One Year a Nomad: Our Recap of 2019

One Year a Nomad: Our Recap of 2019

2019 was like the consummation of a long overdue teenage daydream.

After spending long hours in the businesses, and selling our lives short year after year, it was like 2019 sparked a change that would flicker into a roaring furnace of motivation.

It was the year we first decided to commit our lives to traveling.

We had been talking about it since high school—life out on the open road. From the scribbles and ideas that took place in between our calculus homework, a destiny was being born. Little did we know, years would go by before making that dream a reality.

Over time, we began to feel that our hometown was turning away from us. After all, the suburban sprawl does have a way of alienating people into subservience of work, work, and more work. We decided that we just couldn’t pull ourselves to jibe with that.

So when we started researching how to make full-time travel actually happen, our conceptual pupils began dilating. Suddenly, the vast expanse of earth, with its careening palms, bafflingly large crevasses, and roaring waterways became realistic possibilities for exploration.

We wanted—no, needed to see all of these things for ourselves. To get out and get right. To sip from the chalice of happy experiences, or to utterly exhaust ourselves in trying.

It was a long time coming, but the force of our dissatisfaction would ultimately compel us into a triumphant movement to get out. We were like astronauts preparing for orbit. The immediate gravity of our situation was about to be broken. The toxic atmosphere of routine would be shattered, along with its crippling monotony.

A little over a year ago, and I can remember counting down the days to secede from my dead end job. I kept a personal calendar and diligently crossed off each successive day with eyes full of eagerness.

The severe unhappiness we were experiencing in those final few months was just about the hardest thing we’ve ever endured. That’s what made the inevitability of our launch so much better. Our bosses hardly saw it coming.

logo with desert landscape

To Begin Again

Upon boarding the Southwest Chief, our 37 hour train ride from Michigan to Arizona, our souls were salivating with a newfound sense of adventure.

We knew from that point on that the only substantial direction in life was to keep moving forward. The chug-a-lug of the train seemed to ensure that.

As delicate portions of the countryside passed alongside us, within a sense of a new America was being born. Beyond our subtle reflections peering back at us in the window, a sprawling country gave way to hidden towns and silent steeples.

We shared a train car with the Amish, a Russian cryopreservationist, and an ex-con who thought the world of his basset hound.

When we finally arrived in Flagstaff, it was with modest hearts and considerably sore butts. Fat snowflakes were plummeting from the dappled silver sky. A group of kids were having a snowball fight across the street. We spent the next 24 hours exploring the town and catching up on some much needed rest in a sleazy motel.

From there, we shuttled to the Grand Canyon, where we would spend the next two weeks working as housekeepers. The employee meals were mediocre at best, and the housing was pretty barren, but we were excited to be stationed on the rim of one of Earth’s greatest geological spectacles.

Our first few days in the housekeeping department went alright, but it was clear that the employees weren’t very happy there. The quota for our room cleaning was set so high that we ended up working extra hours every day just to complete the assignments. It was hardly ideal, but at least a step in the right direction.

As the rigors of housekeeping further took their tolls, our energy levels were rapidly becoming sapped. We were exhausted, and sore, and hardly had enough motivation to go hiking on our days off. Something surely had to be done.

Naturally, we decided that it was foolish to travel that far and still be unhappy. So, instead of putting up with scrubbing stray hairs from the underside of toilet seats, we opted to call in sick to take on one of the most epic hikes of our lifetimes.

Hiking the Grand Canyon is no easy feat—especially in the winter!

But as we pulled through, hiking from the ridge all the way down to the Colorado, and then back up again, we felt more alive than ever. We each may have nearly puked with fatigue upon returning, but we were glowing.

Our hike led us to see that virtually nothing stood in our way from conquering more.

standing in front of the grand canyon

The Unexpected Places

We left the Grand Canyon with ever-deepening childlike confidence.

It felt as though our hearts were aloft, no longer as heavy as they had been dealing with monotonous jobs. Travel was effectively becoming a means for treating our struggles with depression. After a partial stop back in Flagstaff, we rode a Greyhound bus down to Phoenix to stay with family.

Sunny Phoenix proved to be just what we needed to recuperate our vivacity.

We slept in every day. And when we woke up, we’d make a hearty breakfast before delving into our laptops to explore all the possible avenues for remote work. This was clearly the kind of lifestyle we wanted to be living. The question now was how we were going to make money doing it.

