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Why I’m Taking My Life on the Open Road

I love the man beside me
We love the open road
No phones till Friday
Far from the undertow
Far from the overload

from “Night Ride Home” by Joni Mitchell

There are many road songs, but this one is mine. I still remember the first time I heard the guitar trill in rhythm with the crickets’ chirp, Joni’s voice as warm and magical as the Hawaiian evening drive she sings about.

I was 17 years old, mowing the lawn at my father’s dental office, waterproof yellow Walkman banging on my hip. I hadn’t been much of anywhere, but I knew I wanted to go.

“Night Ride Home” captures everything I love about travel ~ weightless freedom, surreal moments at every turn, the quiet joy of being with your dearest ones in the world.

Shawn and I began our romance on the road, biking through Prince Edward County and the country north of Belleville with our high school class. Slapping at mosquitoes as we shared our first kiss. Watching each other settle into sleeping bags from across the hay barn. Maybe the thread of travel caught and entwined as our hearts came together, and now we couldn’t separate our love from our wanderlust if we tried.

The thread pulled tighter when we flew to China to bring two children into our family. Meeting them in hotel rooms. Rocking them to sleep on buses. Posing for photographs on the Great Wall. Becoming parents in a place where everything was new and strange and utterly captivating.

No surprise that our wedding text is from Song of Solomon:

Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away.

Two weeks ago, Shawn gave notice at his job.

In May and June, we are emptying our townhouse.

In July, we set out on the open road.

We’re starting with a very leisurely trip around the globe ~ visiting family and friends in Ontario and Michigan over the summer, jetting to Malaysia for the winter, moving on to France and Holland next spring. We don’t have definite plans beyond that, but if all is well, we’ll keep going.

In a nod to Joni Mitchell, we’ve named our adventure Operation Hejira, after her 1976 folk jazz album of the same name. Hejira, meaning “journey,” was written on a car trip Joni made from Maine to L.A. For me, hejira is not just about the “urge for going” but the urge to turn the journey into art.

Funny, of all the people we’ve told about our plans so far, only one has asked me why ~ my 13-year-old nephew who called last week from his home in Georgia. “Why are you moving so far away?” he wanted to know.

Why indeed? Why make life difficult and uncertain? Why leave people we love?

Those questions are roaring in my head as we begin to make the break. A friend stops me on the street and tells me that our news made her cry. I box up books I’ve owned for twenty years, ready for the garage sale. I need to stand in line at the passport office but I made a mistake on the paperwork.

Here’s what I can tell you about my own reasons for taking this leap.

I’m an artist.

I crave stimulation and contrast. I love to figure out how things work, what’s going on, decipher language and notice patterns. I’m driven to collect as much truth and beauty as I can, and transform it into something meaningful. When my life and surroundings are too predictable, the fire goes out.

I love being an outsider.

Some people long to fit in and belong. I relish being different. I’m comfortable at the edge of things, watching and wondering. Travel gives me so much more to observe, and also lets me withdraw into myself so I can process what I see.

I want to cut down on my domestic load.

No secret that I’m not a housekeeper. I’m not big on decorating and entertaining; I’d be happy to hand over cooking, cleaning, and laundry to someone else. Travelling gives us a reason to radically simplify our stuff and living in cheaper areas means we can outsource more of the chores.

I want to lead an interesting life so I have things to write about.

Yeah, I know I could write poems about red wheelbarrows and white chickens. But I write children’s novels. Action, adventure, mystery, colour, flavour, excitement. That’s what I need to keep the Truth and Beauty Cycle flowing for my books. I can already feel the emotion rising as the departure date gets closer.

Rest assured that Operation Hejira does not mean I’m easing back on coaching. Just the opposite ~ another reason we’re travelling is so that I can devote myself even more to my clients and their mission of designing art-committed lives.

[Edited to add: I’ve written a memoir called Pilgrimage of Desire: An Explorer’s Journey Through the Labyrinths of Life. It’s the story of our travels set against the backdrop of my recovery from depression, and it includes coaching exercises to move you toward your own Operation Hejira. Learn more here.]

By the way, Joni isn’t the only one I have to thank for inspiring this adventure. Props also to Tim Ferris, Christine Gilbert, Colin and Tracy Burns, Jennifer Miller, Cath Duncan, Lea Woodward, Chris Guillebeau, Adam Baker, and Ev Bogue for showing us what’s possible and, indeed, irresistible.

Sing us out, Joni.

Now I’d like to swing the spotlight back on you. Because as earth-shaking as this step is for me and my family, I’m sharing the news with you as a coach, and I want to know what thoughts and emotions it stirs up for you ~ even if you’re not personally interested in location independence.

And if you have questions about our plans, I’d love to hear them.

Photo by Danndalf

{ 28 comments… add one }

  • Abby May 18, 2011, 12:33 pm

    Alison —

    I feel very emotional reading this post of yours. For me, hearing about your plans bring up a wave of conviction in me that yes, we get just this one life, and it’s ours, and the possibilities are enough to fill a whole map. Why settle for small and planted if something more is beckoning.

