Chapter 159: The Man Who Drowned on Freedom

In 2009, I was away from DC for a total of 17 weeks. I pulled this off by working remotely when possible and squeezing the theoretical maximum utility out of my vacation days. Each biweek required accounting for 80 hours of work, so working 60 hours one week meant taking the second week off required only 20 hours of leave. I worked like a madman, emptied my leave account, and saw the world.

In March of 2010, however, I accepted an offer to attend law school part-time for four years in DC. A month later, I agreed to move in with Jess, my then-girlfriend, while we were both traveling in Spain. I knew that my life would soon look unrecognizable, and had committed to a path largely centered in DC. I chose this path deliberately and after careful thought, but the anticipated stability was a source of consternation for a lifelong traveler.

Burning Man

In an attempt to make the most of my dwindling pre-law school freedom, I flew to Sweden in May of 2010 to meet up with my friend Dave, who was working on a clean energy project. It was a reunion for two travelers who had spent two months together backpacking through India as part of Dave’s around-the-world-in-9-months trip. We ate and drank our way through Stockholm, explored the countryside, and hiked to wave farms hiding near the coast.

The night before our big drive over and through the fjords to Bergen in Norway, we stayed at a hostel in Gothenburg, on the west coast of Sweden. Dave bought a bottle of aquavit and a deck of cards, and soon we made friends around a table in the main common area.

One traveler stood out. An American. A bit older and calmer than the others. Thin, with long hair and a steady gaze. He was in Gothenburg to wait for a friend so they could travel north and see the northern lights. He told remarkable stories. How he had sailed around the world. How he was preparing to motorcycle across Africa. We played cards and drank aquavit for hours.

Somewhere in the late 1990s or early 2000s, during the dot-com boom, the technology company he founded was acquired and paid him out handsomely. He packed his bags and had been traveling ever since. He learned to sail, to repair a motorcycle, and to speak multiple languages, and had acquired a lifetime’s worth of stories. We were mesmerized.

He did not gloat. He was not proud. If anything, he seemed resigned. As if this whole thing was his second choice. As if he had seen something better and it had passed him by. This was just his path. He talked of the future as an unstructured expanse to be filled with the next grand adventure as I might talk of having to find a new apartment. He talked of loneliness. Of meeting his friends from back home and their wives and children. Of having no home, no plan, and a rotating cast of acquaintances who floated in and out of his life. He laughed when someone suggested that he was “drowning on freedom” but said nothing in response.

The next day Dave and I drove north along the coast into the forests, up into the hills, through the valleys, up higher and higher until we dove into the fjords, cutting through tunnels and over bridges. We stopped to look at waterfalls and eat hot dogs from Norwegian gas stations. After a foggy day in Bergen, we drove back along a different route and Dave dropped me off in Oslo to fly home.

A year and a half earlier, shortly before I punted on my law school applications for another year, and one month before my first date with Jess and the start of my trip to India, I documented three radically different visions for the year leading up to law school, partly inspired by Dave’s trip around the world. I named the document “Life Options”:

  • Don’t Move Out and Don’t Quit Job: I would go to India with Dave for 1-2 months, return to DC, and travel as much as possible before starting school the next fall. But I couldn’t take a big trip, and paying rent on an empty room felt silly.
  • Move Out and Don’t Quit Job: I wouldn’t need to pay rent while traveling, and my ability to work remotely meant I could work something out for the time between vacations before starting school.
  • Move Out and Quit Job: I would have close to eight months and minimal expenses to see the world. As I noted in the document: “there may never be another time I can pull this off.”

In the end I didn’t file my law school applications that cycle, mooting the plans I had worked up. But the wanderlust that had inspired them remained, and inspired the 17 weeks of travel I managed in 2009. It also inspired the trip to Spain with Jess where we decided to move in together. And it whispered faint doubts into my ear as I sent off my deposit for law school and discussed moving in with Jess.

Which brings us back to Gothenburg, and the traveler.

I don’t believe in fate and I don’t believe in luck, but it was useful for me to have met that traveler in Gothenburg. Because he was someone who took his wanderlust to the logical conclusion: a life of constant travel. A life without a home. He was someone who, when given all the freedom and money he could manage, chose a path that focused on the short term to the exclusion of the long term. A life without roots.

I’ve always known that a life without travel is not the life for me, but the traveler showed me that a life with only travel might not be the life for me either. As is often the case, the ideal path is somewhere in the middle. And that realization was profoundly comforting as I invested my time and energy into building a career and a life and a home in DC.

When I left the traveler back in 2010, he was waiting to meet a friend so they could go see the northern lights. It took me more than seven years after that day in Gothenburg to see the lights myself.

This last September, my wife Jess and I watched the green lights dance across the sky through the window of our plane to Iceland, careful not to wake our two and a half year old daughter, Lucy, on her way to her fourth country bag. Once there, we helped her swim through the Blue Lagoon to find Icelandic mermaids and waterfalls, follow cats through elf gardens, and make “soup” in an empty coffee cup on the black sand beaches of Vik.

I will always have that itch, that wanderlust that makes me want to drive into the sunset or bag a new country. That itch has led me to some remarkable places. But I decided back in 2010 that it would not prevent me from building a career and a life that challenge me. From putting down roots. And that decision has led me to some remarkable places too.

I once met a man who drowned on freedom.  I did not follow him.

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