Road Rules 

Advice from a guy getting off the road to a guy getting on it.

Dear Mr. Gerald:

The nature of this correspondence concerns your experiences in travel and my request of a favor from you. I have always wanted to take an extended trip across America.

My main question is this: How does one go about doing this if he/she is not loaded with money? I realize there are cheap ways to lodge (campgrounds, national and state parks, hostels, and so forth), but over the course of a year of travel it would almost certainly be necessary for me to work in order to earn money. I plan to have $10,000 saved for the purpose of this trip, but since I don't have any real experience at longterm travel, I have no real idea of how far this will take me. Have you or do you know of anyone who has left their regular life behind and just headed out on the road for an indeterminate amount of time?

-- A Reader in Austin, Texas

Dude,

I'd like to explain why I have taken so long to respond to you. I've been waiting for the right moment. I figure I need to make the right kind of response to somebody who asks me about saving up $10,000, leaving their regular life behind, and "heading out on the road for an indeterminate amount of time."

Man, the thing is, you just have to jump off. Or maybe it's let go. You just sort of quit doing what you've been doing, shrug your shoulders, and go a new way. It's like starting down a hill on a roller coaster: There's a moment where you're in one place, and then you roll one inch and you're gone. Once you get going, those inches blur into feet, and you forget you were ever on top of the hill. But then you go through that place -- the wild downhill -- and get to a new place. A new high, I suppose. And then you plunge into another place. Believe me, it gets to be addictive.

I guess that's my advice: Just pick a place and go. I've met people who honestly said to me things like, "Well, I left Pennsylvania for California about 20 years ago, but my VW bus broke down in Missoula and I'm still here." The basic decision is, "Do I want to wind up where I am now, more or less, or someplace else entirely?" I made the decision a long, long time ago that I was going someplace else, and I've been going places ever since. Just now I'm starting to see the far side of the hill, and I'm starting to really get off on being at home. I might even get a job. So whatever advice I give you tonight, you have to remember that it's coming from somebody who, compared to you, is a tired old veteran.

Okay, so my first piece of practical advice is to ride the bus. It will keep things cheap and add multiple layers of fascination to your journey.

Second, go down to the youth hostel in Austin and talk to whoever is there. Everybody in a youth hostel is on the road except the people who run the place, and they probably came from someplace else too. Hostels are connected to the whole cheap travel/work-on-the-road circuit, and I can only assume that Austin has a big cool hostel. Austin is, after all, a big cool town. Or have they entirely ruined Sixth Street?

My next piece of advice is to pick either an area or a direction. In my case, it's been north and west since I was 12. I have no doubt that Alaska is where I'm headed. There's another piece of advice for you: Go to Alaska. I don't care which part of the being-outdoors experience you enjoy, just go up there and be blown away.

Another good way to start would be to go visit friends wherever they may be. Most of the trips I go on are based on the fact that I know people there. Besides, there's no better way to learn a place than from people who live there. I'm sure you know enough people to spend a year on the road just going to see everybody.

As for finding work on the road, I can't say I've ever done it. I have occasionally taken my work on the road and written travel columns for the Flyer from bus stations, trains, bars, bakeries, and dining rooms, but I never "left my life behind," except for the life I grew up with. I just molded my life to fit a traveling lifestyle. At every decision-point along the way, I chose movement and flexibility. You wrote about quitting a job and hitting the road; I have refused jobs so I could stay on the road.

But my road addiction isn't the point here. I think what it comes down to is this: If you genuinely have $10,000 set aside and want to hit the road for a while, then, unless you are hopelessly addicted to fine dining and luxury hotels, you have completely got it made -- for a long while. The operative word here is simplicity. You travel cheap (another piece of advice: look up Green Tortoise, a hippie-run long-distance bus service), you stay with people you know or people you meet along the way, you're not paying rent or car insurance, and you eat reasonably. You're making the decision to be poor in inspiring places rather than comfortable at home. That's all there is to it.

Goodnight, and good luck on the road.

E-mail: paul@paulgerald.com

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