Instead of a vague goal to quit my job at some future date, I now had a six-month deadline. As this realization sank in, I grew ecstatic that my dream was really going to happen. I was also worried. The trip itself wasn't the issue – everything probably would fall into place once I was on the road. My concern now was that other than saving money and buying a backpack, I had done nothing to prepare for leaving.
I got started right away. I took a first aid class. I got vaccinated for yellow fever, hepatitis, typhoid and rabies. I started a blog to document my trip. I bought an emergency health insurance policy that would take effect as soon as I left the country. I would have to pay out-of-pocket at local pharmacies and hospitals for minor illnesses, but I would be covered if I had to fly home due to a major medical emergency.
One Saturday morning in May, I took an introductory class on photography. Every time I had gotten a roll of film developed, I had been disappointed by the dark and blurry results. Now was the time to improve my skills. My photographs would be my souvenirs while traveling, and I wanted them to look good.
The class taught me the basics of shutter speed, lens aperture and composition, but mostly it convinced me that I should buy a digital SLR (Single Lens Reflex) camera. I decided to go with the Canon Digital Rebel XT, which just had been released and was cheap and light enough to justify carrying on a backpacking trip. It didn't raise suspicions among any of my friends – it was just a camera.
I wanted a laptop for writing my blog and processing my photos, so I went to eBay and got a good deal on a used IBM ThinkPad X21. I also bought a pair of trekking shoes, a sleeping bag, a pair of quick-drying pants that zipped off into shorts and two pairs of synthetic underwear.
With about two months remaining, the most important pieces of the puzzle had come together, except for one small thing: I still didn't know where I was going. The world was so big, the choice was daunting. I looked into buying a round-the-world plane ticket, which would allow me to visit three or four continents and take several flights within each one over the course of a year. I decided against it. When I had first dreamed of quitting my job to travel, I had envisioned seeing the whole world in a year, but after doing some research online I realized that this was not possible. On every trip I had ever taken, I had always been in a hurry. Not this time. I prioritized depth over breadth. I would focus my trip on a single continent.
After much waffling, I settled on South America. It had been seven years since my summer in Xalapa, Mexico and I was eager to experience more of Latin American culture. My Spanish was rusty, but I was confident that it would come back.
Now that I had picked a continent, I had to figure out which countries to see. I printed a map of South America and drew a line connecting the big cities. I was taken aback by how large the distances were. I made my goal to visit every country in South America. A year might not be enough time, but at least I had a plan to get started.
With so much freedom to travel wherever I wanted, what would I do? I figured I would spend most of my time in cities. But weren't there also a lot of Inca ruins in South America? And what about the Amazon rainforest and the Andes Mountains? This trip would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience; I wanted to take full advantage of it.
I made a pledge to myself: I will take every opportunity to explore South America. As long as it's not illegal, immoral or life-threatening, I will try anything and everything that comes my way.
In July 2005, two-and-a-half years after deciding to take this trip, I called a meeting with my boss to tell him of my plans to leave the company and travel. He was surprised to hear this, but he was also encouraging. In fact, I got positive reactions from nearly everyone I told. My parents didn't tell me that I was throwing my life away. My co-workers often said, “Congratulations. I wish I could afford to travel more.” I had been wrong about how they would react and felt foolish for keeping this secret when I could have been more open about my goals all along.
I set my last day of work for September 9 and started to look for cheap plane tickets. Without the rigid constraints of a job – or a plan – I could leave on any day of the week and fly anywhere in South America. After a quick internet search I learned that the cheapest flights went to Lima, Peru and Quito, Ecuador. I focused my search on those two destinations.
Should I buy a one-way ticket, or round-trip? If I had a round-trip ticket, my return date would always linger in the back of my mind, even if it was a year away. I didn't want that. I need to go all out, no constraints. After a lot of searching, I found a cheap one-way ticket to Lima for September 28, 2005.
