Spotlight, The Heroic Life, Travel

Is Travel Training for Heroism?

Whenever possible I hunt down people with smart things to say and engage in weeks-long email dialogues on topics of interest. With their permission I’ll publish them here.

This is an ongoing disagreement between Colleen Palmer of Safe from Shame and myself. Colleen doesn’t believe travel is a necessary training tool for the Heroic Life. I wouldn’t say it’s the only way (nor would most of my readers), but I do believe it’s the best way. Here are our thoughts.

Drew: Let’s start with one of our bigger disagreements. I believe travel is the best training for heroism.

Colleen: By promoting travel as the best training for heroism, you encourage would-be followers of the Heroic Life to believe that the great adventure is always around the next corner, in the next village, in the next country—while neglecting any responsibility at home. It fosters heroism as only being possible when you’re a stranger in a strange land. Awareness is the best quality a hero can have, and the best training to gain awareness is to cultivate it in the best possible environment for the student. If that’s at home; that’s at home. If it’s on the road, then it’s on the road.

Drew: I believe that’s inaccurate. I want to be fair: travel is definitely not the only way to train to live heroically, and anyway most heroes don’t train for it at all. They just step up one day. There are many great people who have done heroic things and never expected to until the moment came to make a choice.

However, for those who want to be as ready as possible to take heroic action, I think it’s important to have an honest conversation about what the best training methods are. Just because you can be a hero anywhere, doesn’t mean everywhere gives you an equal chance or the same preparation. Traveling as “a stranger in a strange land” is a character-changing experience that isn’t easily duplicated in a gym, classroom or weekly session. Much like an immersion course for learning a new language, travel produces a dramatic level of fluency in the skills needed for heroic action. Perhaps most important of all, it forces the would-be hero out of routine and habit.

Colleen: I think you’re defining not traveling as being the same thing as trying to learn “in a gym, classroom or weekly session.” That’s not at all what I’m speaking of. It’s true: safe, scripted learning can be inferior to hands-on experience for most people. However, experiences are always there, if you cultivate the awareness to find them. I don’t go to a class to teach me compassion: I walk down [the street] and talk to the homeless and disposessed. I don’t train my body by going to a gym; I train by using my own power to walk through my own city, learning and observing as I go. I don’t have a (formal) trainer to teach me how to overcome paralysis and act when there is need; I look up to mentors, learn what my own triggers are, and work at taking action every day, even in the most mundane circumstances. Every person I meet, everything I observe around me serves as learning and training for following the heroic life.

Perhaps, however, it would be useful to define “travel.” When I walk the streets of my city, am I traveling? When I go, say, a few hours outside of the city up north, am I traveling? Must it be somewhere I have never been before? Must it be somewhere that there is a sufficient distinction from the culture that I expect? Must I go a certain distance from home? Must I be alienated from a certain amount of the network that supports me when I am at home?

I’ll certainly agree with you that you have to walk roads you’ve never walked before, but I can do that [in my hometown].

Drew: First off, I think you should be proud if you’re working that hard to cultivate awareness on a daily basis. But it’s easy not to, and if we’re looking for an effective training regimen that’s where travel comes in.

I don’t think travel needs to be strictly defined, but only certain kinds of travel teach the skills in question. In discussing the impact of travel, I always point out that high-ticket, luxurious, walled-resort style travel will not do the trick.

The experiential change travel can provoke in the traveler comes from the crisis of it. It comes when you realize you’re in over your head, that there is no one to call, no one to bail you out: that you have only yourself and strangers to rely on.

This kind of travel isn’t comfortable or desirable for everyone. Many try to avoid it. They get terrified and leave if such an experience intrudes on their planned trip. But in every great travelogue you can correlate the moments of intense personal transformation with moments like these. Watch Art of Travel or The Motorcycle Diaries (or any other true travel story) and you’ll see the same.

