Not your average travel blog
Seventeen months ago, I was sat in a café not far from Waterloo tube station in London, with the noise and hustle which had become so familiar. It had been home for almost seven years – a place where, since I was maybe ten years old, I felt like I had never found. It was familiar and easy to navigate, it wasn’t difficult for me to meet new people, or enjoy everything that one of the most desirable and eclectic cities on earth has to offer. My friend asked me where I wanted to be in five years time, and even though my environment felt so overwhelmingly like home, my answer was instant – “Not in London”.
I don’t know what the term is for being both impulsive and organised, but immediately after finishing my tea and cake (I’m British and it was 3pm), on the double-decker red bus home, I brainstormed all the places I would rather be or had yet to explore, and how quickly I could leave the big smoke.
As spontaneous as I might seem, I do attempt to avoid stupidity. However when pondering possible alternative lifestyles on a tight budget and time frame, speed of thought often results in some rather extreme possibilities. Considering everything vital in order to alter my life, including having no fixed or permanent address, no wife or children (that I know of), and no criminal record keeping me in the country, I thought it would be relatively simple. I then considered my negative financial situation, which isn’t too hard to imagine – I was tied to a job in order to pay bills, bills that kept me in a month to month cycle with almost no surplus cash. I didn’t dislike my job, yet like most wage-slaves, I wasn’t exactly fist pumping the sky or slapping my thighs over my daily accomplishments. Apart from moving debts around, I also wasn’t positively contributing to any desired, future lifestyle. Realising that I was still hungry on the bus, I noted that I was in a vicious circle of British life: work, bills, debt, tea and cake; I threw whiskey on the list just for good measure, but as I hopped off the number 176, I knew that if I wanted a different result in life, I needed to change what I was doing, and relatively quickly.
After one night of considering a life changing event (impulsive and organised enough?), I made a decision. A culmination of work, sacrifice and determination followed, and it took me nine months to purchase the gear I needed, to pay for flights and insurance, apply and wait for a visa, to tie up all loose ends, and to raise as much extra money as I could (I estimated £2000) to pay for all my essentials while I would be away (tea, cake, etc). I gave up drinking and eating out, I cancelled my gym membership, I changed all my monthly payment tariffs as much as possible, cashed in all my grocery points, and sold as many surplus belongings as I could. I cooked all my lunches for the week every Sunday, budgeted for a train ride to visit family at Christmas, and would walk with a backpack, the six miles home from work every weekday for the next nine months to save money, and get fit. I had every penny on a colour coded spread sheet – I was that guy!
I told people of my idea, but it wasn’t until I booked my flights (6months after I began, and three months prior to leaving), that family and friends realised that I was actually going to leave, and explore the USA. Initially I was going to walk across the continent, but quickly realised that I would miss out on all the things that I wanted to see and experience in the time frame that my visa would allow. My hair brain idea was to travel across the USA any way I could from East coast to West, via a dozen desired checkpoints – all of which were natural places of interest – I had no vehicle, and only $6 a day, for six months.
Around the same time that my friend asked of my future, I was also asked if I fancied slipping in an application to run the London marathon for charity. There is more chance of me giving birth, than ever running a marathon.
However, to avoid having a lazy reputation, and fantasising that I could do something worthy, I decided that I should do something for a good cause, and that my adventure wouldn’t solely be a selfish quest. The World Land Trust were the only charity out of the five to actually respond personally, acknowledging what I had written and appeared fully supportive of my hair brain idea. I felt like I was communicating and receiving responses from real people, not just an automated organisation that simply wanted me to deposit funds into their account. Sir David Attenborough says that the World Land Trust has more effect on the wild world than anything else he can think of, and a statement like that from Sir Dave is something I can get behind. Although we have never met, in my mind he is the man who through both reputation and accomplishment, is more respected and admired as an ambassador for nature – and has done more to bring the wild world into peoples homes – than anyone else in broadcasting history. If he says an orang-utan is pronounced Ooo-rung-ootan, I listen! It was an easy decision to raise funds for World Land Trust in order to conserve natural habitat and protect incredible wildlife. I know that in their continued, successful quest to purchase vital habit, their work will conserve and replenish many of the wild things I am so fond, as well as be an appreciated part of many people’s education. On a more vital level however, the work they do responsibly addresses our long term obligation towards habitats and environments that we vitally need as humans. They address commitments with sound, financial backing, and their spending can be accurately pinpointed to each important location and individual project – something many larger organisations fail to do. In summary, they are doing good work, but with all my points considered (detailed in my next two updates), they cannot succeed alone. Of all current concerns in the world and in my heart, conserving and replenishing our natural planet is one of the most vital. How we do it, is up for debate…
I realise my introduction is a long one, and you may want to grab a cup of tea (and cake) for these last three updates, but rambling on for the last six months across North America, has pretty much been my life (and gratefully, helped raise a considerable amount of money for WLT).
