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.
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.