I would be surprised and impressed if you can get this experience by talking to a homeless person 5 blocks from your home. I would be amazed if you can get it by visiting with someone from India in your home city. Maybe a non-traveler could have such an experience if, for example, they spent a night living under bridges and in shelters with homeless people. But there’s something disingenuous about that. When you know you can go home at the end of the experience, that alone changes it.

Colleen: There’s a lot here that I’d like to respond to, but it’s all rather tangential to the central concept of travel. The primary benefit of travel comes from the crisis of having to rely on yourself or use your intuition to find strangers that will help you, right?

Let’s say I’m hopping on a bus here in the city to somewhere in the suburbs. I’m not quite sure I have the right bus, and I’m a little nervous. I have a few options: I can ask the driver if I have the right bus. I can ask a passenger or someone waiting with me. I can check the schedule on my smartphone. I can read the little hanging things that show the route.

Or perhaps I’m trying to navigate the Underground. I’m going from the Tower of London to Islington. I’m not quite sure how to get back. I can ask a passenger or someone waiting with me. I can check the schedule on my smartphone. I can look for documentation to see if it would help me.

In what way has traveling from home changed how much I need to rely on myself or the people around me?

Drew: Personally, I wouldn’t say “do I have the right bus?” really qualifies as a crisis moment, but I realize that threshold varies for different people. In regards to the local-versus-London examples, the difference lies (at least) in your safety net and panoply of options. Locally you can call a friend if you get on the wrong bus, or if you end up somewhere unintended you know generally what it’s like and how to get back from there. Abroad those factors are not a given: you may be flying blind. Local attitudes and procedures may be so different that just figuring out who to ask or what they mean can be a challenge in itself.

You’re making an excellent case for how the same skills can come into play without traveling. I agree with you; you absolutely can challenge yourself at home. My personal quest is to identify and implement the best strategy to learn these skills. Someone can master the principles of chemical engineering without going to college, but college is a more effective (and probable) way to do it. Someone can become calm and mindful without meditating, but most people need to do meditation first.

I want the most effective and probable method of training toward living adventurously and acting heroically. If you can think of a method that outperforms travel, I want to learn it.

Colleen: I agree that travel is very likely the most effective and probable method of learning to live heroically—for you. And I think that’s where we really disagree, because I have a lifetime behind me of not having a safety net; this is the first time in my life that I’ve ever had one to leave.

Beyond that point, though, you have stated before that one step of living the heroic life is “if you don’t know your purpose, travel.” Which fails to address what to do once you know what your purpose is. If the goal of travel is to find your purpose, then isn’t that its real job, not as an open-ended prescription for living the heroic life? Perhaps once it has achieved that, it still has usefulness as a tool, certainly, but does it still have pride-of-place in your quest to follow the heroic life? Or does it become just one more tool?

I brought up England purposefully, because it is quite far away from where I am, and yet still not apparently far enough away to engage the sense of crisis, dependency, and trust that you have stated are best acquired through travel.

In the end, I reject travel as the “best” method of living the heroic life because of many reasons: it is not required for many in today’s world to actually travel to meet and benefit from interactions with people who are not “just like them”; it presupposes that you have a safety net to leave; it lacks clearly defined unique benefits; and it lacks a good definition. The emphasis on travel seems to be masking the qualities that you are striving for when you travel: empathy, connection, crisis, self-reliance. Travel is a good training method to achieve these goals, yes. It may even be the best, nearly the best, or equivalent to other methods. But by emphasizing the method and not the goals, you’re taking what works best for you and applying an exclusive veneer to what comes next.

For those who will not travel, but are called to the heroic path… need they not apply? Is it the linchpin that holds it all together? For those who do not know their purpose, will it only be found in a country whose language they don’t speak? For those who live without the safety net of a loving family, a secure home, and a good job, must they acquire these things, just so they can leave them?

