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Wandering spirit

Professional travel writer Tim Johnson loves his life on the road. But the impulse to keep moving comes with its own sacrifices.

By Tim Johnson

When I tell people that I more or less live in hotel rooms, they often give me a sad look. Which is a funny thing, because I never mean for it to sound sad. Not at all, in fact — it’s quite the opposite. What I mean to convey is that I live a life where I’m always on the go, a life of jetting from one fascinating place to another, setting down my suitcase in a five-star resort and going out to explore the exotic jungle/soaring mountains/beautiful island coast/bustling world capital outside my door. But instead of the life of luxury and adventure that I’m talking about, these people just picture me all alone in that hotel room, far from the love of my family and friends. And of course, the truth is that we’re both right.

I am a travel writer. More than that, I am a sort of über-travel writer. Most people in my profession spend perhaps 60 to 80 days a year on the road. For me, it’s more like 300. I have visited 65 countries on six continents, and most of those — about 40 or so — have come in the past two years, in the course of researching pieces for some of Canada’s top magazines, newspapers and websites. And not only do I travel often, but I travel long — often a month or even six weeks at a time — stringing together multiple destinations on one giant itinerary. A recent trip took me from Toronto to Los Angeles, then to the Cook Islands in the South Pacific, then to Perth, Australia, where I spent a week before taking the train across the continent to Sydney, stopping along the way to visit the Outback and Kangaroo Island. Then I went from extreme south to far north, heading up to Dawson City, Yukon. Such an itinerary is not unusual for me — rather, it’s the norm. Just another day at the office. A big trip followed by a couple of days at home to run errands, check in with my editors and do some laundry, then I’m off on my next adventure. The two roommates I share a downtown Toronto townhouse with call my room “the storage locker” because I use the space more for storage than living. My life is out on the road.

I think it’s fair to say that travel is not only my profession but also my passion. Or even, some would say, my disease: one fellow travel writer suggested that my wandering ways could be the result of a dissociative disorder called “dromomania” — from the Greek dromos (running) and mania (insanity). It’s a psychological syndrome that makes it impossible for people to sit still and enjoy a life at home — they have a compulsion to keep on wandering. Soon after, I saw a television special about a successful CEO who suffered from this illness. He had a loving wife, a big house on a lake and all the comforts that money can buy. Still, he played drifter for a few weeks every year, shedding his credit cards and donning shabby hobo clothes to ride boxcars and drift, from train to train and town to town.

But that’s not me. I don’t suffer from dromomania. For many years, I lived a mostly stationary and perfectly happy life. But I’ve always loved travel, yearning for my vacation time, counting down the days until my trip, and then feeling wistful about those adventures long afterward.

I recently had dinner with a good friend, a former travel writer. She fixed me with a serious look and asked me, a tinge of concern in her voice, “So, Tim, what’s behind all this travel?” I guess that’s the central question. What drives me? Why am I not just satisfied to build a life in one place, like everybody else? If I don’t have dromomania, why am I so prone to wander?

Part of it, I think, can be explained by my childhood — but I don’t mean that in the usual broken way. I grew up in a wonderful family of four with a great older sister and two loving parents. It was an amazing childhood — a house on a quiet street in a small town, baseball games around the corner at the neighbourhood park, church down the street, fresh-baked muffins when I got home from school. My friends would jokingly call us the Beaver Cleaver family, and I admit that it was pretty apt.

But we had one quirk, one thing that set us apart from everyone else. We travelled. Sometimes, a lot. And more than that, we travelled for the sake of travelling, not just to go see grandma. We did the usual trips to Disney but also went beyond — to Yellowstone in Montana, to Virginia Beach, to the mountains of Colorado and the deserts of Utah. Our journeys always came in the form of a road trip, and we loved every part of it: the hotel rooms with more TV channels than we had at home, the pizza dinners, the long days on the open road. One year, we piled into our two-tone grey Pontiac Bonneville and drove for five straight weeks, from our home in Peterborough, Ont., across the continent to California, taking in the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas along the way, then up the Pacific Coast to British Columbia and back across Canada. Some would say we were crazy, but those were some of the best times in my life.