I have now finished my journey, and summarising my entire challenge into a few sentences feels like I am cheaply concluding my endless list of experiences, my wild and social encounters, my survival techniques (I’m alive, so I guess I did something right), my successful and failed streetwise decisions, my questionable photography and journalism, and all the emotions I have felt through each new shenanigan. However (and bare in mind that my blog and videos are much more detailed) as cheap summaries go…
The last six months have been an education in all things American: its geography, its bio-diversity, society, religions, politics, poverty and wealth, race-culture, immigration, media influence, historical bias, modern propaganda, its schooling, its big government “leadership”, its lawful disfunction across internal state-lines, its many frustrating traffic laws which defy (in my British opinion) common sense, its relentless (and often blind) pride and patriotism, its eager, yet sometimes unfortunate, money-driven and profit-obligated environmental pursuits, its (often noticeable lack of) successful human-integration and diversity, its food and drink, its places where tourists (and Americans) simply do not go, its weather, its accents and dialects, and on many occasions, its world class beer (for some reason, being a British chap means shouldering a reputation of being a big drinker, and therefore being handed many free, outstandingly-good beers), its incredible wildlife, its endless landscape, and so, so much more.
I experienced all seasons, all weather conditions, all terrains and ecosystems; small, rural towns and some big city lights, sleeping spots of all temperatures, altitudes, and (dis)comfort levels; I had all sorts of wildlife encounters such as sharing a snowy, remote lunch spot with some grumbling bears, an evening sunset on the beach with rutting elk, being woken by a hoard of sinister coyotes, challenging an army of ninja ground squirrels to a game chicken, being stalked and sized up for dinner by more than one pair of bald eagles, watching a mother whale guide her cheeky child around a rocky, wet playground, catching a moose cooling his toes while having an afternoon paddle, being an evening feast on more than a few occasions for all the mosquitos that think my blood is simply the best thing since sliced bread (my blood/poison ratio must mean I’m part insect by now), and not forgetting every, single, disgruntled or overly-cuddly pet which I was woken by when staying with hospitable couch-lenders (I think I met only one American who did not own a pet, and stayed with dozens).
I met a range of personalities from different walks of life, various races, ages, sexes, dietary specific people, people who never seemed to know, or care what the speed limit is, ladies with voices that do nothing but damage your ear-drums, drug addicts, homeless, millionaires, politicians, teachers, scientists, trauma counsellors, economists, fellow Europeans, and grown Americans who’s idea of “world history” doesn’t seem to stretch beyond the geographical borders of North America. I also met a recent state governor/presidential candidate, and a Super Bowl winner. I was taken to see Les Miserables at the theatre, dragged to some questionable comedy, I experienced my first Roller Derby, visited NASA’s mission control, fluttered like a moth towards the bright lights through Vegas (even on my budget), caught a few snakes enjoying some “sexy time” in the sunshine, had my mind blown in a planetarium, had a tree named after me, caught my humble self in a couple of newspapers….I could go on. I encountered all kinds of wonderful, as well as questionable hospitality – some on student floors, some eerily in a haunted house, some with ice-bergs floating past the window, some pragmatically on wheels, some with a ticket to see Lionel Richie in concert and many with a request to teach them some traditional British cooking – all genuine, all heartfelt, all welcome – always at just the right time.
Ultimately, it has been a humbling experience, along with confirmation that humanity absolutely exists in a country which persistently in our media, receives bad and often embarrassing press. No matter where I found myself in the USA, generosity and spirit, kindness and (possibly sometimes) pity or empathy, were dished up in the same, over-sized, belly-busting portions that they embrace so unashamedly in their restaurants. Whether it be a mountain, a side portion of fries, a recreational vehicle, or an expressive welcome which consistently came with a beer thrust into my hand, Americans do it large. Although failing to come to terms with the notion of “bigger is better”, when it comes to hospitality, which so many people insisted I would struggle to find in the USA (as well as ask me if I was going to carry a gun for safety!), there was generosity and a smile everywhere I visited (granted, I avoided cities). With friendliness in mind, aside from their border control and the very current, unlawful proportion of the country’s 5-0, I feel the USA is sadly misunderstood.
So what did I pick up for my big American Take-Away, and am I leaving on a jet plane, knowing I’ll be back again?
It has been my astonishing and privileged life for the last seventeen months, with no promise of what is happening afterwards, and bearing in mind I could bore you with everything in my blog, my diary, my mind and more; in my next two instalments, I will try to concentrate on, and summarise just a few political, environmental, and personal learnings from my journey, as well as a few tit bits of adventurous positivity and future lifestyle focuses…
We’re loving your “stuff”. Keep in touch, and Merry Christmas!
Dick Withington, Round Island
Thank you. Almost finished for this year. It really has been a game-changer.
A little more to come, and then a huge one planned for 2015…
All will be revealed soon.
Hi Ben, just used your blog in my IB Geography lesson.
What did you learn??