At this point I find myself largely agreeing with Colleen. I’m never a fan of absolutes, and travel won’t have the same effect for everybody. But most people do have a safety net to leave. Most will be more mindful of suffering in their own home town, after they’ve been struck in the face with it somewhere else. So travel remains an excellent way to jump-start living for your ideals and finding your purpose.

Travel is not a perfect tool, nor the tool for everybody. But this kind of conversation leaves me asking: can you name a better one?

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The Great Adventure

The Crisis Moment Before the Trip

Terror has struck. I knew it would happen sometime, turned out to be now. I’ve been so excited about the idea of my trip, I don’t spend much time thinking about the reality of it. But now I’m on the edge.

This week I took three days to literally lock myself in my room and work. I have a list the size of a painting of things to do before I go on the Adventure. I thought I would just lock out all distractions and work for a few days.

The problem with locking out all distractions is… you lock out all distractions. 

You need those distractions to keep yourself sane. Most people need to be distracted (Netflix, Facebook, video games) so that they don’t think about how they’re not living their passion. But what if you’ve decided, eff that noise, I’m going to go out and wrestle my dream down? Do you get a free pass?

No.

If you’re wrestling your dream you’re doing the scariest thing: standing out, taking risk, trying the path that no one else has tried. You’re in the unknown, and suddenly you’re the only one responsible for how well you do. Then the questions start to come.

The first night it was worries about finances. Can I pay for all my gear, manage my monthly bills, and afford health care while I travel? What if I lose a client? What if I can’t put in the hours online while I hike?

This was a pretty big anxiety pill. But it was only the beginning. 

What Are You Doing?

The second day I got to a long-overdue item: contact consulates. A clever reader once suggested (thank you!) that I ask for letters of safe passage from each country. These letters are 0% likely to actually guarantee safety. But if I’m dealing with local authorities, an official seal and signature can be useful.

So Mexico… Belize… Guatemala… one by one I looked up each country. In addition to consulates I checked their visa requirements, how long I can be there, etc. The State department has lots of this info. And right next to it is the safety warning.

Oh.

This is some truly horrible stuff folks. Have a look for yourself. None of this is new information to me, but reading it all in black and white—five weeks till showtime—has an effect.

Thoughts

I’m not going to lie. Here are some of the thoughts I had:

  • I don’t want to go.
  • The trip I planned isn’t possible.
  • I can’t afford this.
  • Do I even still feel passion about this? Is it really my dream?

Swoon.

I was so overwhelmed with doubts I had to lie down. I asked myself if I’ve ever been this panicked about something before. At first I thought the answer was no.

Except…

I remembered two times I felt this way. The first was the premiere night of the Stone Circle Study. I sat in a freezing, wet tent and knew I had seven weeks ahead of me, plus two people to look out for. The second time was at Teaching Drum school. It was so much harder than I thought it would be. Every day I wanted to back out and go home.

This running-away-terror, this inner rebellion, is something I know. I faced it those two times and persisted. The question is: was it worth it?

I thought about that.

Both of those times turned out to be pivotal moments. Moments that are more than memories, they inform who I am. There would be no Rogue Priest, no Drew Jacob—not as I know him—if I had gone home.

So, I decided, I’ll go forward.

Today I spent an hour in meditation. When I finished my meditation, I was at peace with my self-construed fate. At the end I heard this statement:

Your only duty is to live your personal legend.

All I know is I want to be the guy who met the gods. I can quit my walk at any time. But I have to at least start it.

Join the Adventure—Support the Walk!

If you enjoy reading Rogue Priest, believe in my journey, or just love seeing a spirited adventurer on the road, please consider making a donation to the cause. Your gift will help fund professional-quality equipment for the Great Adventure. It’ll keep me safe and help every step of the way.

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Adventure Prep, Uncategorized

Upright Sleeping

When my sister lived in a Buddhist retreat, she slept in a box.

This is not the first thing that comes up when you ask what it’s like to spend three years completely sealed in retreat. And as she prepares to take her ordination as a nun, it may not seem like the most important part of her spiritual practice. But for 1600 nights in a row, if she was closing her eyes to sleep it was in the confines of about a 3′ × 3′ wooden container.