In the meantime, we’d lounge by the pool, play putt-putt in the backyard, and go for daily walks. The hospitality we were offered while visiting was incredible. I think we were all grateful for being able to spend time with one another.

Under the surface though, we had new plans brewing.

overlooking the superstition mountains

Due to a lucky circumstance, which additionally helped influence our decision to leave the Grand Canyon, we ended up flying out of Phoenix without telling anyone where we would be landing. I don’t think anyone guessed correctly until they saw some of the pictures we posted. Two thousand miles away, we touched down on the Big Island of Hawaii.

I’ll never forget my first few steps onto the tarmac of Kailua-Kona’s outdoor airport. The air was thick with Pacific moisture, palm trees swayed with jubilance against the azure of clean blue skies, the Mauna Loa volcano was shrouded in a distant mist. I’m not sure at what point it actually set in that we were in Hawaii, but the world felt as though it was unfolding like a lotus flower.

For years, I thought that only retirees and honeymooners could afford to visit Hawaii. But there we were, our bustling backpacks securely fastened to our torsos, and the soles of our shoes treading on a distant island, thousands of miles away from Michigan.

There was no stopping us now.

airplane over hawaii

The Off-Grid Ohana

It’s true what they say. Hawaiian air is vaguely scented like a thousand exotic flowers blossoming into enchantment. It’s as if the land is cradled by the goddess of beauty and fertility, Laka herself.

Our whole arrangement in coming to Hawaii was on behalf of a work exchange we set up online while still at the Grand Canyon. The plan was simple. We would trade a few hours of work each day in exchange for food and a place to sleep.

That’s how we ended up homesteading in Hawaii. The couple that hosted our visit turned out to be some of the coolest people we’ve ever met. They had a completely self-sustaining home in the middle of the jungle, purifying their own rainwater and powering electronics with solar energy. On the property there were avocados, coconuts, guava, starfruit, cinnamon, and a ton of other edible delicacies growing.

In our free time, our host couple took us around the island to hike and swim in some of the most glorious places imaginable. We took the plunge at a nude beach, visited one of the most beautiful churches in Kona, and found tons of things to do near Hilo, one of the main cities on the eastern half of the island.

Back at the house, we had it pretty easy too. We harvested tropical fruits from the backyard, hand-raised the wild chickens that inhabited the property, and built a colorful cabin in the jungle out of pallet wood and corrugated steel.

Although, what really impacted us the most was the fact that for most of our 5 month stay, we were there alone!

The couple hosting us had business back in the mainland to tend to. So, while they were gone we managed their house as they rented it out on AirBnB. We took on a few additional projects too, like planting a coconut grove, painting a few portions of the house, and maintaining a trail network through the jungle.

As you might imagine, it’s rather hard to describe the magnitude of how we were changed by living in Hawaii—alone, for that matter.

We still didn’t have the remote work thing completely figured out, but we did manage to make some extra cash by teaching English online and writing a few short articles.

With time though, island fever did begin to set in.

Despite the quiet mornings drinking sweet Kona coffee in a hammock, the budding relationship we had with the feral chickens, and the gentle drizzle each night lulling us to sleep, we knew we needed to move on.

The day after our host couple returned from the mainland, they drove us into Hilo to catch a bus back to Kailua-Kona. As we sat on the seawall eating Thai food and watching a swim class splash around in the open turquoise water, we prepared to say goodbye to Hawaii. As the sun set, we headed over to the Kona Brewing Company restaurant, had a few too many beers, and then caught an Uber to the airport to depart.

It was with slight remorse that we said goodbye to our friends, and to the fairytale land of Hawaii. But we can now rest assured—Hawaii isn’t just for retirees and honeymooners. It’s also for vagabonds, homesteaders, and friends of chickens.

We may very well be back, someday.

Waipio Valley

Land Ho!

With our return to the mainland, we made a 24-hour pit stop in Seattle.

I’ve always wanted to see what the Pacific Northwest was about. Although it was a very small glimpse into the region, we jam-packed our day seeing all of the sites in the city. We walked to the Fremont Troll, rode the Seattle Ferris Wheel, and made sure the legal weed was safe for everyone else.

We stayed in a hostel just across from the famous Pike’s Place fish market, walked along the waterfront of the Puget Sound, and watched the sun set over the Cascade Mountains.

It certainly came as a bit of a relief being back on the mainland, where we were safe from volcanoes, tsunamis, and ground-shattering earthquakes.

sun setting over the cascade mountains in seattle

After a heavy night’s sleep, we caught a plane back to our hometown with the warm thought of spending some of the summer months with our families.

