Ten Years a Nomad

You can only “run away” for so long

Hi, lovelies! My friend and boss-man Matt Kepnes of Nomadic Matt recently released his memoir, Ten Years a Nomad. I picked up an advanced copy and loved it — it’s not his usual “how-to” guide, but a heartfelt account of coming home. It’s something I can certainly relate to from this past year. The following is an excerpt from Chapter 11: You can only “run away” for so long.

How do you describe your life? Could a few words encapsulate the highs, the lows, the joys, the sadness of it all?

When people ask me how I like travel, all I can reply is “Yes, I love it. It’s great.”

To explain all the highs, lows, joys, and frustrations would take hours of conversation. And even that would be futile. Those who understand it don’t need words, and those who don’t—who haven’t felt the pull of the road or woken up in a sweaty hostel surrounded by foreign strangers—there will never be enough words. The question asks for a short answer, the truth requires experience.

Travel hits you with so many emotions it leaves you a bit numb. You are constantly bombarded by new sights, smells, situations, and people that it takes time to process all that.

But the thing you forget as you navigate the sensory gauntlet of the road is that someone else is traveling with you: time.

Suddenly, one day you wake up and ten years has passed. You’ve aged out of dorm rooms. You relish your sleep. You don’t want to do that pub crawl, because hangovers don’t linger through lunch anymore, they camp out behind your eyes for two days. You don’t care to meet another twenty-three-year-old traveler. You have more friends than you can keep track of anyways.

Nobody tells you life changes. It just happens. Slowly and insidiously.

Unlike the moment I went away, there was no defining moment over the last decade where I woke up and said “Yes, I’m different now.” It was an evolution. It was a process of incrementally pushing myself, retreating to comfort zones, and pushing myself again. Changes occurred imperceptibly, until finally enough change accumulated that when I looked in the mirror I saw a different animal.

One day, I found myself a travel writer. One day, I found myself walking up to a girl at a bar in Taipei with confidence. One day, I found myself doing adventure sports I never would have done before. One day, I was done. The constant push and pull between fear and adventure, between the desire for the freedom of the road and the need for financial security to stay there, had changed me.

I had built a career around being a nomad, and, though burnout was happening with increasing frequency, I couldn’t seem to get off the road. I would go through the motions, because travel was who I was. My self-identity was tied up to the concept of me as a nomad. On the road, I felt like a king, and more and more it seemed, heavy was the head that wore the crown. Whereas before I could go months without feeling burnout, now it was only weeks before that happened.

This led to an internal crisis.

Travel was my thing. When I felt down or stale, I’d go away again and the cycle would repeat itself. Bored at home? Let’s cash in miles and head to Iceland for a few weeks. Let’s go sail the Caribbean. I’d tell the girls I’d date I wouldn’t be gone long—maybe a few weeks. But then weeks would be months and they were gone by the time I came back.

I was a ship tossed around by gigantic waves. I had no direction. No course to follow. But, starting in 2012, I noticed life turned into a battle of disparate goals. I kept trying to live too many lives: traveler, business owner, New Yorker.

I was stressed. Juggling these different impulses had drained me. I didn’t know how to do it anymore. The years had taken their toll.

After six years on the road, I was going home to Boston. To apartment hunting, furniture shopping, cable bills, traffic, and making sure I have gas in my car. My future held book tours, conferences, work, and deadlines. Responsibility had crept back into my life.

Would I be able to pick up the routine after so long? Would it be like riding a bike? What a scary word. Routine. To me, it felt like death. The end of freedom, adventure, and the lifestyle I had come to know.

I took a trip to Bamboo Island, a small island in Cambodia that you can cross in ten minutes. There were only ten bungalows. No internet. No power except from 6:00 to 11:00 PM. I went with two British friends who knew the manager of the resort, and he was having a “bungalow warming party” to celebrate a newly built bungalow.

On my last night there, I watched the travel movie, A Map for Saturday. As it ended and the travelers interviewed in the movie talked about going home and their sense of loss, I began to cry.  No, crying doesn’t describe it enough. I wept.

I walked out of my bungalow and sat down on the beach.

Behind me, I could hear travelers partying, laughing, and forging new memories. This was the end for me though, and the realness of it all evoked tears from me for the first time in years. Big, baby-like tears.

“Are you okay?”

I looked up to see a girl I didn’t recognize standing over me. “Do you want to join us all for drinks? I think you’re the only one not at the bar,” she said in an accent that sounded a little Scandinavian.

“I’m heading home next week and just wanted a moment to myself. It’s a hard thing to have to deal with, ya know? The end of all this,” I said holding up my hands.

“Yeah, I would be sad, too. How long have you been traveling?”

“Six years.”

“Holy shit! That is a long time! I’m eight months into a yearlong trip. Six must have been amazing!”

“Yeah, it was,” I said with a pause, “. . . the best part of my life.”

“I can’t imagine what it would be like to go back home after so long.”

There was pity in her voice.

To a traveler, nothing is worse than the end where the fun stops and the pressures of society return. Whenever someone tells you they are heading home, you put your hand on their shoulder and say “I’m sorry” as if you’re mourning the loss of a fallen comrade. You leave this adventure that seems to stretch on for eternity, a place where you are the captain of your own ship, for the rigid constraints of “the real world”. The one we all tried so hard to stave off.