It’s not as awful as it sounds. The point is, essentially, that lamas should sleep sitting upright. This way they can do their nighttime practices in the full lotus posture, sleep right where they are in front of their shrine, and wake up to start their morning practices without moving. Or something like that.

But to most people it has no appeal. It’s hard to explain that the box is not a crate, or that it’s quite comfy when you add some pillows. Before her retreat I suggested she stop mentioning this particular part of what she’d be doing. It makes it sound like some kind of extremist cult.

The past few weeks she’s regaled me with the reality of sleeping upright. Several times I watched her peacefully drift off to sleep in improbable places. Her back is board-straight and she moves with grace. It has its perks.

Then I began to think about the applications of sitting upright to sleep. I have no intention of sleeping in a box, but I have this whole “walk 7,000 miles” thing. It will include a lot of nights sleeping outside—probably about 1600—and I’m open to anything to make that easier. Some of the benefits of upright sleep:

  • You stay warmer. The vertical orientation of your body is far more efficient heat-wise.
  • Warmer means no sleeping bag. One lap blanket is all you need. When backpacking, that means less weight to carry.
  • If you wear glasses you can leave them on while you sleep, handy if you need to get up suddenly at night.
  • You can use a smaller tarp over your head and less mosquito netting (no tents here).
  • You develop strong neck and back muscles.
  • When you wake up you’re completely lucid, never groggy. Zangmo and I can’t figure out why this works, but it does.

These are powerful incentives to see if I can acclimate myself to upright sleeping before I start the Adventure. But that’s just two months away! Challenge accepted.

My kid sister Zangmo in her box.

Zangmo told me that when she first started it took her about three months to get used to, and involved intolerable pain and stiffness. However, we don’t believe that’s necessary to learn to do it right: she resisted upright sleeping for a long time, and had bad posture at first.

So I set a piece of particle board against one wall of my room, culled through the pillows and cushions in the house, and fanaggled about an hour of consultation with my resident lama. I’m going to try it for myself.

How will it go? Expect an update next week. In the meantime, has anyone else ever slept sitting up (by choice or out of necessity)? Do you have any other unusual sleep methods that might be of use to fellow adventurers? Hit the comments and speak up. I’d love to learn.

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Adventure Prep, The Great Adventure

Shoe Comparison: Off Road

Today I continue my shoe comparison. With the road test complete the next step was the Off-Road Course.

The course runs roughly as follows: an estimated half mile walk on level asphalt road, then another estimated half mile down a trail through the woods. The trail is poorly maintained, covered with bare dirt or grass and weeds. It’s uneven. From there I strike off into completely trackless woods. After perhaps a quarter mile I have to ascend a steep wooded hill, still with no trail. I estimate an elevation of 300 feet and a slope of up to 60 degrees.

Atop the hill I walk along a wooded ridge for unknown distance and down a gentler slope on the other side. Finally I meet up with a grassy foot trail which takes me down to a paved country road. The country road is the halfway point; then I turn around and do the whole thing in reverse.

The distances here are only approximate, but since the course was the same both times that doesn’t matter.

It’s important to note that while off road I estimated my heading by the sun. This means I may not have taken the same course step-by-step but the terrain was identical. In fact, the second time through I encountered visual landmarks just before coming back down the 300-foot slope. That means I took the exact same route down the hardest slope both times, which will be important when interpreting the results below.

As with the Road Course, I did the two tests a number of days apart, at roughly the same time of day, with the same warm ups and exercises beforehand and the same cool-down period afterward.

