Today’s travel interview
victims volunteers are duelling travel journalist couple Karen and Eric. They travel under their website brand, Trans-America Journey, and are touring the world on four wheels. Read on to find out what it’s like to take your career on the road, literally, and why live isn’t so bad in the slow lane.
Can you briefly introduce yourself?
We are a married team of travel journalists (Karen writes, Eric takes pictures) who actually travel. We quit our jobs and gave up our apartment in Manhattan and embarked on the Trans-Americas Journey in April of 2006 and we’ve been on the road ever since. Our Journey is an epic road trip (5 years, 200,000+ miles through the 23 countries in North, Central and South America) which is meant to inspire others to travel. But it’s also a working road trip which redefines the way we run our careers. From the road we freelance for a wide-range of magazines, newspapers and web sites.
Karen grew up in Paso Robles, California and the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains where she spent time hiking, camping and horseback riding. She can kill a rattlesnake with a hoe but she’s terrified of spiders. Oh, and she survived Dengue Fever and she can’t stand it when people ask her what her favorite country is.
New York City born Eric is a former corporate lawyer (emphasis on former) who spent many of his formative years traveling to more than 200 Grateful Dead shows—as much for the music as for the chance to take a road trip. He applied to join the cast of the first season of “Survivor” (his application video included a squirrel hunt in Central Park) and he has been an avid skier, hiker, SCUBA diver and climber all his life. He has climbed to just shy of 20,000 feet (in the Nepali Himalaya) and he was born with a GPS in his head, which is lucky since Karen certainly was not.
What drove you (pun intended) to hit the road and drive?
After completing our first multi-year trip together (backpacking through South and Southeast Asia from 1995-1999) we returned to New York City, got jobs and immediately started thinking about what our next big trip would be all about (it’s a sickness). Initially we were all set on heading to Africa. Then 9-11 happened literally on our doorstep (our apartment was three blocks from the World Trade Center towers). Then all the crazy politics and politicking and war mongering and everything else happened in the wake of 9-11 and we realized that we didn’t really understand our own backyard, our own country. So we put Africa on hold (we WILL get there one day) and decided to focus on The Americas. We wanted to understand what was happening politically and culturally in the United States and there’s no better way to do that than go to small towns and talk to people in diners and supermarkets and laundromats. We wanted to include all of the Americas (North, Central and South) because we felt it was time to gently remind people that there are many Americas and many Americans above and beyond the United States. Also, a trip encompassing just the U.S. isn’t nearly ambitious enough for us!
During our previous trips we’d always traveled via public transportation. Ironically, developing countries (like Nepal and Burma and Cambodia, etc) have much more comprehensive public transportation systems than the U.S. and Canada because most citizens in most developing nations don’t own cars. With that in mind we decided we’d have to have our own vehicle in order to cover the U.S. and Canada as thoroughly as we want to.
You travel without an itinerary – how does that work? Do you just let serendipity take you?
We may not have an itinerary but we do have a plan. It goes like this: remain open, flexible and spontaneous so that we can attract and recognize opportunities to meet people and do things that allow us to really get to know a place. By ditching the concept of an itinerary we’re able to change our plans on the fly—because we rarely have any plans at all. So if we get invited to a wedding or we find a fabulous bargain on the beach or we hear about a once-in-a-lifetime event we can say yes to all of it. For example, we recently drove more than 200 miles to a town we had not intended to visit at all after learning that the world’s best rojeneador (a bullfighter on horseback), Pablo Hermoso de Mendoza, was performing there as part of a rare tour of Mexico. Another one: we intended to simply drive through a town called Ajijic and we happened to tweet about it. A few seconds later a young family (dad from Washington State, mom from Guadalajara, totally bilingual/bicultural kids) who now live in Ajijic invited us to stay with them for a few days. We ended up staying with them for a few weeks (and we’ve returned many times since) and we are now dear, dear friends with them and their whole awesome family. We also know a hell of a lot about Ajijic and the entire Guadalajara/Lake Chapala area!
So, it’s not exactly serendipity that takes us. We just never want to have to pass up an opportunity because we’ve got a reservation or a commitment somewhere else. This seize the day approach is the reason why, more than three years into the Trans-Americas Journey, we’ve only made it to four of the 23 countries in the Americas. Slow is an understatement, but what’s the rush, really?
Andy: TOTALLY AGREE. OMG. CAN I COME? This is exactly the travel approach I think everyone should take, regardless if your trip is a week or a weekend or long-term. Plan so you know about visas, rules, routes, etc. Know the things you would just be heartbroken to miss, and then allow yourself to be open to unexpected surprises. The universe will reward you 🙂
What is a typical day like for you out on the road?