I thought back to my original “vacation” destination: Machu Picchu, the most famous Inca ruin. One popular way to get there was the Inca Trail, a four-day walk that stopped at several other ruins along the way. The trail was highly regulated by the Peruvian government – only 500 tourists were allowed on it at any given time – and tickets sold out months in advance.
Maybe I should buy a ticket for the Inca Trail before I leave. Then I'll have at least one set date to keep me from spending all of my time lazing in one place.
I booked my ticket for the end of October.
Looking at a map of the continent, I saw that there was a city called Ushuaia at the southern tip of Argentina. After hiking the Inca Trail, I planned to make my way south toward that city. Ushuaia was thousands of miles from Peru and there was bound to be plenty to do along the way, but I would try to get there by January. The seasons in the northern and southern hemispheres are opposite, and I wanted to spend some time at the bottom of the continent during their summer.
One weekend while I was visiting my parents, I decided to do a trial run with my backpack. I packed everything I wanted to take and struggled to hoist it onto my shoulders. I ambled to the bathroom and set my backpack on the scale. I was dismayed when I saw that it weighed forty pounds. How am I gonna carry that thing? I was out of shape and I had gained ten pounds in the last few months. I figured I would shed the extra weight as soon as I started. But now I was worried that my body might give out before I got into good enough physical condition to carry such a heavy backpack.
I unpacked everything, laid it across the floor and packed the stuff I couldn't live without. My backpack was down to twenty-seven pounds, but I no longer had a camera, laptop, sleeping bag, first aid kit, books, binoculars or journal.
What should I do? If I only take the minimum, I'll be more mobile, but I won't be able to document my trip as easily and I'll miss out on some creature comforts.
After thinking it over some more, I decided to keep my laptop and camera. I left behind a change of clothes, the binoculars and books, bringing my backpack's weight to thirty-five pounds.
It's as heavy as a small child – I hope I can manage that. Besides, if I'm not using something after my first few months, I'll just give it away or send it home.
With my backpack and travel plans set, I still had one big task to accomplish before setting out for South America: selling my Corvette. In all of the excitement of planning my trip, I figured somehow that task would work itself out. Now it was getting down to the wire and the car that had first inspired this trip was still sitting in a garage in Minnesota.
I drove my Corvette to work during my last week and left a For Sale sign on the windshield. When I walked back to my car at the end of the day, there was a warning from security against soliciting on IBM's property. I put up an ad in the local classifieds but only got one lukewarm reply that didn't pan out.
I should have known that waiting until the last minute to sell my car was a bad idea. April and May were the best months to sell a sports car with the promise of hot summer days just around the corner. Now that I had procrastinated through that narrow window, I wouldn’t be able to sell it before I left. I needed a place to store the car while I was gone.
“I thought you might have trouble selling it,” my dad said when I told him about my dilemma.
“Is there any way I could leave it in your garage?”
He sighed. “I suppose I could clear out some room in the back.”
We went into the garage to look for a spot to put my car. A minivan and a sedan were parked inside. A couple of my boxes were stacked on the ground in front of the cars. I had already gotten rid of my furniture, television, video games, CDs and most of my books, but I did want to keep a few things. We moved the boxes, creating about eight feet of space between the cars' front bumpers and the garage wall. There was just enough room to squeeze in my Corvette perpendicular to the other cars.
“Thanks for letting me do this,” I said to my dad.
“Next spring I can put it on the lawn and try to sell it,” he said.
“That would be great.” I had hoped to have the money before I left, but I was still confident that I had enough in the bank to last at least a year.
I disconnected the battery and slid on the cover, figuring that after over three years of ownership, this would be the last I would see of my Corvette. I closed the garage door and walked back to the house with my dad.
Nearly 1000 days had passed since I had decided to quit my job to travel. I didn't think it would take this long, but I was realizing that even in a quick-fix-obsessed culture, deep change still happens slowly. My dream of life-enhancement through a sports car may have died, but a better one was about to be born.
Oh yeah, now it's getting good. Right? Right?