In March 2008, during happy hour at a bar in my hometown of Fayetteville, Arkansas, I made a surprise announcement to my friends: I was going to shut down my law practice and attempt to circumnavigate the globe in a year. What’s more, I’d do it without taking any flights or making a single advance reservation of any kind. My announcement drew mixed reactions from my friends. Some offered support and encouragement, while others were more doubtful.
Once I’d said the words, there was no turning back. It took months to shut down my law practice and get things in order. I had dozens of ongoing cases that needed to be concluded as well as an entire roster of regular clients whom I had to place with other lawyers I knew and trusted. Plus, I needed to rent out my house and move all my things into storage, as well as the myriad other little things that needed to be sorted in order to leave my old life behind.
There really wasn’t any great reason why I wanted to circle the globe over land – I wish there was something more epic in my planning, but I simply wanted to do something fun, challenging and unique.
When I hatched this hare-brained scheme, I didn’t intend for it to lead to a permanent life on the road. I was planning to come back after my year of travel, open a new legal practice and write a hugely successful book about my exploits. Before I left, I started a travel blog to keep my family and friends updated, which also served as a way to take notes for the book.
Once I set off on my adventure in December 2008, I found that travelling without using planes was not easy. Trying to circle the globe in 16 months (it took me a bit longer than the initial 12 months I planned) made it even tougher. Even so, travelling overland was the most awe-inspiring way to truly understand the immensity of our wonderful planet.
I took three consecutive overnight buses to travel 3,000km through Argentina, from Ushuaia, the world’s southernmost city, to the capital Buenos Aires. I would look out the windows for hours on end at the completely unspoiled plains, as if humans had never touched it in all of eternity.
It took seven consecutive days and nights on trains to get from Moscow to Beijing, each day spent gazing out the windows for hours as the Siberian plains swept by. Sometimes, I wouldn’t see a village or a human being for 10 hours. I had an entire cabin to myself from the second day of that journey and I shared the entire rail car with just one other small family.
Later in my journey, it took 22 days on a cargo freighter to get from New Zealand through the Panama Canal and back to Philadelphia, to finish my round-the-world adventure. After seven full days and nights cruising at 15 knots, the first officer showed me the ship’s radar display – we were only halfway across the Pacific, and there wasn’t a habitable island for hundreds and hundreds of miles. I am often asked if I worked for my passage, but it was actually one of the most expensive parts of my journey. These trips generally cost between 120-140 euros per day on board.
It turned out that travelling with no reservations was far less difficult than I had imagined. Pulling into a city on a bus with a backpack, looking in a guidebook for a few suggestions of accommodations, and then finding an empty room was never much of a problem anywhere. It also kept me flexible and open about all my travel plans, which is advice I give everyone who asks – plan far less than you think you should.
Soon after I started this adventure, I realised that my return to the US would be temporary. About three months into my journey, while on an 18-hour bus ride through Patagonia on my way to Ushuaia, I had a revelation. I realised that I didn’t want to go back to my old life. The world is so wonderfully massive and I wanted to see as much of it as I could.
Once I got back to the US in April 2010, I caught up with friends and family and got my blog into a much more professional state so I could make a living while permanently travelling. I moved my website to my own self-hosted domain and hired a designer to improve the unique look of the site. Fortunately, travel blogging was just starting to get established as a profession, so my vastly improved website and much improved traffic numbers came at the perfect time to start making pitches to tourism boards and others to work with me professionally. After a couple of months, I’d had enough of sitting still and needed to get back on the road.
Since then, I’ve had the good fortune of travelling to more than 80 countries over the past six years. In fact, I love movement and rarely stay still for a week. I’ve challenged myself to get from Lisbon, Portugal, to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, in 30 days – all by train. I’ve hitchhiked from Kenya to Ehiopia on top of a cargo truck; hiked in New Zealand; criss-crossed Australia in an epic two-week road trip; seen sunrise at Angkor Wat and watched the sun set over Machu Picchu. It has been an extraordinary ride.
I pay for much of it with my blog – but the business of blogging is a tough one, because few clients are willing to provide the types of working budgets to make a reasonable living. Over time, I branched out and took on some social media consulting for travel and tourism businesses, sold photographs and organised blogging trips for clients. You need to do a number of different things to make a living travelling and blogging, so you need to quickly sort through your skills and talents and learn as much as you can from your friends and colleagues. Everything changes so quickly in social media and blogging, so keeping on top of it all becomes part of your overall job.
In the past few years, I have moved almost exclusively into creating 360-degree virtual reality video for clients – as soon as I strapped on a helmet and used this immersive technology, I knew it was going to change the world. I’d realised that inspiring people to get out there and see more of our beautiful world, whether through words, photography or video, had come to define me and give me purpose. This exciting new format has the ability to transport people to places they could only dream of: taking disabled people to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, for example, or scuba diving at the Great Barrier Reef with those who will never make it there themselves.
I’m writing this right now on a train over the Alps from Munich, Germany, to Verona, Italy. I’m in heaven, chewing up the miles and looking out the window at snow-capped mountains and slowly greening valleys.
It’s all because, more than seven years ago, I announced a hare-brained scheme over happy hour in an Arkansas bar and never looked back.