Road Results: Steve Madden Canvas

Conditions: Partly cloudy, warm, strong breeze

Distance: Unknown

Time: 1 hr 45 min

This walk was a joy. I found that my flat, thin canvas shoes were extremely comfortable even on uneven terrain and out in the thick brush and leaves. The walk was invigorating and it was nice to be off-road again. Climbing the steep slopes was serious cardio, but relatively easy. I never scrambled or felt I would fall. Unlike the Road Course, the lack of padding was no issue on the softer ground and there was no soreness or callous-building this time around.

I encountered, to my surprise, zero ankle stiffness all that evening or the next morning. I found these results shocking.

Road Results: Chuck Taylor All Stars

Conditions: Cloudy, warm, moderate breeze

Distance: Unknown

Time: 1 hr 45 min

Walking was a chore. By the time I made the top of the ridge I was sick of the walk and only kept going for the sake of the experiment.

Walking on uneven ground with these shoes is not easy. I didn’t consciously notice this at first, I just noticed how tiring it was. I don’t think it was only the weight, but also the angle they force my feet to meet the ground at. With a padded ankle and arch support my feet have no option to splay, tilt or follow the angle of the ground beneath them. This makes off-roading in athletic shoes quite energy-intensive.

The comfort issues didn’t stop there. I started to get twigs and other junk in my shoes. I don’t remember this happening in the Maddens. Looking at the shape of the shoe, as a lace-up it has a long slot on either side of the tongue. I suppose that branches can easily catch in it, break off and work their way in. Since they are tied it’s hard to take them off and remove such garbage. This is not a fault of the padded soles, but it means that if a padded athletic shoe turns out to be a good overall choice then I’ll need to seek out a slip-on, lace-free version for hiking.

In a similar vein, the laces came untied no less than five times during the test, presumably from snagging so often.

The most significant problem occurred on slopes. Climbing the slope was much harder in these shoes. I had to take several segments on all fours to scramble up. Grabbing trees and other handholds became much more important. On the way back down, despite taking the exact same route, my feet went out from under me and I fell on my butt four different times.

I experienced mild to moderate ankle stiffness that evening and the next morning, similar to the results from the Road Test.

Interpretation

The first conclusion to draw from this comparison is that if I plan to go off-road on my hike I can’t mess around with laces.

The second conclusion is that padded athletic shoes perform like crap on slopes and uneven ground. My first thought with the sliding and falling on the slope was to check the treads of both shoes. Maybe I was just getting better traction with the Maddens?

No way. The Maddens, made with minimum treads in the first place, have been worn almost totally smooth. The Chucks however have thick, deep treads and they’re practically pristine. If the game was “who can stop quickest on ice or sand,” Chuck would win every time.

So we can’t blame traction for the problems on the hill. Given such near-identical conditions, I have to blame the different design of the shoe. When your feet are already coming down on an angle they don’t need an additional angle built into their heels. And when they need to turn, stretch and twist to accommodate rough terrain, they shouldn’t be forced into a set position for every step.  In these conditions the padded shoes work against the body.

Remember though that on the level Road Course the padded shoes actually performed slightly better. Although there’s still one test to go I already find myself asking: is there any way to reconcile the pros and cons of both designs into a single shoe?

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Adventure Prep, The Great Adventure

Shoe Comparison: 6.5 Mile Walk on Roads

When you’re walking 7,000 miles the shoes on your feet make a big difference.

In December I appealed to Rogue Priest readers for their advice on footwear. The choice is which theory to side with: conventional advice that highly engineered, thickly padded athletic shoes are best, or the controversial claim that such padding only weakens the foot and increases likelihood of injury.

There’s no firm scientific data to give either side a knockout victory, so personal experience is all I have to go on. After listening carefully to all the great advice you guys gave me, I decided to buy some shoes and run some experiments.

Method

I have no means to conduct a large-scale scientific test. I can however try out two different pairs of shoes under controlled conditions to see how my own body reacts to each.

