Over-quoted and underfollowed, the Chinese sage Lao Tzu famously expounded that, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”

I remember this every time I pass through an airport’s metal detector—to affirm that I am not merely a passive subject of security screening, but rather an intrepid traveler breaking the threshold of a new adventure.

In the last three weeks, I have taken many, many steps—through metal detectors and past immigration desks, on and off of shuttles and busses and up an down the jetway of the private jet that flew me around the Earth.

My expedition around the world has been one of the most life-changing, transformative, uplifting and incredible travels I have ever experienced, and for this reason, the final leg felt especially heavy with meaning. We left Morocco in the morning, trading the tan desert for the shiny green-blue ocean, headed towards home.

But, like an unfortunate flock of geese, we were blown way off course by Hurricane Sandy, so that instead of wrapping up our jaunt around the globe with some monumental déjà vu touchdown in Washington, D.C., we were redirected to the unglamorous swamplands of Orlando, Florida.

Flying to Florida, around Hurricane Sandy. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

 

Not, however, before a security and refueling stop in the Azores, right on my beloved Mid-Atlantic Ridge (which I sailed along last year, remember?). To descend so blatantly into the middle of the ocean, and in such a hefty storm, offered up a tad more adrenalin than your average trans-Atlantic flight. For the past few weeks, we have flown over a cloudless landscape, spotting Mt. Everest and the Sahara, but now suddenly, all the world was smothered in layer after layer of swirling, puffy cotton balls, as if we were flying right into the daunting weather map swirling in repeat on TV screens everywhere.

Oh the irony of flying to Florida to escape a hurricane—but when we arrived (land ho!) I saw the long Florida coastline, undisturbed by any weather at all, the flat, Jello-green wetlands glowing in the late afternoon sunshine.

No, Florida was not on the agenda. Florida was not part of the alluring and exotic around-the-world adventure. In the last few weeks I had seen dawn over the Golden Gate Bridge, and then the very next day, watched the sun rise at Angkor Wat. I have walked the first steps of the enduring Silk Road, kissed a baby panda on the head in his bamboo-sheltered home, inhaled the incense of India, gawked at Kilimanjaro, tracked cheetahs in Africa, braved the tombs of Egypt and dodged donkeys in Marrakech.

But now Florida—which of these things is not like the other?

Such is the nature of travel—to expect nothing and thereby expect everything. Having experienced so much on this fabulous expedition, I really should have expected Florida, but when it came—in the form of an airport hotel with its Cinnabon and no internet—it was, admittedly, a small letdown. The private jet was gone, I was legally home in the United States but still so physically far from home.

The party was over—I traded my private, all-first-class 757 for an economy seat on JetBlue to Richmond, Virginia—an airport that was open and unaffected by the hurricane. There are no hot towels on JetBlue, but the view of the Earth was still there—just as dramatic in its sunrise over Georgia as the sunrises I’d felt around the world.

In Richmond I grabbed a car and began driving north on I-95, towards home. I know this road well—it was the very first leg of my epic bus journey from Washington, D.C. to Antarctica. The trees were turning, so that the tops of the branches were faded into yellow and orange. Semitrailers brushed past me, unaware that I was not merely driving, but that I was completing my own great voyage around the world.

On the side of the road appeared one of the familiar green and white highway signs of America, announcing: Washington, 100 Miles

“My last 100 miles,” I spoke aloud, in my empty rental car. So far I had already flown 34,552 miles—100 miles seemed like nothing. Yet the time behind the wheel felt so different than the rest of my trip. This time I was alone, the air was quiet, the road so regular, it afforded me the time and energy to think back on everything I had just lived. Flying around the world was a luxury, but also an investment of the mind, so that even now, as I hummed along the Virginia highway, my mind was alive with the colors and senses of every outrageous and wonderful thing I had just seen or done in this or that country.

Too soon, I spotted the familiar landmarks—the Pentagon, the two-toned Washington Monument, and then finally across the grey-brown Potomac and to the white-domed Jefferson Memorial.

The District of Columbia—“the district of peace”—and peaceful it was on this Halloween morning. Fifty American flags waved in a circle around the Washington Monument, the cabs sat quietly in the silent hour before lunch erupts across the city. And then I was home, my head still swimming, as if waking from a dream and fighting to recollect the dazzling details of what I had left behind.

I have left the whole world behind—that is the truth of this expedition and why it is so impossible to comprehend. I have tasted from the entire world, circled the planet like a migrating albatross, only to land in my little nest utterly exhausted and overwhelmed by so many recent splendors.

Even I will admit that I am dizzy with travel, still in awe that a human being can catapult himself so easily around the world and then just as quickly, be right back at home, surrounded by dirty laundry and the silver, sandalwood, and alabaster treasures of Asia and Africa. Yet this is exactly how it happened—

—and so, to paraphrase Lao Tzu, the flight of thirty-five thousand miles ends with a hundred miles in a rental car on a rain-soaked interstate.

And it doesn’t end there. No, this is merely where we repack and take another first step.

