The Abridged Version
Our story began over 20 years ago when we took jobs in the airline industry and gained a freedom only free flights can provide. Since taking that first flight, travel has been a passion, which we’ve slowly transformed into the lifestyle we lead today.
As I write this, we're currently exploring the world overland in our Land Cruiser. It's the latest chapter in a story that includes travel by many means. Our roots are in the airline and hotel industries – our source for wings and a warm bed for more than a decade. Eventually, we traded airline benefits for an opportunity to spend more time on the road – backpacking and road tripping for anywhere from 3 months to 3 years at a time. Backpacking is our go-to anytime we crave the simple pleasures that only a 35L backpack and public transport can provide. Exploring the world by road, however, is our first love and over the years we’ve traveled countless miles in everything from zippy rental cars to go-anywhere dual-sport motorcycles and expedition equipped 4x4’s. We even spent ten months exploring California’s great driving roads in a 911.
Our preference is challenging, self-supported overland travel in expedition-equipped vehicles. We like moving slowly, for extended periods of time, as far beyond the beaten path as possible. Getting off-the-beaten-path often means venturing deep into the bush, and Africa has been the continent in which we’ve spent the most time immersed in the wild. It’s a continent we’re deeply passionate about and one we find hard to leave.
Being immersed in nature is our true passion and wildlife photography, trail running, kayaking, diving, and pretty much anything outdoors is a central focus of much of our travels. It’s the focus of our current RTW overland trip and what inspires us most.
When not delving into the wild, we’re usually somewhere capable of serving up a shot of culture with a side of Belgian beer and a decent latte. In the past, we’ve had extended stays, usually of a few months, in places like Cape Town, Buenos Aires, and Santa Barbara.
If nothing else, all this travel has given us an insatiable wanderlust and desire to go further. It’s a wonderfully diverse world that only seems to grow larger with every day we spend on the road. If only there were time to see it all.
The Full Story
One of the things we love about travel is that we meet such interesting people along the way. Often it’s not just the locals, but other travelers who leave a lasting mark. Over the years we’ve sat around the proverbial campfire swapping tall tales with an eclectic mix of tourist, vagabonds, and adventurers. Each has a unique story to tell. Many of these stories have inspired us, some have profoundly affected us, and all have played some role is shaping who we are today. Right now our story is unfolding in South America as we drive around the world in our trusty Land Cruiser, Maggie. It’s the latest leg of a journey that began in May 2015. Our story, however, is over 20 years in the making as we’ve slowly transformed our passion for travel into the lifestyle we lead today.
Maps Generated by Great Circle Mapper - Copyright @ Karl L. Swartz
It all began by chance. Just after graduating from college, a last-minute opportunity landed both of us jobs at US Airways - and the free flights that went along with it. At the time, we had traveled a little – enough to develop a curiosity about the world and a set of itchy feet. Together we seemed to have that innate wanderlust that drives people to get out and explore, and we were eager to discover what lay just beyond the horizon.
Maps Generated by Great Circle Mapper - Copyright @ Karl L. Swartz
Over the next decade, our ability to fly for free became a sort of travel boot camp where we cut our teeth, expanded our horizons, and further cultivated our innate curiosity about the world. It proved the perfect way to sample the vast diversity the world has to offer, and in the process, we discovered our passions for wildlife, photography, camping and pretty much any activity that involves mountains or water. On any given Friday we’d arrive at the office with bags packed, even if we had no particular place to go. By Friday afternoon we were headed to the airport - sometimes to catch a specific flight and sometimes for a round of non-rev roulette, a game that involved catching any flight with two empty seats. One week the wheel might land us at a wine tasting in Chile, while the next could put us on a hiking trail in Olympic National Park. On Sunday night, we were often headed home, although it wasn’t uncommon to be on a red-eye flight that arrived just in time to make a Monday morning staff meeting. Weekdays were back to the grind with bags never so much unpacked as refreshed.
Trading the Urban Jungle for the African Bush
By most accounts life was good. We had successful careers, a comfortable home, a good group of friends, and the "wings" to get out and explore. As many of our friends were putting down roots, however, we increasingly felt the urge to pull ours up. As much as we enjoyed sampling the world, what we most wanted was total immersion.
By 2002 the winds of change were just beginning to blow when a chance meeting with Alex and Sonia Poussin accelerated the discussion. Alex and Sonia are well-known adventurers and writers in France. We met them in the most unlikely of places - a small mud and thatch rondavel in Ethiopia’s Omo Valley. It was well past dark, and we could hardly make out their faces in the faint glow of the oil lamp that burned on a table between us. At the time, Alex and Sonia were two years into what ultimately became a three-year walk up Africa’s Rift Valley from Cape Town to Jerusalem. It was the latest chapter in a series of adventures that included Alex riding a bike around the world and walking the length of the Himalayas. Traveling with nothing more than daypacks on their backs, Alex and Sonia were inspiring. For us the timing was right; we were at a place in our lives where we were receptive to change, and they provided just the inspiration we needed to redefine our paradigm.
