Why I’ll be a 73 year old backpacker

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I finally got around to watching “A Map for Saturday” a few days ago.  A cult movie amongst long term backpackers, it is the documentary story of the highs and lows of one guy‘s year on the road.

I really wish I hadn’t waited so long to see it, because it’s fantastic.

Lying awake for hours after the final credits rolled with wanderlust coursing through my veins, I realised that something remarkable had happened.  The excitement, the anxiety, the thrill of the unknown had returned.  I felt the same as I did 14 years ago when first boarding the plane.  The travel buzz was back.

That movie resonated deeply with me.  The joy.  The loneliness.  The burnout.  The instant friendships and the pain of saying goodbye.  The despair of heading home.

While the film is ostensibly Brook’s story, it isn’t really.  It’s the story of the people he meets as he backpacks around the world.  Hell, it’s the story of all of us who live a life like this.  No matter where you’re from, what you look like, how old you are, if you travel long term you’ll feel the same things.  We all do.

Watching updates filmed with the main characters many months after their trips had finished, I was struck by two things.

Nobody regretted the decision they had made to travel and, in some form or other, everyone wanted to do it again.

Why?

Because travel changes us.

backpackers

For many of us we find the best versions of ourselves on the road.  When we travel solo we leave our inhibitions at the door and end up talking to anyone, just because we have to.  We become friends with the most unlikely of strangers – even if sometimes only for a day or two.

We are more open to adventure and new experiences than we are back home.  There is nowhere we have to be that can’t be changed, nothing we have to do that can’t be rearranged and nobody to tell us that we can’t do either.

Waking up each morning not knowing how the day will end is a wonderful feeling, and the freedom becomes an addiction.  Anything could happen every day.  It usually does.

And then at the end of our trip we all say the same thing.

“I am going to keep this feeling alive,” we swear, and for a while we do.  We live in someone’s spare room fighting the pull of the nine-to-five.  We tell stories of that time on a deserted beach in Goa to our friends at the pub, even though we know they couldn’t care less.  We wake up excited to read the emails that have come in overnight from those still out there, and we can almost taste the salt spray or hear the crashing waterfall.

But then one morning in the shower the last of the bracelets we picked up in Cambodia falls apart.  The dirty flip-flops get thrown out and the pack that housed our entire life for a year gets stowed in the attic.  We stop being the misfit, the wanderer, the one that travelled for months.  We get a haircut, we get a real job and we slowly slip back into the routine of twelve hour days and the five dollar coffees to get us through them.

No matter what, though, there is always still something left inside to remind us of our time on the road.

How do I know this?

Because this is my life.  Over and over and over again.

Freedom

I think that once we have travelled like this for months or years something happens to the way our brains are wired.  While we can settle back into our old lives almost completely after a year or two, it doesn’t take much to trigger a memory.  An old photo, a television show, a status update transports us back to a distant time and place.

More importantly, though, it transports us back to a feeling.  Even for those that don’t ever strap the backpack on again, deep down inside the little candle of wanderlust still flickers. It never completely goes out.

Around halfway through A Map for Saturday the camera turns on Will.  He is a little different to everyone else in the movie.  Will is 73 years old and relies on a cocktail of 13 different pills every morning to keep everything working just right.  A cancer survivor and diabetic, he walks into a dorm room in Brussels and shares his story of backpacking around the world staying in hostels because he enjoyed it so much when he was younger.

I have watched that little segment half a dozen times now, and with good reason.  Assuming I last the distance, in forty years or so some version of that is almost certainly going to be me.  I’ll probably travel even slower and nap even more, but the burning desire to get out there, to meet new people and keep going to places I’ve never been – well, I just can’t see that stopping until I can no longer physically put one foot in front of the other.

Backpacking is a mindset, not an equipment list.  As Will and many others show every day, there is no age limit on curiosity.

If you happen to walk into a hostel common room in a few decades time and notice a crusty old guy with a mangled accent sitting there, take a second to have a closer look.

It may well just be me.

[Images via kozumel, garryknight]

28 Responses to “Why I’ll be a 73 year old backpacker

  • I’ve never heard of that film but I’ll be hunting it now… Like yourself, I might watch it over and over.. So true how can a photo can bring back feelings. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, this post put me back into perspective again as I’ve been feeling ‘waaaaaaaaa’ today… 🙂

    • I think we all have ‘waaaaaaaaaa’ days when we’re not on the road. Sometimes we have them on the road too, of course, but they don’t seem to be quite so frequent! Glad I could help 🙂

  • I love anyone who maintains passion over time – about anything. Some of the guys I mountain bike with are pushing 65 and are riding harder and steeper than I’ve ever been able to; we walked into a ski lodge not long ago and saw the table in the corner reserved for those over 70. I want to be those people; still passionate about everything I do and still hearing people say ‘she just doesn’t act her age’. Nope, I don’t.