Flying over the Georgia coast (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

Comments

  1. Michael Rice
    Arctic Alaska
    November 6, 2012, 3:17 am

    It has been great to hear of such a wonderful travel experience. I guess my dad got me rolling as his journey took him from pole to pole and then from The Far East to the Near West. His times in the Arctic was graced by years working in Iceland, Greenland and Barter Island in the Arctic Ocean off the north Alaskan coast.

    The most valuable lesson I’ve gained from this on going journey, is the beauty, wonder and mystery of a far away place, reveals its secrets and unspeakable charm the longer you stay there. Having traveled to the Far East to do graduate studies, something happened and I dropped my pencil and closed my notebook. I now find my body back where I began fifteen years ago but the truth is, I’m no longer just an American but a citizen of my Asian home on a little island in the Pacific. Because my love of teaching nudged me ro open my own private school, I found out that starting a business was a prevelage reserved for nationals, and for this reason my love for a people and culture proved to me that a life time is not enough to learn the depths of wonder to be found by becoming One with a being more than ten thousand years old. This return to the Arctic with all its auroras and midnight sunshine is beautiful “but” it’s not home.

    Thank You THANK YOU!!! So much for your reflections on Florida. I was going to pack my bags and head that way with my sailing kayak BUT your story of how you saw Florida left me with thoughts of what dubious experiences may be had by kayaking theough the swamps just teaming with creatures not found here at -40. Im so grateful to hear your words as they totally crushed any desire to go diving in waters that may surely have no depth and perhaps hide beasties that would desire I not return to the surface.

    Yes do head up to the Antarctic as my friends from New Zealand would say. My father was part of a research expedition which was coordinated out of Christ Church, New Zealand. Great shots of the Emperor Penguins and quite providentially, I bought my kayak from a place in New Zealand but Korea (homeland) has a shocking import tax. The fellow who sold the kayak had some miles he needed to use up so he brought his kayak to Korea exploring the possibility of doing business with Koreans. When he arrived, I discovered that he was the diver aboard the icebreaker my father was on. The mission was called, “Operation Deep Freeze” and my dad controlled the power systems for the equipment and the fellow who brought the kayak to Korea was the jump diver who would dive through some small open cracks carrying explosives to plant way down below the very thick ice nearing the shores. They would blast the ice into smaller flows, then my dad would send power to drive the engines hard enough to push what could never be broken.

    As you get old, people begin to get weak. Never let yourself be caught dying in some hospital, “Do not go gently into that good night, old age must rage against the dying of the light; rage, rage rage against the dying of the light. ” (Dylan Thomas) I recently discovered that I’m into my sixties, I have a kayak trip planned for next summer; it goes down a very fast flowing glacial river, All my life I’ve wondered where the little sparrows sleep at night. For many years I’ve looked with flashlights and spot lights and could never discover where they go. A kayak trip that lead me to that awesome river that can be thirty feet across with five foot muddy waves carrying trees like toothpicks of which my kayak was almost one of them. Got trapped in icy waters in my wet suit for five hours. Finally got out in a world I guess you know all about, a world where nothing lives, everything is dead in those waters and no one dares go out there even in power boats. I was totally cut off, exhausted and starving. I managed to get my tent up on a tiny island, fell asleep and the next morning I woke to something no words can describe. I just know that I must return but at a place in the river where returning will be dependent upon what is on the other side of the river where it’s three miles wide. Can’t see it on Google earth, no maps have the detail to determine if the braids flow through or are jammed with logs. I must go back, what happened while there the last time is worth the final journey. Never stop and you will never get married. The journey ends in a way too awesome to describe BUT once you have children, it will end, that is okay but somehow, I kept moving and camping and someway, never tripped and fell into love, it will really stick to you. No, there were a few times I had a gal traveling with me but it was like scuba diving with a ship anchor, always putting the breaks on and causing you to sink. I live alone….it shows in my endless ramble ….sorry. Enjoy the journey and NEVER EVER get caught dying in bed…okay. If your caught dying may it be at the summit of a mountain, hang gliding, surfing, flying a plane, kite surfing, petting humpback whales in Glacier Bay….just don’t let it creep up on you. Nature has a story, there are no old animals in nature and there a no graves….always fresh, clean and youthful ….until you enter human “civilization”. Ah Humm. Cheers!!! – Michael. PS private jet flight…wow!!!! Sounds like you own an oil rig out there in the Gulf..lol

  2. juan galvan
    wappingers falls new york
    November 9, 2012, 8:10 pm

    i love photograph i like you work

  3. tom barrett
    November 15, 2012, 2:25 pm

    enjoyed this article, but I am amiss at the negativity directed at my home state. Admittedly, Florida may not be as glamorous or exciting as the multitude of exotic locations you have visited during your trip, but Florida is still as unique as any other location around this planet, with many gems found in no other place. But i digress… perhaps I mis-read your words.

  4. Aslam
    Bangladesh
    November 21, 2012, 12:15 pm

    Not a travel, This was a great Adventure! i’m enjoy your trips story.

  5. Bindlestiff Tours
    Las Vegas
    November 21, 2012, 9:00 pm

    Interesting story thanks

  6. jerry januszewski
    annapolis, md
    November 25, 2012, 7:28 am

    You get to know things better when they go by slow.