Our chance meeting with Alex and Sonia opened our minds to new possibilities. We were now seriously discussing a major life change. Jumping off the corporate train to immerse ourselves in travel seemed the right next step. However, the reality of such a change was scary. Our lives were humming along. We liked our jobs, and we loved the perks that went with them. After all, how could we give up free flights? The thought of quitting our jobs, selling our house, and saying goodbye to our comfortable and secure lives was easy to say but hard to do. Tough enough that it took another two years to take the plunge.
The final nudge came from another traveling couple. Like us, the pair was from DC and had a similar background. They had a travel blog which chronicled their decision to leave their careers behind and set off on a year-long backpacking trip around the world. From the start, Sheri followed their blog. It was a fascinating account that included their experience becoming dive instructors in Australia - something we’d always talked about doing. When their trip ended, they returned to DC to embark on the next chapter. However, shortly after returning, the husband contracted a rare medical condition and died. He was young, in good health, and had no reason to suspect something like that might happen to him. His death made clear a simple truth. Having all the circumstances line up – health, financial resources, and someone to share it with, among other things – is a luxury that could disappear in a second. This was a realization that changed our perspective. For the first time, we realized that inaction in many ways is far riskier than taking a grand step into the unknown.
In 2005 we planned our great escape. Initially, we decided on a three-month sabbatical. A little more discussion, however, and three quickly became six, six became twelve, and twelve became open-ended. Our thinking was that if we’re going to give up so much, then we need to take full advantage of the opportunity. To this day, when we reflect on those conversations we smile. It’s a reminder of something we learned soon after deciding to quit our jobs. The scary part was deciding to leave. Once we made the decision, it’s been easy ever since. Perhaps it goes without saying, but it’s a lesson we wish we’d learned sooner.
With no time limits to inhibit us, we began dreaming about where to go and how to get there. At first, we considered backpacking around the world. We liked the idea. It felt familiar and therefore comfortable. The thing was, we didn’t want comfortable. What we wanted was a new challenge. We wanted something foreign that would force us out of our comfort zone and require us to develop new skills. We wanted to feel butterflies in our stomachs. We wanted to feel simultaneously inspired, excited, and nervous. In short, we wanted to be wide-eyed newbie’s as nervous about the challenge as we were excited to take it on. Nowhere made us feel more this way than Africa, and nothing felt more foreign than expedition-outfitting a 4WD capable of taking us on a self-supported African safari. A journey across the Sahara, through the heart of Central Africa, and into the wildlife-rich reserves of Southern and East Africa. And so, our Africa journey was born.
When we departed England for Africa in February 2006, we had no sense of how things might turn out. We went into the trip with no timeline, no planned route, and no punch list of things to see and do. Going in we had only one rule - take every opportunity to get off the beaten path and allow the journey to assume a life of its own. In the end, we accomplished our objective. Over the next 2 ½ years we moved at our own pace, strayed from known routes, and ignored seasons. This approach came with many challenges. We broke our transmission in Nigeria and got so marooned in mud in Cameroon that it took weeks to go just a few miles. I contracted infectious arthritis and soon after we were robbed in Gabon. We faced fierce fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and we struggled for three months to get Angola visas. And that’s just one four-month stretch of the trip. In short, we got the challenge we were looking for, and 52,000 miles and 34 countries later we came out changed forever. Going forward, what we wanted was to transform our passion for travel into a lifestyle.
From Trip of a Lifetime to a Life of Travel
In 2008 we returned to the US where we traveled for a few months through the US and Canada before settling down in Colorado. In Colorado, we became singularly focused on turning our lifestyle ambitions into reality. Over the next six years, we worked to save money while spending our free time planning for the future. In some ways, it felt like an encore performance, as we returned to the airline and hotel industries with all the travel perks that come with it. It was hard work. During the week we were consumed by our careers, and in our spare time – before work, nights, and weekends - we prepared for the future. Along the way our jobs took us to Chicago, we donated or sold everything, and traveled whenever we could squeeze it in. We also invested significant effort into building new skills to enable future trips, including learning to sail and ride motorcycles.
In 2014 the next step finally came. It was time to kick the tires on our new nomadic lifestyle. To get started, we rented a small vacation home outside Santa Barbara. After six years of hard work, Santa Barbara was our "halfway house.” Our time in Santa Barbara offered an opportunity to decompress, relax a little, and explore California. It also served as a base to prep for our upcoming travels.
In May 2015 we once again hit the road; this time on motorcycles bound for the Arctic. From motorcycles, we shifted to backpacks to explore South East Asia before flying to South Africa in June 2016 to oversee completion of build work on our new Land Cruiser, a project that began almost a year earlier in preparation for our plans to drive around the world. In August 2016 we were back on the road, this time in our new Land Cruiser, picking up where our Africa journey left off in 2008. Currently, we’re in South America as we continue to explore the world by road.
We continue to evolve our views on what’s possible and what constitutes happiness for us. Our lifestyle still centers around travel, however, in many ways, it’s just as much about continually exploring new places, building new skills, and remaining open to new possibilities. Today we’re driving around the world. Tomorrow who knows. I guess that’s the point, isn’t it? The more we push ourselves beyond our comfort zone, the more we learn about ourselves and the more confident we become in taking on the unknown. Interestingly, all this seems to lead to an ever increasing number of new opportunities, which keep us inspired and dreaming. Our future is unwritten. Who knows where the road ahead might take us.