Imagine leaving everything — no phones, no car, no home — and traveling across the country on foot while experiencing the world the way it is. Imagine truly living a simple life, not caught up with friend drama on Facebook or politics on Twitter, not worrying about the future, nor reminiscing about the the past. Imagine being able to truly live in the moment and ignore the responsibilities of everyday life, take in all the beauty of new places and new environments, and meet new people without the distractions of technology.
During my freshman year of high school, I picked up the book Into the Wild. I ended up finishing it and renting the movie adaptation in a single day because I was so enthralled with the idea. The book is about an Emory graduate who donated his life savings to charity and left everything he had to hike across the U.S. This is when I was first introduced to the idea of unconventional travel. I kept a copy of the book in my backpack and reread it if I got bored in class. Four years later, during my senior year of high school, the movie Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon, was released — the movie version of a book by writer Cheryl Strayed, a woman who hiked 1,100 miles solo on the Pacific Crest Trail.
These were two cases of individuals seeking the healing power of travel and nature. Both troubled by their pasts, these two people decided to leave everything they knew and embark on unforgettable, exciting, heroic, and dangerous solo journey “vagabonding” across the United States. And throughout high school, I always thought to myself, If they can do it, why can’t I?
When I lived in my hometown, I was truly unhappy. The beginning of my senior year was also my sixth consecutive year of living with chronic depression. I was itching for change, but I didn’t see one coming anytime soon. I was fed up with the monotony of everyday life — school, work, eat, sleep, repeat. The idea of college was becoming more and more disheartening. What was the point of going directly to college if my mental state didn’t seem to be getting any better?
I had been on and off medications for years, and none of them had really helped. I needed change, and I needed it as soon as possible. The idea of traveling was calling to me.
This is when I started thinking about things in life that truly made me happy, and the first two things that came to mind were travel and being technology-free. What if there was some way to combine these two things?
I decided the answer was vagabonding.
The idea of a constant change of environment sounded new and exciting to me. But how could you travel without technology in the 21st century? This is what truly bothered me. I knew I wanted to travel without a car, but how would I navigate new areas in this day and age without Google Maps by my side?
Well, if people hundreds of years before me could find their way around without smartphones, then I could, too. It was just a matter of using actual maps, asking locals, etc. I threw my beloved iPhone into a lake.
Unfortunately, traveling solo is not the safest thing for a woman to do, let alone on foot. I had heard plenty of horror stories of hitchhikers and hostel murders around the world. I needed a companion. And luckily, my very good friend (who eventually became my boyfriend) agreed to come with me.
I had thought about everything except school. What was I going to do about high school? It was the beginning of my senior year, but I didn’t want to wait a whole year to leave. I wanted to leave immediately. I needed change now. Don’t get me wrong, I was an AP student and very dedicated to my grades, but my mental condition was growing rapidly worse, and I had tried everything to get better. Is it OK to put one's mental health before their education? It was the hardest decision of my life, but I came to the conclusion that I had to go.
On October 13, 2015, we did it. We bought one-way bus tickets to New Orleans, and our journey started from there. We traveled from Florida to Arizona with about $1,000 altogether, our backpacks, a couple of outfits, my copy of Into the Wild, our sleeping bags, a camp cooking set, and a camera. With no phones and without Google Maps, our main source of navigation became communicating with strangers, creating many friendships along the way.
And it did more for my depression than any medication and therapy did in six years.
We hitchhiked, camped behind gas stations in Louisiana, camped in state parks in the high deserts outside Tucson, Arizona, played music with complete strangers, explored abandoned mines, fell in love, got to know people from all walks of life, cooked soup in city parks, and partied with the most interesting groups of people. Most importantly, I was introduced to an energy and culture of generosity and love I had never known before.
This concept may be foreign to a lot of people, and may feel almost impossible to achieve nowadays. I know it’s not for everyone, but I am proof that the act of traveling on foot can change you, and it is possible. All it takes is a few hundred dollars, some camping gear, and intuition.
You will experience things that a lot of the world will never understand. You will experience true human emotion, struggle, and the real world. You’ll understand that there’s more to life than meets the eye. But you will also experience a kindness, generosity, love, and caring that comes from the “magic” that this kind of travel brings. It can, in a sense, restore your faith in humanity.
This isn’t a permanent lifestyle. The money will run out eventually, and you’ll need to get a job. But that being said, I believe vagabonding should be something every person experiences at least once in their life, whether it be during a "gap" year between high school and college, a break after grad school, or just impulsively, like how I did it.
If you’re looking for a change, it can be as easy as a dream and a backpack. Just go.