With everywhere I’ve been thus far, I realize the soft spot I have for good ol’ Michigan. I love the crashing shorelines of the Great Lakes, the smell of campfire fumes wafting through the evergreens, and being able to hug my dogs.

In all of my travels, no matter how far away from home, I feel there’s a real kind of importance in returning to where you came from. At least, every once and a while.

I guess Dorothy had it right when she clinked her ruby slippers together and repeated: “There’s no place like home.”

But sooner or later, despite the pleasantries and comforts of home, boredom does begin to set in.

A nomad just has to roam.

It’s what we acknowledged when we first set out, and the mantra we’ve been living by since. When you’re burning, and I mean really, truly having a spirit enflamed with the desire for adventure, you just can’t turn back.

Those gentle persuasions, those nostalgic memories, those tender comforts of home are only meant to last for so long. The second you give into them you’re trapped yet again.

That’s the secret of the nomadic heart though. Everywhere can be home.

overlooking the marina in saugatuck

A Stream Flowing in a Contrary Direction

Currently, we’re hanging out in a tiny town in rural Pennsylvania.

How did we ever come to end up in rural Pennsylvania, you ask?

Sometimes I get to asking myself the same thing.

But bear with me.

As it turns out, there’s a tiny town near the southern border of Pennsylvania called Ohiopyle. No, it’s not in Ohio. It’s just an old Indian word meaning: “it turns very white,” referring to the white frothy waterfall in town.

The Youghiogheny River runs through Ohiopyle. Youghiogheny translates to: “a stream flowing in a contrary direction,” due to its unique south to north flow.

In the early 60’s, white water rafting started to become popular in this area when a company started running commercial trips on the Youghiogheny. Today, that same company runs thousands of rafting trips each summer. In addition to their influence in white water excursions, they also have a successful branch of business in the bicycle touring industry.

That’s where we got hooked.

standing in front of a mural with our bikes

We started seasonal jobs here as store associates in the main outdoor retail shop in town. Much of our desire to stay, however, was due to the bicycle tours the company offers. Our hope was that in time, we’d be able to land ourselves jobs as bicycle tour guides.

In the meantime, we’ve encountered a ton of unexpected lessons by living in Ohiopyle. Apparently, George Washington had a huge influence in this area at the start of the French and Indian war. He even took a few rafts down the Youghiogheny in search of a safe passage to Pittsburgh.

We’ve also had the opportunity to go on multiple white water adventures, to descend down into a dark and dank cave, to ride our bicycles long distances on the old rail trail that goes through town, and to create lasting friendships with some of the people in the area.

When we decided to stay through the winter, it was primarily in order to save up funds and to prepare for our tour guide training in the spring. Outside of work, we spend our time nestling into hefty novels, or actively exploring the outdoors. Oh, there’s a fair amount of beer involved sometimes too.

Ohiopyle folk are also very hip. There’s kayakers, bicyclists, musicians, beer enthusiasts, potheads, hikers, yogis, dog lovers, and everything in between. It’s the smallest town of new age hippies that most people have never heard of.

As the springtime comes hurdling toward us, our excitement is undoubtedly growing. Ohiopyle goes from roughly 40 residents in the winter, to bringing in over 1 million visitors in the summer. There’s more friends, more music, and more action.

That’s how, after one year of traveling, we found somewhere worth staying a while in.

It’s been one hell of a ride up until this point.

Bringing on the New Year

With 2020 coming up in full, we’re excited for everything that’s in store.

There’s actually a lot of ambiguity in our situation until the spring rolls around.

We can’t say for certain whether or not we’ll be offered jobs as bicycle tour guides. All we can really do is hope for the best and see what comes when the promise of spring returns.

Although we’re back to full-time working schedules for the time being, we’re actively saving up money to put toward our next big expedition. I’m still paying on my student loans as well, so the extra money helps to knock those down.

When it comes to reflecting on our accomplishments, I’d say that 2019 was one of the best years of our lives. We’ve been feeling pretty wholesome in knowing that we’ve already achieved so much.

Upon setting forth one year ago, I hardly could have expected anything that was going to be in store for us.

But, in the end, that’s just the way I like it.

I hope our story will find ways to motivate others as well.

We’re going to continue to shake things up.

So cheers, to 2020! This year is like a new gift with so many layers to open.

bridge through ohiopyle at sunset

Thank you for reading.

Shane

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