Summing Up Six Months of American Wandering

Dec 4th, 2018 in Adventure

I spent six months traveling across America this year, going from city to city in what I dubbed a car-less road trip. I started from and returned to New York City, in a clockwise loop. This is my third excursion in three years, after previous expeditions hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2016 and then cycling coast-to-coast last year. I determined that I had one more of these trips in me back in March, but with a new twist. It had to be more about the destinations and less about the journey. Previously, I’d always felt pressure to keep moving and stay focused on the main quest, but this time I was free to improvise and spend my time how I wanted. With no rigid path in front of me, any location within reason would be open, as long as I could find the way. I wound up visiting some 25 unique places total, spending about a week in each. By the end of this trip, I’d fulfill a goal of feeling connected to nearly every region of the country.

I tested my flexibility immediately upon embarking, where I pivoted to begin in Wilmington, North Carolina instead of going straight to Asheville. There, I met up with a lifelong buddy from my days in World of Warcraft, ‘Saritor’, and caught my only Atlantic beach vibes for the year on Easter. A theme of this trip would be dropping in on as many people as I could; I often altered my trip planning if someone a state over hit me up. Sources like gaming, hiking and biking have given me a sprawling network to lean on, and I added to it extensively this year by making new friends through Couchsurfing, WWOOFing and hosteling.

In Asheville later, I rendezvoused with one of my trail family, Forrest, who took me back to Atlanta with him. Me piggybacking on his vacation for a ride back was what catalyzed the overall trip, and maximizing my efficiency became a theme for how I tried to get around. Upon leaving Atlanta, I only had a general idea of where to go, with just an aim to venture west to Los Angeles while stopping everywhere along the way. When I made it there, I called it my halfway point and headed home to New York along a different band of latitude. When I arrived at each new city, I’d rarely have a direct plan on where I’d be the next week. It sometimes got until the day before or even the day of until I’d be sure of my next stop. Living so spontaneously felt very freeing to me, and it’s a bit of a system shock getting back home and making appointments to see my friends that have busier schedules.

To get around, I brought my bicycle once again, but with an intention of using it once situated in each city, rather than for venturing across the countryside. I recycled my touring setup from last year, with four panniers again carrying all my worldly belongings. My setup included a bag for clothes, another for my camera kit, then my camping & hiking gear, and one for the kitchen sink (including bike repair, toiletries, and always at least one book). I wound up doing several smaller tours of varying levels of intensity, the longest being seven hundred miles across West Texas into the New Mexican Rockies in June. I generally opted to do bike tours this year only when mass transit options were insufficient and no rides were available. Only for sojourning along the Silver Comet Trail from Atlanta into Alabama and the C&O Canal along the Potomac River to DC did I make exceptions, and that was for long stretches of safe, forested riding.

Study Amtrak’s System Map and you’ll see that my route approximately followed their corridors. Most interstate buses around the country do not take bicycles onboard as policy, so I was constrained in my ground transit options. Places unserved by rail like Boise, Columbus or Las Vegas I missed out on as a result. Amtrak does offer decent amenities, including a pleasant observation car where I’d spend entire train rides (I always sleep there overnight in my camping setup). Some folks even consider the ride itself a quaint form of vacationing. I don’t idealize Amtrak; it’ll get you there, but not cheaply or quickly and anywhere in the middle of the country you risk being dropped off in the middle of the night. They do make transporting a bicycle simple, and that’s enough to have made it my main choice for travel this year.

Before I’d commit to buying a ticket anywhere, I’d try my hand at finding a rideshare, sometimes to a range of locations. I’d try to ask around and find something, but I did solicit three successfully on Craigslist; all were safe and very interesting rides. It was a bit of a hassle to get an okay to taking the bike, but it did let my driver drop me wherever worked best for them and I would just ride out from there to where I was going. For every ride I did get, there were as many that no-showed or canceled last minute, which added a layer of unpredictability to my arriving anywhere. An example of this was a ride to Kansas City from Denver that never materialized, so I wound up taking the train that night to Omaha instead.