    You’re right too, about the call of the road. There isn’t a day goes by that I am not taken back to a day spent out traveling. It surely doesn’t help that I read all your stories!!

    • Funny you say that Gillian, about people with passion. Have we had that conversation before? I’ve said a few times in the past that I admire anyone who is really passionate about what they do, and (within some basic limits) I don’t really care what it is. If they’re still doing it when they are 70+ I’m even more impressed!

      Well, I’d like to say that I’ll stop writing these type of stories if it’ll help … but we both know that’s not true!

  • I’ve been back from a 6-month trip for a year and a half now. Just about every waking moment is spent thinking about returning to the travel trail. I did a ‘quick’ trip back to SEA for 6 weeks last year, but it just fed the hunger; it certainly didn’t satiate! Plans are in progress to head out again next year for a much longer period (1-2 years). My biggest fear is how I will ever settle back into ‘normal’ life when I return. Maybe your post gives me the answer …. I never will!

  • I’m definitely going to have to Netflix this documentary. I haven’t been on a backpacking trip yet but I definitely plan to do it multiple times

  • Love it man.

    I may be that crusty old 74 year old backpacker smoking a cig, drinking a beer reading a book on the patio of a guesthouse in Vietnan. Or South Africa. Or Santorini (there’s actually a really good chance of that). Or somewhere in South America. That’s the fun of traveling — you just never know where you’ll end up.

  • Thanks for this, Dave. Love the title. 🙂

    This really is a great documentary. Very inspirational and very real how it shows what long-term backpacking (and coming home) is like.

    When I first started travelling (been a long time!), I also imagined that at some point in my life I would want to stop. But that never happened. I did go ‘home’ once — very briefly — but left again for good not long after. Travel so easily becomes your life.

    For those still umming and ahhhhing about an extended RTW trip: The hardest part is just making the decision to go in the first place.

  • this post summed up exactly how i feel and what i cant quite express to people. wherever i am i am always looking forward to where i want to go next. not that im not enjoying the present i just hate the idea of getting stuck in some mind numbing routine where you hate your life but cant do anything about it. Ive only been travelling for 3 years now, but i can totally see myself becoming one of these people. I cant understand how people say things to me like “you’re so lucky” and i think luck has nothing to do with it. I have no extra skills or resources they dont have. you just have to decide to do it and do it.

    • Damn right. Deciding to do it is the first step. Doing it is the last step. There aren’t many steps in between.

  • Dave, it was great to meet you in Chaing Mai, and now after reading this, I regret even more not having more time to get to know you better. I too, will be a 73-year-old traveler some day…and a lot sooner than I like to admit. Hope to run into you again.

    • Thanks Tom! I have a feeling we’ll meet up again somewhere in the world … it’s a pretty small place at times. 😉

  • Inspiring stuff mate. You’re right – I’ve never met anybody who wished they’d traveled less.

    I daresay I’ll be rocking the nipple high pants and a pack when 73 rolls around.

  • i love this. i’ll have to see the movie – thank you! i do love travel inspiration. 🙂

  • Yes! Searching for this film now. Have you read the book by the 80 year old man traveling around the world? Keep on doing it!

  • I’ll have to check that film out now dude.

    How funny would it be to have a whole generation of 70 something backpackers packing out dorms on the east coast, talking about the old days when you had to jump on planes to get to places and when the iPhone was the only means of communication 😛

  • I back packed until I was 68 years but I found my knees were getting too fragile and the pleasure disappeared.
    Now I still can day hike but body and toilet changes and physical challenges changed a lot of my attitudes.
    I always feared having to be rescued by some sort of rescue group muttering “poor old guy.”

  • Wow, something in this post has just triggered and brought back an avalanche of amazing memories from when I lived abroad for five months, I’ve actually got settled back to daily life and momentarily forgot just how incredible the whole experience was. Right now its 2am and I’m sat in my bedroom with just the dull glow of light from my laptop, and I’m feeling overwhelmed with joy, and I can’t wait to get back on the road again.
    Thanks for the recap Dave, that feeling has come back and I really needed it!

    • Jamie, you’ve no idea how happy your comment makes me… 🙂 Have a blast when you’re back on the road!!

  • Saw that movie for the first time like 2 weeks after I got back from my first trip to Europe, and it helped me down the path I’m still on today. All the feelings came back, and most of all the revelation that there were so many out there like me. Great film, great post.

    • Thank you sir! It’s a great inspiration for people looking to head off on a long term backpacking trip, that’s for sure. 🙂

  • There is a 93 year old on the road, (I understand he is stillonthe road and is now 98 ) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/travelnews/9257081/Worlds-oldest-backpacker-hits-the-road-again.html

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