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Hitting the road

I was sitting in a natural hot spring with a total stranger, in complete darkness, having a conversation that would change my life.

It was raining lightly; I sank up to my neck in the warm, sulfur-scented water, and tried to make out his features. I couldn’t. I could get murdered out here, I thought, but I pushed this away because what he was saying was important.

I had met Max just the day before, during our stop in Rotorua in April 2016. My grandfather and I were on a two-week tour of the North and South Islands of New Zealand, and during our first dinner out in Rotorua, I was shocked to discover our waiter was from Colorado. What were the odds? Between peppering him with questions about how, when, and why he had traveled to New Zealand, I asked if he knew of any natural hot springs nearby. “Sure, I’ll take you to one,” he smiled. My brain briefly flashed through a wheel of possible outcomes, but ultimately the adventure was persuasive.”That would be amazing,” I smiled back.

After Facebook-stalking learning a little more about him, I felt even more comfortable with the decision, and the next night we were submerged in a hot spring just off the road near Waiotapu, swapping stories about our lives. Over the next three hours, I picked Max’s brain for every detail of how he managed to live and work in New Zealand.

He told me how he had applied online for a working holiday visa (a one-time visa which allows you to work in NZ for 12 months, beginning from the time you reach the border), and how easy the visa was to get (he said he was approved and received his electronic visa within “a couple days”).

He explained how he had negotiated a free room at a hostel in Rotorua, in exchange for a few hours of cleaning/maintenance work.

He enjoyed cheap food thanks to his restaurant shifts, and his job allowed him to save enough cash to purchase a van locally. He was in the process of converting it into a backpacker van that he could sleep and travel in for the next few months when he moved on.

It all sounded so…doable.

Like so many people, I’ve always dreamed of extended travel abroad. A two-week vacation, while certainly nice, ultimately left me asking, Is this it? Is this really it? Two weeks out of an entire year, to break up the comfortable and monotonous cycle of work, home, weekend, repeat?

It wasn’t enough.

But, also like many people, I had no idea how to begin planning for months and months of travel. I’m a workaholic and a perfectionist, who has been fortunate enough to have a professional career in the six years following college. I mean, quitting your job to travel? How do you save? How would you live? Extended traveling or backpacking seemed dreamlike and hazy, something “other people do,” people like cruncy REI enthusiasts and trust fund college kids and professional Instagrammers.

But that night Max gave me a blueprint for how extended travel could actually work. And I found myself wondering, as I would many times over the coming months, If he can do it, can I do it? 

Over time, this refrain would become: If he can do it, why can’t I do it?

Max gave me another bit of crucial information that night–the cutoff for a working holiday visa for Americans traveling to NZ is age 30. While there are other types of visas you can get after the age of 30, a working holiday visa is easy and flexible. He was 24 when we had that conversation. I was 27.

My dream had a deadline.

If I was going to do this, I realized, it would have to be soon. New Zealand had fascinated me for several years, and the fascination had only grown during our visit.  I was (and still am) unmarried and childless, in excellent health, with the ability to save money. Now that I knew the opportunity existed, if I were to just ignore it, to skate right past the working holiday deadline and into my 30s without taking advantage of it, without ever even trying to make good on my dream of backpacking abroad–

What excuse could I possibly give to myself in the future?

That night, it hit me forcefully and viscerally that I was going to be someone who always talked about traveling and living abroad, but never really got around to it.

Or–I was going to be someone who did it.

After months of reading, soul-searching, and praying, I realized there is never a “good” time to dismantle your life to travel. But the choices are the same: Either go. Or don’t go.

I returned to Nashville at the end of April 2016. A month or so later I met another New Zealand-bound traveler, my lovely new friend Natasha, who told me all about WWOOF (Willing Workers On Organic Farms), a work-trade program where you offer 4-6 hours of work on farms and homes (often gardening, landscaping, painting, cooking, etc.), in exchange for room and board. There’s no pay, but your expenses while traveling are dramatically reduced. It felt like a missing piece of the puzzle.

That May, I was also fortunate enough to pay off my student loans. Paying off my loans had been my goal for years, my “big thing.” When I reflected on what my “next big thing” was going to be, I already knew.

That was nearly a year ago. Today, I have a New Zealand working holiday visa. (Sure enough, thanks to the online application process I was approved and had an electronic visa in 24 hours. It was dizzying.) I have a year’s worth of savings. I’m a registered WWOOFer. And I have a one-way ticket to Auckland, touching down April 23rd, 2017.

Even better, one of my best and oldest friends, the indomitable Lauren, has partnered up with me for this adventure. We’re planning to spend 5-6 months on the North Island (late April to September or so, which is New Zealand’s fall and winter) and 6-7 months on the South Island (November-April, hitting the spring and summer months). The plan is to purchase a vehicle and WWOOF, camp, backpack, and tramp our way through the country.

And just in case you were wondering: No, we don’t know what we are doing. We don’t have every detail planned out. We’re not even experienced backpackers. We are making it up as we go. I don’t believe it’s going to be easy. I do believe it’s going to be worth it. I have my papers and my passport. I’m terrified.

And I’m so, deeply excited.

I’m starting this site to tell travel stories, convey any advice or tips we pick up along the way, and because this adventure is a step forward on a wider road–personal, spiritual, and creative. For me personally, this is about fulfilling a dream, releasing control, detoxing from workaholism and the compulsive need for recognition and approval, learning to trust that things will turn out for the best, and giving myself the most indulgent gift: time.

The Hobbit was my first and favorite adventure novel, so now that I’m returning to the land categorically described as “Middle Earth,” I embrace the Tolken-quoting cliché without blushing. I’m thinking about the road ahead. To that end, Tolkien really does summarize it best:

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

See you on the road.

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