I’m an unlikely traveler. I travel alone with very little money in my pocket and with a loose plan of how I will live on the road. I’ve been to every continent except Antarctica. I’ve been robbed at gunpoint, been sick in strange places, confused and afraid. I’ve met fascinating people who have become friends. I’ve had adventures beyond my wildest dreams. And for the rest of my life I know what I have to do and I will do it no matter what.
When I was 4 years old, I was diagnosed with autism. Doctors, therapists, counselors, and even teachers thought I’d be institutionalized my whole life. I could not speak, and instead of playing with other kids I would go sit in a corner alone. My mother insisted that I learn how to look people in the eyes. She made me speak. She made me believe I could do things other people thought I could not.
My grandmother sent me a red potholder in the shape of the state of Texas, and that’s where my love of geography was born. I stared at that potholder and realized there were other places to go and see.
My family didn’t have money and my parents had it in their minds that we couldn’t travel, so all my journeys as a young boy were in my heart and in my head as I looked at the cups and glasses my parents found with maps of states and countries on them.
My favorite was a coffee mug with a map of Ireland and the British Isles. I wanted to go there someday.
As I grew up my ideas about the size of my life stayed small until the day everything changed. I was enamored by a beautiful Starbucks barista named Nora, and for some reason I was talking to her about my love for the world. She told me she’d been to Europe and I was fearless about saying, “My big dream is to go to Australia someday.” She said,“Great. I’m going there soon!” I was used to talking about wanting to travel. She was actually doing it.
All at once, I felt shocked, angry, worthless, and disheartened. That night I stared at the maps on the wall and cried all night, asking myself when it would be my chance to go to Australia, or to even travel at all. The next morning the first thing I said was, “I WILL GO TO AUSTRALIA!!!! and I will go by the end of next year. I WILL go!”
I had no money, no job, and we were on the verge of being evicted from our home. But I told everyone I knew and everyone I met that I was going to Australia. Some people laughed at me. It reminded me of all the times I had been bullied as a child. But I didn’t care what anyone else thought, and on New Year’s Eve I said “My New Year’s resolution is to get to Australia.”
When I got a job stocking shelves at a grocery store I knew I had to make changes: no basketball cards, no junk food, no video games, no extra spending on stuff that didn’t matter. I ate only high-energy food, I spent as little as I could on laundry, transport, and to feed my pet bearded dragon. I saved my nickels and dimes and booked a trip to Australia for December and I was on my way! There is no “someday” on the calendar. There is only Monday through Sunday and the only way I want to live is to use up those days. That’s how it began. How it ends doesn’t matter. I’m on the journey.