We sat in silence for a few minutes.

“Well, if you want to join us, you know where to go. Chris is going to play that chicken fried song again,” she said as she stood up, her pity party coming to an end.

“Yeah, thanks. I just need a few more minutes,” I said as she left. “I’ll be there eventually.”

***

It wasn’t until my friend Scott died in 2015 that I was living in a way that was keeping me from appreciating the benefits of either.

I can’t remember when I met Scott Dinsmore but, like so many of my modern friendships, I know where: the internet. Scott ran Live Your Legend, a website about doing what you love. Over the years, we bonded over our shared love of travel, entrepreneurship, helping others, good cocktails, and Taylor Swift (we’re both super fans).

Like me, Scott had a transformative travel experience. His came when he was turned down for a dream job and went instead to Spain to run with the bulls. A seven-week trip turned into a year, and Scott said that the experience changed how he looked at the world.

We would often catch up at conferences. Our busy lives rarely overlapped but whenever I came to San Francisco, we’d meet up for breakfast. I was proud to call him a friend.

In early 2015, Scott and his wife Chelsea sold everything, slung their backpacks over their shoulders, and set off to travel the world. We chatted frequently as Scott peppered me with requests for advice and tips.

“Where do we go for nice weather? Are we crazy to go to Morocco in August? What’s a great place in Central Europe to spend a month?”

I felt like his consigliere as he tried to conquer the world.

So when I woke up to the email letting me know Scott had died, I was in shock. He was thirty-three, young and healthy. There was an accident. The details were fuzzy.

It turned out that Scott had died while climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. It was the last day of his and Chelsea’s trek to the top, and they were taking a trail that wasn’t normally used. The trekking company had decided to use a different route not meant for beginners. There was a rock slide. Screams. No place to hide. Scott was hit by a falling boulder. It was over in seconds, and there was nothing anyone could do.

I always wonder what he was thinking in his last moments. When a rock is barreling down at you, what do you do? What did Scott do? Was he frozen in fear? Did he run the wrong way? Did he even know what was happening?

I read the email over again. I called my friends. I cried. I kept thinking it was going to be like the movies—the doctors would be wrong, he’d jolt back to life, and we’d all say, “You had us worried so much!”

But life isn’t like the movies. Scott wasn’t coming back.

Scott was always happy, talkative, and energetic. If you asked him how he was doing, he would almost always say he was at nine or ten. He had the unique ability to make people feel energized about even the most mundane things.

His death threw me for a loop. In Scott’s last blog, he talked about his struggle to balance work with his desire to get off the grid. As he said, “I almost decided not to book this Tanzania trip because I didn’t think I could (or should) step away. How ridiculous is that? To pass up an adventure I’ve talked about for years—because I’d convinced myself I couldn’t disconnect. Or more truthfully, because I couldn’t find the courage to do it.”

I saw myself in Scott’s words like I’d never seen myself before. He realized that always being connected created an unrealistic expectation for both himself and his community. That was exactly what I was doing. We shouldn’t always be connected. Always being connected is not healthy or productive. No wonder I was constantly burning out. We need to sign off and interact with people in real life.

His loss was a tragedy—but it was also an end to a life well and deliberately lived.

Like so many who looked up to him, I was shocked and saddened by Scott’s passing. It made me question a lot of things. What was I doing with my life? What was this all for? Scott lived his life in the most daring way possible, and he inspired people along the way. I was trying to do a version of that myself—but Scott’s death reminded me that we can take none of our plans for granted. Just as soon as he started on his quest, he was gone.

If Scott had been alive, he’d tell me to stop delaying and take action.

This moment put into perspective a feeling I’d been struggling with for a while: you can’t run away forever. As much as I hated to admit it, I was wrong, and everyone else was right. I was running. I was trying to have my cake and eat it, too, and, in the end, the thing I loved most—travel—had become an albatross that kept me from truly being the person I wanted to be.

So, inspired by Scott, I decided to finally take the trip I had been dreaming of for years: one final trip through Southeast Asia and South America. I wanted to try once more to get it out of my system, or at least to confirm that, whether I liked it or not, I was a nomad who was destined to always travel.

I needed to find out who I was. I needed one last big trip. I needed to know, to try to work on finding a balance, to come to terms with myself and what I really wanted. Travel had done that once before for me. Maybe it would do it again.

I needed a sign.

And I found one in the unlikeliest of places.

Matthew Kepnes runs the award-winning budget travel site, Nomadic Matt. He’s also the author of the New York Times best-seller How to Travel the World on $50 a Day. His writings and advice have been featured in The New York Times, CNN, The Guardian UK, Lifehacker, Budget Travel, BBC, Time, and Newsweek. His travel memoir, Ten Years a Nomad, is story of wanderlust, friendships, and the quest for home. It’s available now!

  • August 02 2019

    Hi Candice,
    Good to be here again today.
    The article probably has touched on every point about odds and evens of the travels and all of a sudden the news about the untimely demise of Scott was really shocking. I can understand what it feels like because I had lost my friend on 1st January 2018 in a motorbike accident in Kathmandu. He was 25 years old and used to work as a bartender.

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