    Wishing you, Shawn, and the kids so much love and grace and adventure as you make your way around the world. <3

  • Brie May 18, 2011, 12:37 pm

    Congratulations! I can’t wait to read about your adventure.

  • Kim Reynolds May 18, 2011, 1:07 pm

    Hi Alison – You are simply amazing. I read this site faithfully and you have inspired me greatly. I so look forward to reading the books you write in the next years – I have no doubt their is a memoir brewing in this experience and your writing is so capitvating I believe it will be one of those books everyone is talking about. Big time.
    May your travels be blessed with wonderment.

  • Seonaid May 18, 2011, 1:08 pm

    My husband looked over my shoulder at your post, and I said, “She’s going *travelling*! Look! How exciting! They’re going *travelling*.” (You must add the wistfulness to my voice.)
    He said, “Who is?”
    I replied, “No idea, complete stranger, but LOOK! Travelling!”

    How’s that as a reaction for you? 😉

    • Alison May 18, 2011, 5:11 pm

      Love it! Sounds like what Shawn and I have been doing for the last four years ever time we found another travelling family 🙂

  • Krista (@kristahouse) May 18, 2011, 1:57 pm

    I think this is amazing, absolutely wonderful! I look forward to reading your adventures. My husband and I daydream about living abroad.

  • john w. macdonald May 18, 2011, 2:21 pm

    Enjoy this exciting journey ahead!
    All the best to you and your family!

    • Alison May 18, 2011, 5:58 pm

      Thanks, John! Hey, we need to get some family photos done before we go ~ I’ll email you.

  • Cynthia Morris May 18, 2011, 3:18 pm

    How exciting! What an adventure you’re going on with your family!

    Lots of responses. HUGE kudos to you for doing this with a child. I know that Chris Guillebeau gets a lot of people saying, oh you can travel because you don’t have children. He says, don’t let that stop you. I say, don’t use your children as an excuse!

    So, I think you’re doing a wonderful thing for your daughter by making her a world citizen! I have goose bumps as I type that!

    I’ll share a little about my experience as a nomad for a year. I loved it – I gained so much from living as a traveler. Mainly, I got SO much confidence. I came home knowing I can do anything. I also have a stronger can-do attitude – once you’ve trekked through all these weird and difficult circumstances and survived, you know you can buck up and do almost anything.

    It will be cool to see what you glean from this lifestyle.

    The downside I experienced was this: making travel arrangements and figuring it all out takes a lot of time. I am good at it and love it, but I noticed that it almost replaced the work/time it takes to maintain a home. That’s not something I hear most people talk about, the energy it takes to configure all that stuff.

    I finally came home because I had filled myself up and I needed to take all that inspiration and make something with it. For me, I needed more stability, with what that brings – the chance to have more control over my food and eat more healthfully, the chance to go to the same yoga studio on a regular basis, the chance to have a home where I could create. I know that there are solutions for all these things no matter where you are, and I found it took a lot more time to get those needs met.

    Now I know that what’s best for me is a balance. So I take 3-5 week trips to Europe and then come home and make stuff. I want to venture further out to places I haven’t been, so that will come in the future.

    That’s my experience, and you and your family will have your own unique experiences. I know it will absolutely fuel your creativity and your coaching, and I can’t wait to follow along.

    I’m so proud of you and happy for you. Oh, one last thing – you will likely be a little freaky these last weeks – I know I was terrified and a little prickly. It was emotional to leave my life behind. I had a lot of support, and once I took the leap, miracles met me. I know that will happen for you, so let the emotions flow and keep trusting. (I know you know this but wanted to remind you!)

    Bon voyage!

    • Alison May 18, 2011, 7:24 pm

      Cynthia, I love having your wisdom and experience as I’m moving into unknown territory. I avidly followed the Journey Juju blog and your story was an important “You can do it!” voice for me.

      And yeah, freak is a good word 🙂 Going public with the news takes it to a whole new level. Part of me is flipping out and part is watching with fascination. And that’s what I want ~ to feel deeply, to push myself into new uncomfortable places.

      Thanks so much for being proud, that means a lot to me.

  • Cynthia Morris May 18, 2011, 3:19 pm

    Two children, sorry, I only thought one! You go!

  • Jenn Miller May 18, 2011, 6:29 pm

    Beautiful. SO excited for you guys. It’s the best life I can imagine, the only life I can imagine, really… and I love that our hearts beat to the same drum.

  • Jeannie Prinsen May 19, 2011, 1:35 am

    Alison, I really enjoy reading your blog and the replies and seeing how different people pursue their dreams and their art. For certain reasons — not excuses I hope — I can’t really travel, but I find a lot of inspiration for my writing in interesting characters from my past and in closer-to-home experiences. While I think there is material for art wherever we are, I also feel that when we hear that voice calling us to move in a new direction, we should never ignore it. So I think it is very interesting what you’re doing and I hope it yields great benefits for you & your family & your writing.