I did enjoy complete independence on my bike once I settled in somewhere, and I frequently ranged outside city limits. A week riding around on bicycle lets you really suss out a city’s vibe. I’ve learned that the more pedestrian friendly a place is, the better the quality of life generally is. That’s true everywhere, but especially here in NYC, where we are constantly improving our infrastructure; after every trip, I’ve come back to new bike lanes and improved roads. I unabashedly consider here of the best places to cycle commute, but will dole out kudos for major bike friendliness to Denver, Minneapolis, and Madison; cities I visited this year that duly impressed me. Most places I went have their own bikeshare now, which may be beneficial knowledge for my fellow nomads that aren’t so dedicated a cyclist as I, but still want a fun way to get around. David Byrne’s Bicycle Diaries is an excellent longer read on this topic and a personal inspiration for me to explore this way.

Shout out to Google Maps for being my multi-tool for learning new areas. It helps immensely not only with navigating by bicycle but also with scouting for libraries, coffee shops or other hangouts. I plot out my tours with it too, though it’s always worth doing your homework out in the countryside. Near Decatur, Texas, I got sent onto a gravel path that was gated with a notice that trespassers would be shot! I took a costly reroute on that one. Its satellite and street views helps for sussing out creative camping spots, something I did frequently to keep expenses low. Finding my nightly hideaway has definitely become a bit of a game to me when I’m out wandering now, and so far I haven’t been burned playing it.

If you follow me, you’ll know I’m pretty into photography. It’s my main creative outlet and keeps my morale up. I got to meet many people and document some varied events this trip, it’s a marked improvement over last year where I was just crushing miles on the bicycle and only doing landscapes. Creating art out of my adventures has been a joy to me. I’m just not sure how I proceed with it in this next stage of life in New York; I certainly felt depressed last Winter not using my camera enough. This is one of the world’s most vibrant cities, and I have to figure out what my focus behind the lens really is here. Knowing the city so intimately should be an advantage. In 2019, expect some of my finest work to be available as prints and exhibited in some form.

I drank a lot this trip, a far cry from my two previous jaunts where I teetotaled. I abstained in previous years to keep a clear head while out in unfamiliar places every day, and the couple of hangovers I have had since then have brutally reminded me about that pledge. Despite all that, I’ve enjoyed sampling a lot of regional craft beers this year. It’s just simpler to have a drink now and then when meeting so many new faces or catching up with old friends. I did want to give a shout out to my favorite beers from the trip: The Graveflower Grisette by Burial Beer (Asheville), Ghost Face Killah by Twisted Pine (Boulder), and New Glarus Belgian Red (Wisconsin). Though I’ll always be a bit wary of alcohol, I never have had problems welcoming cannabis. I kept a discrete vape in my pocket for most of the trip and I appreciated the liberty offered from states that legalized. I’m hoping that New York with its new government follows suit immediately.

I stayed true to my vegetarianism throughout the trip. I’ve been keeping to the diet strictly for seven years now, and after completing my hiking and biking trials, it’s on cruise control for me. Even places you may not expect, like Amarillo, Texas, have satisfactory options. I only get a little demoralized when I’m riding my bike out in the rural places, where I’m just holding out for a Subway or Walmart and grateful to find one. I didn’t realize it at first, but I’ve been an ambassador for this life for years now to the people I meet adventuring. I put my best foot forward when explaining the moral reasons behind my choice sans judgment and hope it inspires others to at least consider the meat they consume a little more mindfully. This is the most active part of an otherwise passive form of protest.

I did some stints in agriculture on this trip, mainly through WWOOF-USA, which is a work-trade program where one gets room and board in exchange for part-time labor on organic farms. I did construction with cob in Austin, gardened along the Wasatch Front, and cared for chickens near Pittsburgh. I found WWOOF to be a very good deal for my time, offering me ample time to keep engaged at my own projects or tourism. I think often now about taking vacations just to WWOOF, and would love to get my hands dirty next summer or work on code in an environment that aids farmers.