I developed three different courses to use to test my shoes:

  • Road Course: 6.5 mile loop on asphalt roads, mostly level, some slight hills. Walking.
  • Off-Road Course: Fixed course of unknown length with a mix of asphalt roads, soft foot trails and complete off-roading in thick forest. Includes 300 foot off-road hill ascent and descent. Walking.
  • Jogging Course: Approximate 3/4 mile course on level asphalt road. Jogging.

The plan is to complete each course twice under virtually identical conditions except for the difference in shoes. I’ll put several off-days of just light walking in between each session, so that the aftermath of one won’t affect the other. I especially want to pay attention to how my ankle feels afterward and the following day.

So far I’ve completed the Road Course.

The Contenders

In the No-Padding Corner: Steve Madden canvas shoes. These shoes feature flat, thin soles with essentially no padding. The construction is sturdy with suede trim. While by no means flimsy, I can’t imagine a thinner shoe without going to Vibrams.

In the Athletic Shoe Corner: Converse Chuck Taylor All-Stars. These shoes have nearly an inch of padding under the heel, arch support, and a sculpted insole that arcs down toward a thinner front. This is the classic shape of the athletic shoes that barefoot runners claim will mess up your foot.

Both pairs of shoes were bought second-hand but never used. Both fit well and are comfortable to wear casually.

The Hypothesis

In general I’ve been very undecided about the footwear controversy. I usually make decisions like this based on science. In its absence I’m agnostic.

But over the past sixth months of adventuring I’ve been wearing very thin shoes. There’s no planning behind this: I traveled light and wore what was available. With time I became accustomed to having very little padding.

When I first put on my Chuck Taylor All Stars it felt awkward but comfortable. I wasn’t used to having such thick, heavy things on my feet, but I did notice how soft my footfalls were. It took a little while to realize that the awkwardness was not just caused by their size, but by a difference in angle of how my foot lands on the ground. Padded heels have an effect.

I started taking casual short walks in my All Stars to get used to them. I want to go in as unbiased as possible. It didn’t take long. I forced myself to remember that they may surprise me and outperform the Steve Maddens.

So did they?

Road Results: Steve Madden Canvas

Conditions: Clear, warm, little if any breeze

Distance: 6.5 miles

Time: 1 hr 45 min (3.71 miles/hour)

The walk was comfortable and easy. I noticed a slight soreness in the balls of my feet, but it was the sort of soreness that goes away as you build up callouses, and it didn’t worry me. I felt very good and had no problem walking along the side of the road when a car passed. (These are country roads, so that’s not often.)

I did my exercise and stretching routine earlier in the day. After I returned I had about a one hour “cool off” period of light walking on soft surfaces or standing on my feet.

Later that night, when I stood up after eating dinner, I noticed my ankle had stiffened up. It was nothing like I got after walking up a mountain, but it was more than I would like to see from such a short walk. The following morning there was a little residual stiffness, but no noticeable increase in inflammation.

Road Results: Chuck Taylor All Stars

Conditions: Clear, warm, moderate breeze

Distance: 6.5 miles

Time: 1 hr 44 min (3.75 miles/hour)

The walk was easy and even more comfortable. I believe the slight increase in pace, if significant at all, was from being a bit chilly at the beginning of the walk. I did the same exercise and stretching routine earlier in the day, and a similar one hour cool-down period after the walk. I went at the same time of day as the other test.

I didn’t notice soreness in the balls of my feet during the walk. I did however notice that it felt more awkward to walk along the sides of the road. The slight crowning of the road, and the angle of the gravel shoulder, had been nothing in the Steve Maddens but seemed a little irritating in these shoes.

That night after dinner I experienced stiffness again, but it seemed less pronounced this time. The following morning brought at least as much residual stiffness however. Again, there was no increase in inflammation.

Surprised

I was very surprised with the results of the first test. The padded shoes really did seem to correlate with less stiffness later, which indicates less wear on my ankle. But the stiffness the following morning worries me, and I could never have imagined the problem with walking on slanted surfaces if I hadn’t experienced it firsthand.

Do you think the off-road results will be similar, or will there be another surprise?

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