  • Michael May 19, 2011, 3:53 am

    I don’t know where you are in your plans or your travels. I just found your blog today. If you have yet to reach France. I really recommend Vignoble Klur. It’s an amazing winery in a super small village. They are for all accounts the most organic vinard I have heard of. They don’t even water; if it doesn’t rain enough to grow grapes they don’t make wine. Fantastic country and a great place to re-align your sights.

  • Cynthia Morris May 20, 2011, 12:43 pm

    Yes, I think it’s important to mention the ‘freak’! because while it is all good (as they say) that doesn’t mean there aren’t emotional land mines. You will navigate them with grace and style!

  • Brenda Gribbin May 20, 2011, 10:38 pm

    “When life…is predictable..the fire goes out”. Yes. Amen. As a visual artist, the view must keep changing and surprising me. Those surprises help me find new ways to address old stuff…parts of me that still need to be reworked. I applaud your brave adventure and I’m sure you and your family will be blessed by the experience. I have had difficulty with my pledged hours for physical/medical reasons, but I’ve been reading and taking notes while healing and I guess that is my “change of view” for the present. I look forward to getting to know you and hearing about your travels and discoveries.

  • Brenda Gribbin May 20, 2011, 10:40 pm

    I forgot this part…”Night Ride Home” is one of my favorite songs!

  • Rosalinda May 23, 2011, 3:36 pm

    I’ve been ‘away’ for a while and I’m catching up on favorite blogs! I’m surprised and thrilled, envious and happy! I wish you and your family great adventures!

  • Gini Martinez May 25, 2011, 1:02 pm

    I am so excited for you! I admire your courage and wish all of you an amazing adventure. xoxoxo Gini

  • Marie-Josée Martin June 2, 2011, 12:32 am

    Je vous souhaite à tous les quatre un excellent voyage. What an amazing year it will be! What amazing discoveries await, in the world around, but also in the world within — in your hearts and souls. Amitié,

  • Mary June 3, 2011, 2:50 am

    I am excited for you! I can’t wait to hear all that happens while you are doing this. We dream similarly, though we have done this sort of thing but never longer than a year at a time. I look forward to hear how you do it! Your page is bookmarked!

  • Shawna June 7, 2011, 12:20 pm

    Isn’t that funny: I have The Four Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss in the bag on my lap right now! I will have to check out the other links you give too.

    Good luck on your journey and maybe someday it’ll be my turn!

  • Akila June 7, 2011, 1:14 pm

    Congrats, congrats, congrats again! I am always excited to hear about people making the leap. And, I think what you say about writing and travel is very true — I have found that so much of the inspiration for my books comes from the beauty and interest in the world I find when I travel. I can’t wait to read about your adventures abroad.

  • Bahieh K. October 21, 2011, 11:06 am

    “Why indeed? Why make life difficult and uncertain? Why leave people we love?

    Those questions are roaring in my head as we begin to make the break. A friend stops me on the street and tells me that our news made her cry. I box up books I’ve owned for twenty years, ready for the garage sale. I need to stand in line at the passport office but I made a mistake on the paperwork.”

    I can relate. More than year ago I left a very comfortable life in Switzerland for a very uncomfortable and adventurous life in Latin America!!

    And to tell you the truth, I am not sure why. (I come up with a different version each time people ask). My strongest desire was to serve and this trip seemed like the perfect opportunity. Then the trip morphed into a permanent stay.

    Sometimes I let myself get curious and wonder why. Most times I just enjoy the ride. I want to make the most of it while it lasts.

    So nice to have found you… I will be following your adventures.


    • Alison October 21, 2011, 12:19 pm

      Glad you found me too, Bahieh! Those “why” questions have gotten stronger since we arrived in Malaysia and the reality of our choice settles in. Thanks for the reminder that “why” doesn’t have to have an answer. Enjoying the ride sounds good to me!

  • Sarah October 29, 2011, 10:21 am

    My husband and I did the same thing this year, despite family and friends telling us we were crazy to leave our beautiful house, my husband’s amazing job, and our wonderful community in the city. We just knew it was the right thing to do. We’re only at the start of taking it on the road now – thank you, Alison, for writing this. It’s so affirming to read about your experience.

  • Debi Slinger January 2, 2012, 6:00 pm

    Go girl! I’m totally in your camp and admire you and your family’s goal. As someone who has recently travelled with my husband and 3 kids overseas, I can say that the long term benefits have been brilliant. Visiting orangutans in the jungles of Borneo, orphanage in Cambodia, sailing in Vietnam, watching Komodo dragons in Flores and snorkelling with giant manta rays have been highlights. But the true benefits have been watching the kids become lateral thinkers, creative writers, patient observers and sympathetic listeners. I’ll be watching with keen eyes to see how things progress for you. Good luck. Debi.

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