Review, Vagabonding

All quotations from Vagabonding unless otherwise cited

Vagabonding is a choice. A choice many people, even in the modern world, refuse to allow themselves to consider.

“This is a book about living that choice.”

From the beginning, Rolf Potts draws me in with his straightforward style and practicality, putting into words what I’ve been struggling for years to understand about myself:

I am a vagabond.

Vagabonding-n. (1) The act of leaving behind the orderly world to travel independently for an extended period of time. (2) A privately meaningful manner of travel that emphasizes creativity, adventure, awareness, simplicity, discovery, independence, realism, self-reliance, and the growth of the spirit. (3) A deliberate way of living that makes freedom to travel possible.”

No, not quite – I want to be a vagabond, roaming free of societal constraints, and living life not through destinations but the journey between.

Living life. That’s what it really all comes down to. I’m not going to hold myself on a higher plane than an office worker in Pittsburgh or an airline traffic controller at LAX; if they really enjoy their jobs and ways of life, who am I to tell anyone otherwise?

I, however, am not.

I am not satisfied with routine. I do not enjoy filling the most meaningful or any part of the day with that which has the least meaning…

“…we don’t have a lot of time on this earth. We weren’t meant to spend it this way. Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day, filling out useless forms and listening to eight different bosses drone on about mission statements.”
– Office Space

But this is precisely what many people do – we “live our lives”, we work our jobs, buy our groceries, fill our houses with “avocado green furniture sets”, and await the next time our bosses are in just the right mood so we can request a few days’ vacation time.

And why do we do this? Allow ourselves to spend the best years indoors, and cut off from the world around us?

“Now why do guys like you and me know what a duvet is? Is this essential to our survival, in the hunter-gatherer sense of the word? No. What are we then?”
“We’re consumers.”
“Right. We are consumers. We’re the bi-products of a lifestyle obsession. Murder, crime, poverty, these things don’t concern me. What concerns me are celebrity magazines, television with 500 channels, some guy’s name on my underwear. Rogaine, Viagra, Olestra.”
– Fight Club

We surround ourselves with possessions, believing them to be a source of comfort and security, when in actuality they are nothing more than a steel trap slowly choking our ambitions. Think about it:

1. Go to college. Get a degree.

2. Get a stable full-time job. Start working.

For many people, this is it. From the moment they enter that workplace, they “need” things: a bed, a picture frame, a computer, a tea cozy, an unused hiking stick, a set of flower curtains…

And when a long-awaited vacation does come? We find ourselves rushing back home to be once again in a comfort zone – a prison that keeps one from staying on the road and living life as it was meant to be lived.

One big reason you see so many young travelers, Potts pointed out, is they have little in the way of stability: no debt, no house, few possessions, no job…

Although some might associate this with being a burnout or bum, I believe it stems a little from jealousy: “My way of life only allows me five days of vacation, so there must be something wrong with you, penniless vagrant, if you’re able to do more than that. After all, I am the one with the job, the money, the house with the picket fence, and my life must be superior to yours.”

Yet there is one thing that the vagabonds have in scores and the rich have none: time.

Allowing yourself to believe this cynical view, out of spite or complacency, is a huge impediment. I’ve been there myself, as a teenager, seeing backpackers (perhaps vagabonds) walk past my 4-star air-conditioned hotel, thinking they must have terrible lives, with no home and so little money. In actuality, they probably pitied me.

The solution? Simplicity.

“…not only does simplicity save you money and buy you time, it also makes you more adventuresome, forces you into sincere contact with locals, and allows you the independence to follow your passions and curiosities down exciting new roads.

In this way, simplicity – both at home and on the road – affords you the time to seek renewed meaning in an oft-neglected commodity that can’t be bought at any price: life itself.”

Potts goes on quite a bit about travel preparations vs. spontaneity, and the best methods to explore new areas, but I believe these first few chapters are his coup de gras, for it is here we can find the problems facing most vagabonds in getting started, and exactly why they mean nothing to anyone serious about long-term travel.

I’m going to simplify, pay my debt, build my savings, and reach further than ever before. Join me?

Rolf Potts is not the first vagabonder the world has ever seen, but I believe he is the most elegant and succinct in his writings. Read his blog here or take a look at the Vagabonding homepage. I don’t believe he has ever been to Japan.