A typical day involves driving to get to wherever we’re headed and exploring our destination. Some days we spend hours in the truck, other days we don’t drive at all and we rarely drive at night. At the end of the day, we set up our computers wherever we’re staying. Our digs run the gamut from grungy under $20 a night motels you never take your shoes off in to some of the best hotels in the world when we’re there on assignment including The Point, Amangiri and Las Alamandas. Right now we’re answering your questions from an amazing suite at the Grand Velas Riviera Maya which we’ll be writing about shortly.
Once our “offices” are set up we get to work researching the next few days’ travel options, researching and pitching story ideas, writing stories and filing pieces and photos, staying in touch with family and friends and editors, managing our social media accounts, managing the inescapable business of life (paying fills, going to the dentist, doing laundry, etc) and creating posts for our blog. This usually means working until midnight or so. Think of it as having two full time jobs: keeping our little road trip on the road AND conducting our careers as a freelance journalist and a freelance photographer. This is, after all, a working road trip.
What kind of music do you listen to in order to stave off monotony on longer drives?
Music is incredibly important to us. In fact, the only things we really miss from “home” (besides our families and friends) are going out to see live music at great small clubs within walking distance of our apartment in Manhattan and all the fabulous friends we made through music. The first stop when our Trans-Americas Journey started back in 2006 was Jazz Fest in New Orleans and somehow we managed to work two more Jazz Fest stops into our journey before we finally started to head south.
We’ve taken as much music as possible with us on the road including nearly a 1TB drive filled with music, two ipods and a Harman Kardon in-car player and XM satellite radio (though the signal is getting iffy the further south we go). Our musical taste pretty much runs the gamut from jazz, classic rock, and a lot of jam bands but definitely no pop.
Here’s a small and somewhat random spin of a few favorite go-to bands you may not have heard of (but should check out):
- Gov’t Mule
- Mike Dillon’s Go-Go Jungle
- The Benevento-Russo Duo
- Grace Potter and the Nocturnals
- American Babies
We don’t listen to music to stave off monotony, however. Eric loves to drive and Karen does her best thinking while on the road. Plus we religiously avoid boring highways and freeways in favor of local roads which are endlessly interesting—especially in Mexico where they’re littered with monstrous and often unmarked concrete speed bumps called topes which keep us on our toes.
What was your most inspirational travel experience?
During our trip through South Asia in the mid/late 90s we had the chance to meet the Dalia Lama at his home in exile in Northern India during one of the scheduled meet and greets that his holiness does once in a while. We got in line with dozens of other people (some foreigners but mostly Indians and Tibetans living in the area) and waited our turn. As time passed we realized that the group included a Tibetans who had literally just escaped from Tibet, making it across high passes and through bad weather to join the Tibetan community in India. They were exhausted. They were dirty. They were about to meet their God King. When the Dalai Lama came out to begin greeting those who had gathered to meet him the recently-arrived Tibetan were presented first and as this small heroic group of men, women and children cried and shook and stared, dumbstruck, in the presence of the Dalai Lama it occurred to us how ridiculous it was that we were there at all. We hadn’t walked over high mountain passes. We hadn’t risked death at the hands of the Chinese in order to keep our faith. We were just a couple of travelers who were struggling to figure out how meditation and the principles of Buddhism might fit into our lives and thought it would be a life experience to meet the Dalai Lama. We asked one of his attendants about the now openly weeping Tibetan family and he assured us that the Dalai Lama would be having a private audience with them later. Then the line began to inch closer to the Dalai Lama and our chance to quietly sneak out passed. So it was with feelings of profound unworthiness that we reached our turn in front of the Dalai Lama, who grasped our hands and locked our gaze and, for 10 seconds, made us believe what he believes: that all of us are worthy. No judgements. No hierarchy. Just an open and honest belief that the best in all of us is not only possible, but inevitable. The feeling of truly unconditional love that we had in those seconds with the Dalai Lama continue to inspire us to find ways to replicate it. We fail miserably at this task, but traveling—and all of the highs, lows and uncertainties that comes with it—gives us ample opportunities to keep trying.
Andy: Wow. That is incredible. A meeting with the Dali Lama is certainly an event with high expectations, and it looks like the universe far exceeded them in a way you couldn’t have imagined. Incredible.
You’ve passed 100,000 miles; will you ever stop?
Actually, we’ve passed 115,000 miles. And, no (at least not by choice).
Wow – incredible stories, I’m not how to add to that. Except to wish you safe travels, Karen and Eric. Hope to bump into sometime soon. And readers, be sure to give them a shout out if you’re on Twitter or visit their website, Trans-America Journey.