Over the past few weeks, we made our biggest decision yet: when to go home. It is a decision we have been avoiding for a while—not because our life in San Francisco is so dreadful, but because thinking of home inevitably brings up a host of complicated emotions. The dispatches from the San Francisco housing market were dire enough to keep Juan up at night sometimes, and the anxiety over finding meaningful work did the same to me. Above all, homesickness makes it difficult to really enjoy traveling. It was all too strange to miss a place that gives you insomnia. So we let it go. We had the luxury of time, so we indulged.
We had enough distractions to not feel pressed by the notion of going home. Traveling like this requires constant decision-making. Three times a day, we had to decide what to eat—usually based on what was available more than what we wanted. We had to decide whether to stay where we were or whether to move on. If we were going to move on, where would we go? Which route should we take? Should we get gasoline here at this expensive place or hope for a cheaper station down the road? Every day was filled with dozens of decisions that we had to make together and separately. Perhaps strangest of all, we had to decide where to sleep every night. I usually wanted to stop at the first acceptable place we came across, while Juan would push on, looking for something a little better. When it got very cold, we even had to decide whether to sleep in the roof tent (as usual) or whether to rearrange everything “downstairs” and sleep in the pulled-out bench seat. With all these small decisions constantly requiring our attention, long-term planning seemed out of the question. To complicate the decision-making process even more, Juan and I are both rather moody individuals, and oftentimes what we end up doing on any given day depends as much on our moods as it does the weather. This can be a maddening way to make decisions, and sometimes we get on each others’ nerves by refusing to adhere to a concrete plan.
All long-term travelers have to find their own balance of planning and execution. Many of the travelers we have met put us to shame with their level of planning. They would bust out annotated maps and folders of brochures and printouts of potential campsites with GPS coordinates. For these people, I think, the planning is just as much a part of the journey as the journey itself. It gets you excited about where you’re going and what you’re going to see. Juan and I are not so much like that. I like to be surprised when I get somewhere, and I delight in the unexpected more than the anticipated. Part of the adventure was not knowing where we would end up. Sometimes we even wondered if we would go home at all, in that permanent-return sort of way. We met some German couples in Mexico who had been traveling around the world in their enormous utility camper for seven years. We met a group of four French couples in Ecuador who maintained homes in France but spent probably six months of the year traveling in little circuits on different continents. I wish we could have hung out longer with Jeremy and Paula Dear of Seventeen by Six, a pair of BBC journalists who have been on the road for almost three years. And we never met the folks behind Landcruising Adventures, who have also been at it for almost a decade, but we loved to think of ourselves staying adrift for as long as we could. Our trip was open-ended and we had plenty of inspiration to draw upon.
Ironically, our plans on the road ended up being mostly shaped by flight plans—those of visiting family, as well as our trips home to visit family and to attend work-related events. Every time someone took a flight, we had to consult a map, a calendar and a booking site, trying to anticipate what might be a convenient airport to be around when the time required it. Making and meeting these trips were a priority for us, but they were the most stressful parts of the trip—and as we got further and further south, the flights became longer, more expensive, and more stressful.
This is how, shortly after our return from California in January, we decided that our next trip back—for a wedding and a conference—would be our last. This would be at the end of July, giving us another good six months on the road. It was a little scary to put an end date on the trip, but again, we didn’t give it very much thought. We still had so much to see and do, and time was still on our side.
Our exit plan eroded so slowly that it was hardly noticeable. Our momentum slowed considerably when we reached the southernmost point of the continent, and then our engagement put our minds momentarily in a different place. A series of earthquakes struck Chile, where we had vaguely planned to ship home from. The distance to our prospective port seemed much greater after we had driven the full length of it. And as all these things were happening, the days started to become noticeably shorter, and our plans began to feel less manageable. At the same time, we got more excited about spending the summer in California, instead of the winter in South America. We talked about going home in mid-July rather than late July. Then maybe early July. Then late June.
But wait—we admitted to ourselves that we missed home, but did we really just want to throw away two whole months of traveling? Were we just giving in to a spell of exhaustion and making a decision we would regret? Didn’t we want to see northern Chile? The desire to go home almost seemed like some kind of regression, after all the carefree miles of peaceful exploration. We took a deep breath and waited a few days for our moods and minds to change. We thought about the places we had been, and the places we had yet to visit. We drove. We visited deserts and sea lions and penguins but still found ourselves talking more about all the places we would take Milo when we got home and less about the places we could plan to see in South America.
It’s a big decision to go home. One decision, as we know, leads to many more, and at home the decisions always seem more permanent. On the road, the decision about where to sleep and what to do all seem a bit trivial, as plans can easily be changed and moving house is usually as easy as picking up camp and putting the van in gear. But for the time being, the place we most want to be is home—and with any luck, we will be there in just three short weeks! How’s that for a quick change of plans?