Updated: Jul 2, 2020
| This is the 258th story of Our Life Logs |
My eyes followed the long, winding road ahead of me. I was only about 70 miles into the Appalachian Trail (with about 2,100 to go). No way in hell was I going to make it.
I walked off the trail, hitchhiked to the nearest town, and abandoned the adventure.
Quitting often means you’ve failed at something, but for me, this was like turning over a new leaf. Now, quitting isn’t exactly a habit of mine, or even something I endorse, but I will say that giving up meant gaining a lot of confidence.
Let me explain.
I should probably start at the beginning. I was born in 1971, and almost every year of my early life, I moved somewhere new, wherever my poor, single mother could find cheap or free housing for us. There were the swamps of Florida, the chaotic streets of the Bronx, the withering heat of Texas—the list goes on. Traveling was part of our routine and felt as natural to me as breathing. I suppose a childhood of fresh starts set me up for wanting more, always in search of the next attractive place.
By the time I was studying French in college, my taste for travel became a craving I couldn’t satisfy. And really, I felt like I’d experienced the US as much as a person needed to. So, I started signing up for any study-abroad trips I could, resulting in spending my semesters in Switzerland, Holland, and France.
I didn’t go to gawk at the tourist sites, because, while they were interesting, they weren’t as fascinating as the locals, the ebb and flow of the people. Each time I was in a new place, I counted it as home, finding part-time gigs and any volunteer work I could get my hands on.
In this way, I began a sort of collection of memories. Experiences. Life. Instead of a scrapbook with pictures of me in front of the Eiffel Tower, I have the gentle recollection of an Easter picnic in Parc Sceaux, the sweet, pink-blooming trees above myself and a beautiful Portuguese girl. I have the hindsight of the night in Vincennes when I thought it best to sleep in the moat of its chateau after being locked out of my hostel. I have the faint blur of morning commuters shuffling through their routines etched into the back of my mind.
When undergrad was said and done, I was not ready to stop exploring—and to be honest, I never had the practice of staying in a place longer than a couple of years. So, in 1996, I joined the Peace Corps. I told them I had no preference as to where I would serve, and with that, I was sent to one of the poorest areas of the world: Mali, West Africa.
Mali was no Paris, that’s for sure, but it’s where I learned to serve others. I lived in a mud hut. I had an amazing host family and age group. I never ate alone. I had not one second to myself. I did yoga and meditated every day. I had no calendar, watch, keys, or mirrors. I got malaria, schisto, blasto, leishmaniasis, and TB. I saw all the constellations. I saw babies die. While helping with resource management, I was able to see how fortunate I was. I could pack up and go on to the next place that attracted me. Many of these people could never afford to leave.
In the years following Mali, I went to many other countries including China and the Republic of Georgia. I started volunteering with AmeriCorps, and was sent all over the US. I went to New Mexico to teach on Navajo Nation, Texas to help shelter struggling Latinas. Wherever, they needed me, I went, ready for the latest adventure.
In 2005, I was called to aid survivors when Hurricane Katrina hit the southern US. This was where I learned about loss. As I was walked the streets of New Orleans, I could look in any direction and see a building obliterated by the storm. People’s houses, their livelihoods, all swept away in a matter of hours. It was horrifying, but also unnerving to think that just like that, a person’s necessities, keepsakes, maybe even their lives could be wrenched away from them without warning. It shook me to my core, and made me realize how short life could be.
But as it goes, I began to feel that itch again, the desire to go somewhere new, somewhere better than here. Like many times before, I went. I wound up overseas in Korea as a teacher for a few years. I taught the children, I made the memories, and I began planning for the next big thing.
But I was getting older. My body began showing its age. I’d already been so many places, I felt like I was just rehashing old trips just to go somewhere, and it was beginning to take a toll on me. I started wondering if maybe I should settle down and stop traveling as often. But what would I have if I didn’t have travel? The idea of being sedentary made me feel useless, so I decided to give one last hurrah, just to prove to myself that I could still handle grueling trips.
In 2010, I decided to hike the Appalachian Trail, but by this time, I was nearing 40 years old. I guess you could call this decision a result of a mid-life crisis. Whatever. I had never been an outdoorsy guy, but I had read the stories of people who, when alone with their thoughts in the wilderness, had experienced spiritual insight from a retreat into nature. I was hoping the hike would help me find some clarity with my travel dilemma. And so, I started preparing for the six-month journey.
Unfortunately, everyone had the same idea as me. The trail was packed with people. It’s kind of hard to have a spiritual epiphany in solitude if you’re never alone! And on top of that, I found out that hiking…in fact…sucks! I was ill-equipped for this six-month hike and my body couldn’t handle it.
Within an hour, I said to myself, “What the hell am I doing?” On the first night, the temperature dropped below freezing, and I thought it was a great idea to sleep in a hammock instead of a tent. I woke up the next morning to a huge icicle hanging down from the tree in front of my face! At the first stop, I picked up a -40 degree-sleeping bag, but even with a warmer blanket, I couldn’t sleep on the trail, which, by the way, was not the type of “awakening” I’d planned to have. I was exhausted, sad, and angry.
As I sat in my campsite on the seventh day, I reflected on all the trips I’d taken before this one. The lungs of Paris, the children’s bare feet in Mali, the words and air of service and gratitude after the hurricane. It all made me realize something. Why was I hiking this trail anyway? Just for the sake of travel? That didn’t feel like a good enough reason for all this exhaustion. I’d had plenty of adventures, more than most, and I’d run my course. I had gotten my answer. It was time to stop traveling just because. My body, wallet, and mind couldn’t handle it anymore.
I hitchhiked to a nearby town and called my wife to get me. Just like that, my journey of a thousand miles ended in a single step. The fire I felt from it before had been put to rest and that was okay.
After a few years abroad (walking around on auto-pilot, mind you), I moved to New Orleans in 2015. If you can believe it, that’s where I’ve been the last four years.
I decided to finally settle in one place because I realized that I was traveling just for the sake of doing it, instead of for the experience. I was engaging my impulse to leave the country when life got boring wherever I was. That’s what we did in my childhood. But I’ve realized that life doesn’t have to be that way.
Helping a woman retrieve her belongings from her flooded house, teaching a Korean child English, watching a sunset in Mali. I thought I was chasing places. Now I see that I was really after moments.
Furthermore, every moment means something, no matter where it happens, and I’ve made peace with the beauty within my grasp. What I’ve learned is that no matter where I am, the journey continues. It continues whether I’m in the US or abroad. It continues until I take my last breath. I’ve had hundreds of journeys, but the journey of life is still in motion. I don’t have to go abroad to feel fulfilled anymore. Sure, I feel as if I’ve lived many lives, but in the end, I’m the common thread.
This is the story of Daniel Thompson
Dan currently resides in New Orleans, Louisiana although he doesn’t think this will be his last stop. Growing up, Dan was used to moving wherever his family could find cheap housing, which fostered a love for travel while also giving him a habit of moving when life gets hard. It wasn’t until his marriage fell apart that he realized that he needed to start facing his problems instead of escaping abroad. He’s also learned that he is on a continuous journey that doesn’t have to end just because he doesn’t travel as often. Dan loves writing, art, and learning about cultures. He’s currently learning to dance and enjoys board games. He has written about his travel and service experiences and has even published a novel called Diner Dharma. The book can be bought here: http://www.lulu.com/shop/a-d-thompson/diner-dharma/paperback/product-3044456.html
This story first touched our hearts on January 10, 2019.
| Writer: Kristen Petronio | Editor: Colleen Walker |