The Lonesome Traveler

5 Mar


Mt. Cook National Park


Of all the countries on the face of our green and blue and brown planet, New Zealand must be the most ‘backpacked.’ Now before you start rattling off stories of backpacking through Europe notice two things: 1.) We are talking about ‘Middle Earth’ here and 2.) Many backpackers in New Zealand are Europeans fleeing from the influx of Americans backpacking through Europe. Now that I have successfully shamed you into my way of thinking, let’s get to the point. . .

Backpacking culture is odd. Heavy bags, showers few and far between, and constant migration from hostel to hostel makes for a volatile existence. Yes, volatile. The odd truth in the whole deal is that people love it. In fact, these people who love it will buy a van, drive around New Zealand sleeping in the back (when necessary), eating ramen noodles and beer, resolving to take life one day at a time. When you talk to these gap-year vagabonds  nothing but sheer optimism comes from a white smile in the middle of a dirty face. I don’t count myself among these people, but I have shared a few dorm rooms with them. I traveled around New Zealand for two weeks with everything on my back. And yes, I did love it. But, remember what I said before? It’s volatile.

Traveling alone and without strict purpose is one of the most freeing and frightening occupations. Most of us have traveled with a friend, our families, or with a spouse. On these trips two or more minds and multiple careers of experience are involved in decision-making process. The decisions might even have been made prior to the trip. There is nothing wrong with this style of travel. In fact, it seems intuitive. The pleasure of comfort, traveling with taste and preference in mind—conservative travel is practiced for good reason. Traveling alone is less often practiced also for good reason. When one travels alone, he/she is everything. I mean everything. The decision-maker, the doer, the ignorant, the voice of reason, the whisper of doubt. Everything is on one set of shoulders, figuratively and literally. The pressure is no undoubtedly great, but so is this idea: You are completely and utterly ‘off the grid.’ Those who have experienced ‘off the grid’ existence will say it feels like pure glory, nothing short of a 1776 kind of freedom. And at the same moment it strikes a deep, harrowing, lonely chord in one’s soul. You feel like you can do anything and nothing and either would be the right decision. You are always one misstep away from disaster and injury. I once felt these poles of emotion, and lacking any better method of explanation, I wrote a poem about it.


Oh, lonesome traveler

Pariah with bags packed

Folded, rolled, wadded under

The pressure of carry-on rules

Your eyes are set on that wilderness

Someplace long deserted, protected by neglect

Going far away into the fold of an unseen home


Plane and train and back and legs

Quick but never rushed, patient enough

You are feared and worshiped by those who cannot tell

A friend, shared by all and owned by none

A grin, smirk, positive slant of mouth, each a measured smile

Always close, many feet, but always alone


Why won’t you stay?

What is it that you are looking for?

Exactly, he says

A vast and rolling sea of hills

A quiet embrace of everything big and small

And hard and good and real

To see and remain unseen

To give and never take

I am he and he is forever I

A lonesome traveler, an idea, a man set apart


I traveled alone for close to two weeks before settling into my Christchurch flat. The pleasures and fears and paradoxes of this poem seem vague and incomplete, but they are nonetheless true. They drum up the sort of feelings one would have on the road alone. You may have read Kerouac or Into the Wild or watched the rather disappointing Julia Roberts in Eat, Pray, Love, but traveling alone remains unknown to you unless you do it. Unless you go intentionally and go alone, you will not understand the heights and depths of emotion.  But if you do tread the lonely road, expect to be amazed.


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