It always comes as a surprise to people when I reveal (confess?) that I haven’t traveled internationally. Wandering in the States has just been easier, more affordable and a result of the way the wind has blown for me so far in my life. I’ve also been fascinated in the rough and tumble Americana that’s depicted in towering literature like The Stand, Preacher or American Gods to name a few favorites. All those books may be steeped in the supernatural, but the heroes, villains and locales really embody our culture and inspire me to do some of these crazy things. I feel mighty having seen much of our massive country now with my own eyes. Going forward, I would really like to turn outwards, especially if I had the opportunity to learn a new language in the process, but it will depend on serendipity and my budget.

I gave myself a six month time limit overall as a way to stay grounded. Though I’ve come to truly love being a nomad, my finances simply aren’t there to support the life anymore, and if I’m being honest, weren’t even there when I began the trip. I only managed to pull this one off through a combination of credit card shell games and extreme frugality, though I did eke out enough for most of my expenses through freelancing websites. I failed at growing my business while in motion and I have gotten pretty discouraged by the promise of the digital nomad life, which I now think is only possible with a pre-arranged income such as a full-time job or contracts with multiple clients. I also kept myself in a compromised living situation that let me skip rent while out and about the last three years. I’ve ended that too, so my path to another chunk of wandering will be extremely narrow for a time. If I sound defeated here, it’s only for this battle and not the war.

The most constructive path forward I see is to spend the next couple years stabilizing my income again and clearing my debts. This is not dissimilar to where I was graduating college back during the recession with a truly odious amount of student loans under my name. A source of my wanderings was just that it was way to lash out after I reduced them enough to feel financially independent for a time. It’s funny being a millennial with an advanced degree and seeing how much of my life (and those of my peer’s) revolves around debt. This year, I’ve gotten to try being materially poor and the stress of it all is just a really heavy weight I no longer want to bear, even if I consider myself successful at navigating its waters and making the most of every moment and dollar.

As a stealth camper and budget conscious wanderer, I felt pangs for all the homeless Americans I saw on the trip. It seems like an epidemic across the land. The forests and outskirts around Asheville were full of people camping in freezing temperatures. Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay and Denver had strikingly visible encampments that felt like shanty towns, and seem an audacious challenge for each city’s government to properly address. I do believe that society will move forward only as we lift up the bottom. I’d like to offer more than platitudes on this, but I feel quite powerless until I fix my own situation.

The plan is to remain in code, and seek the ever elusive remote opportunity. If I do score one, I’ll be considering moving somewhere with a more outdoorsy culture, lower cost of living and better representation in our minority rule government. Otherwise, I’m hunting here in good, ol’ NYC and considering roles elsewhere that would relocate me. I’ve gotta say though, I do relish being a walking contradiction; I’m the New Yorker who spends half the year in the forests, mountains and plains. It’s a real catch-22 that I pontificate on being broke while coming back to one of the most expensive places in the world, but this is where my earning potential is highest and I have enjoyed living the most. I’ve always been homesick for New York as my trips have started winding down.

I’ve been asked about where I struggled on my journey. I can say that overall, I didn’t. Things generally fell into place for me due to my adaptability and willingness to bend the rules if they didn’t. I will say that nomad wandering while on a razor-thin budget definitely narrows the errors you can make and limits your options, but luck was on my side in avoiding real trouble, and I always had the opportunity to spend if I needed to via credit. I definitely made some mistakes in my personal life a couple times, but I don’t attribute that to any sort of foot-in-mouth moments I wouldn’t have had otherwise. I’m far from perfect, but I know that I’ve left more good than ruin in my wake and returned home whole.

I remarked earlier that after completing this trip, I’m really feeling a strong connection to America. I’ve met people thriving in alternative lifestyles, befriended many fellow adventurers, and know people now far and wide, in both high and low places. Now that I’ve had some time to reflect and pen this article, I’ll just say that I’m satisfied with everything overall and am mulling it all over happily. I know that my experiences this year were worth the sacrifices I’ve made to wind up at this point; I feel like I’ve gained so much even if it’s little of anything in a material sense and know that I’m privileged to have been able to do this. I don’t take anything like this for granted. All that’s left now is to channel this energy into something positive. A friend in LA, nicknamed ‘Bold’, when I asked why he didn’t honk at a bad driver in traffic, said that he wanted to “reduce the net negative entropy of the world”, which stuck with me vividly. That’s the mission going forward, for me and for all of us.

(My journaling of the trip starts here.)