So my usual explanation, when people ask, is that travel is in my blood, in my DNA. It’s a family trait. My sister continued the legacy, too, working for a while in the tourism industry. Now married to a reluctant traveller, she pushes to ensure that the annual road trip becomes a tradition for her children, as well. And we all still travel together as a family, in different combinations, whenever we can.

But it’s more than just my background. Something else drives me. It’s certainly something strong — especially considering the big-time downsides of a life on the road.

For one, you miss things. Last year, I was away for every major family holiday except Christmas. I celebrated Thanksgiving by raising a glass with a group of Canadian expats on a beach in the Cayman Islands. For Easter, I was in a place where church bells rarely chime, writing a destination profile on Cayo Coco, Cuba. You also miss important social events. A couple of years back, I missed a close friend’s bachelor party because I took a last-minute trip to Reykjavik, on assignment for a national newspaper. I managed to make it to his wedding in Ottawa, though — in part because I worked in a story about a downtown luxury hotel there (we ended up holding a second, impromptu bachelor party in my suite).

There’s a bit of a cycle at work. The more you’re away, the more your social life at home diminishes. And the more your social life at home diminishes, the fewer reasons you have to stick around. And with fewer reasons to stick around . . . the less you stick around.

And being alone (or with strangers) so much of the time can get, well, lonely. And there’s no lonelier time than being sick when you’re in a faraway place, something that I experienced earlier this year. I had been in India for a couple of weeks, spending most of my time spotting tigers at Bandhavgarh National Park. Scheduled to attend a conference in Tel Aviv soon afterward, I decided to bridge the two trips with a short stay in Nepal. From there, unable to secure a flight from Kathmandu to Israel, I flew instead to Amman, spent the night, then took a crazy route — three taxis and two buses — to make an overland border crossing from northern Jordan to the Galilee. After feeling vaguely ill all day, I arrived at my hotel suite in Tel Aviv and immediately collapsed on the bed.

Soon afterward, I found myself in a world of hurt, a maelstrom of pain that would later be diagnosed as a severe case of food poisoning, probably picked up in Nepal. I’ve never felt as alone as I did that night, the indifferent headlights of cars passing far below on a freeway, the darkness of the night closing in on me as I curled up in pain on the bed. I prayed for relief, and I prayed for daylight. And thankfully, soon after, both of my prayers were answered.

But the good times, I must say, are much more plentiful. Sometimes I can bring along family and friends, and it is a wonderful thing to share the fruits of this work (beautiful hotels, exciting experiences) with them. And rarely a day goes by, even in the far reaches of Rajasthan or the deserts of Namibia, that I’m not able to be in contact with them, whether via e-mail, Facebook or Skype. Curiously, I’ve also gathered a number of people around me who live a similar lifestyle, people who I’ve never seen in their home city (or mine), but together have explored Istanbul or Buenos Aires or sailed around Cape Horn. Mobile friendships, if you will.

Most importantly, though, I know that God walks with me on my travels. This is God’s world and, as David wrote in the Psalms, there is nowhere I can go that God cannot reach.

But I am aware that I need to keep my eye on the time. I recently heard, second-hand, the story of a prominent Lonely Planet writer who lamented his situation. He had travelled the world, more than most, but had done so, he said, for too long. Too much time on the road and not enough time cultivating a meaningful lifelong relationship. And he now felt that he had missed his opportunity. It was too late; he was too old. He was certain he would live out the rest of his days alone.

I need to make sure that’s not me. I don’t want to become one of those lonely, long-bearded travellers who have nothing left but the road. I want someone who can join me as I wander.

I guess the main reason I travel the world, to misapply the famous quote of Everest climber George Mallory, is because it’s there. With the door to far-flung places open to me, I simply can’t stop walking through it. But, tick-tock, I’m mindful that the clock is ticking. I’m now 32. When I meet my future wife, I need to make sure I put her — and not my travels — first. Yet ideally, by the grace of God, I will find someone special with whom to walk through that door — and enjoy those luxury hotel rooms — together.  

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