly); it's a trip for us to have fun and to keep having fun for a very long time, without much tangible benefit to others.

[ 7 ] We won't be able to reintegrate after the trip.

Here in the District of Columbia, I've been warned about the dreaded résumé gap more times than I could count. The problem, the warning goes, is that even the briefest of separations from work will leave a gaping canyon in the middle of the employment section of one's résumé that will make a person permanently unemployable for the rest of their days, or something like that. Sometimes it's a little less hyperbolic, and mostly I laugh it off—again, feeling privileged to have an advanced degree and a good job to jot down prior to the impending gap—but still I worry: if I do want to work for someone or something else once our trip draws to a close, will it be difficult to find something (or something as comfortable and flexible) as my current gig? 

[ 8 ] We won't want to reintegrate after the trip.

More distressing, though, is the fear that we'll find jobs but won't want jobs, or at least not want those jobs. I'm terribly fortunate to have a really good job right now. I work around smart people and I work on meaningful stuff (providing housing and assistance to those who need it), and I work in a very self-directed, autonomous fashion that gives me plenty of freedom. I get paid well, and I have good benefits and stable employment, and I only go into the office, like, two days per week, and I've been able to take a full quarter of each year off, for the past four years, to travel the world. (To be fair, there's a lot I don't like about the job: it's indoors and entails sitting or standing in front of a computer for many hours per day, and it also feels very far removed from reality and is mired in plenty of bureaucracy and doesn't excite me as much as it once did.)

After spending a year or two or three simply cycling and camping and cooking our way around the world, living life on our terms, avoiding the glowing rectangles of the developed world and the beige rectangles of the cube farm, doing what we want when we want, catching the lion's share of sunrises and sunsets the world has to offer, and making memories—the kind to tell the grandkids—each and every day, I worry less about never being able to find a job again and more about never wanting a job again, about developing an inability to accept a lifestyle that I find less freeing or less honest or less meaningful than the one we're getting ready to adopt. When you can wake up every morning with the sun as your alarm clock and the Andes as the view from the window and a forty-mile ride along empty country roads as your commute and a picnic in a prairie as what you're commuting to—at what point do you ever feel prepared to trade it all in for life as it used to be?

[ 9 ] We end up experiencing things very differently.

I enjoy traveling alone. Solo travel allows you to set your own schedule and your own pace, to see what you want to see and be done when you want to be done. But I love traveling with others too, especially someone I really care about, for the company and the love and the happiness and experiences to be shared. Lauren and I have traveled a bunch before, and generally had a great time of it, but we are different people and we (like any two people) might enjoy different things, or want different things, and I think a part of each of us fears what to do if we just aren't in sync: if one of us is having fun and the other isn't, if one of us wants to keep going and the other wants to stop, if one of us wants to end our travels and the other one wants to keep going. (Tom Allen's Janapar: Love, on a Bike is an absolutely wonderful book and accompanying film about his own struggle in choosing between love for a person and love for the adventure of biking around the world when the two just aren't compatible.)

[ 10 ] Something goes terribly wrong.

Perhaps the greatest fear is the most immediate and the most physical. This isn't the first adventure I've taken that those I know would deem risky. But those past adventures were always shorter: three months here, two months there, sometimes on foot and sometimes on scooter and sometimes by car or bus or train, but always pretty close to civilization and needed supplies and a return home.

This will not be one of those adventures. Biking around the world is far safer than you might think (as it turns out, the world is a beautifully friendly place on average), but there's still plenty of inherent risk (deviation from that average). Over the tens of thousands of kilometers we're likely to travel, it only takes one mistake—a hungry animal, a wild dog, a distracted driver, an angry individual, a slippery patch of ice—for this grand adventure to become a great disaster, one with painfully intimate consequences.

I'm comfortable assuming that risk for myself, but this time I'm not traveling by myself. When you love someone, you want to keep them safe, yet when that person exists in a great big unpredictable world, it's impossible to keep them totally safe. I worry about something happening and not being able to stop it from happening, or not being able to do anything once it does happen, and that's not just a worry; it's a terrifying fear that outweighs all the preceding doubts and dread put together. 

Things are sometimes scary, but things are usually okay. 

These are not reasons to avoid an adventure. Risk is the singular inherent quality in adventure, and so without risk—without fear of that risk—there is no adventure. I write about these fears not to talk myself out of this trip, nor to talk anyone else out of having an adventure (seriously, go do it), but to catalog what I'm feeling and what I'm fearing so that, six months or a year or two years from now, from a place in the world I can't even begin to predict, I can look back on this list and smile at how everything around me is wonderful and beautiful and totally okay, and how embarking on this adventure—despite the risk—was probably the best decision we've ever made.

'Til then.

  The lush and rugged coastline just north of Doolin, Ireland at the end of an incident-free summer roaming Europe.

The lush and rugged coastline just north of Doolin, Ireland at the end of an incident-free summer roaming Europe.