Unschooling in the Art of Travel

One of the lessons I learned from my dad was never stated in so many words, but I like to frame it as follows…

Life, at its best, is a series of adventures; not always successful, not always happy endings, but compelling narratives worth living, sharing with others and spurring our fullest development.

Continuing my series on the key unschooling threads in my young life, I share some of my key developmental travel adventures, which were mostly endeavors engaged in outside of any classroom, school or other formal learning situation. Yet they were some of my most important developmental experiences, giving me a useful orientation along with a sense of agency that I have taken into my adult life, more significant to the person I’ve become than anything I learned in school.

With the wrong mindset, travel can be cast as an arduous logistical chore, long dull hours in a seat, or the discomfort of unfamiliar food, people or circumstances. But when traveling is cast in the light of adventure, I think it can be the greatest of experiences, particularly for kids. If life is a journey, then a trip to somewhere else can be a microcosm of life’s journey, a metaphorical education on perhaps how better to lead one’s life.

This is quite a long autobiographical piece (over 8000 words) weaving together a handful of pieces I have written previously in order to capture an important unschooling thread in my young life that has had a profound impact on who I was able to become as an adult.

Day Trips in the Wayback

I was about seven when my parents bought the first of a series of used station wagons, including that wonderful peculiarity, that third row of seats in the back, and in the case of our Mercury, even facing backwards. Since the second row of car seats was generally referred to as the “back seat”, my brother and I came to dub the third row as the “wayback seat” or simply the “wayback”, which also riffed on the wonderfully creative “Rocky & Bullwinkle Show” we watched religiously, and particularly the history traveling time machine of Mr. Peabody (the professorial talking dog) “and his boy Sherman”.

Since my mom was in homemaker/parent mode during the week (certainly not a natural fit for her, though she loved her kids), and she and my dad tended to get on each others nerves if they spent too much time together (they divorced when I was ten), my dad took the opportunity often to take my younger brother Peter and I out on day-long adventures on Saturday or Sunday.

Our dad took us on many day trips which were launched with no specific destination in mind beyond simply a direction to start off in. I think he craved encountering things that were unexpected, and therefore perhaps, more interesting. Throughout the course of the day’s drive we would end up at some fast-food place for lunch, a miniature golf course or bowling alley for a few games and maybe a donut shop for “goodies” and jolts of caffeine (Cokes for us and coffee for dad). He seemed happy to be alone in the front driving while we were seemingly at times miles away in the “wayback” playing out some fantasy world which might or might not be incorporating the world we saw going by.

Sometimes my brother and I were tail-gunners in a World War II bomber being shot at by, and returning fire on, the other cars and truck behind us. This was usually more narrative invention than simulated first-person shooter video game, because each of us tail-gunners had a back story and a long relationship with the other. We were often injured by enemy fire invoking dramatic prior-to-death confessions and/or miraculous recoveries. Sometimes we rolled the time-clock forward a century and wielded imaginary laser-cannons instead of machine-guns.

Other car trips we would informally survey the general friendliness and shyness of the drivers and passengers of other cars behind us by animatedly waving at them from our perch, and seeing if they would return our boisterous and friendly waves with the same, or a more restrained wave or none at all and perhaps even a grimace. It was certainly an interesting informal survey of the range of human behaviors.

My brother and I were not always off in our own invented worlds but also spent plenty of time collaborating with our dad on the logistics of the day’s agenda. Which cheap fast-food restaurant to stop at. How to best recover from getting “lost” and getting back on the intended path, even consulting maps where necessary (we even might have asked for directions once or twice). We learned to expect the unexpected and go with the flow, and that every ostensibly wrong turn could lead to something interesting, fun or even memorable. We learned how to entertain ourselves for hours on end where others might succumb to boredom. We learned all the techniques (making up some ourselves) to spice up the adventure of travel.

Cross-Country Adventures

The pinnacle of travel adventure in the “wayback” were our vacation trips from Ann Arbor Michigan back east to either Binghamton, New York (where my maternal grandparents lived) or Cape Cod in Massachusetts. Either of these was a day-long drive usually begun at five in the morning to avoid a long hot summer afternoon driving in a car with no air conditioning.

Because of the pre-dawn start time, the car would be configured for the trip the night before. The backseat and wayback seat were put down flat and we would put down two thin cot mattresses to cover the entire area of the station wagon behind the front seat. Suitcases were squeezed into corners or somehow underneath the seats, leaving a large flat cushioned area which would then be festooned with pillows and blankets for my brother and I to initially sleep in and later play in during the long day’s trip. This of course was before the days of seat belts and I shudder to think what would have happened in this configuration if we had gotten in a crash.

The morning of the trip we would be awoken by our dad (he never seemed to sleep very much), and bleary-eyed and still in our pajamas, we would stumble outside and climb into the back of the fully decked-out station-wagon. My dad usually took the first shift driving would as we set out on this grand day’s adventure. My brother and I would nestle ourselves under all the blankets and amongst the pillows and peek up through the windows and watch the street lights go by.

These trips, taking us farther afield from mostly flat same-old southeast Michigan, included following and crossing larger rivers (like the Mohawk and Hudson in New York), or crossing big suspension bridges or the long rolling ridges of the Finger Lake region of upstate New York (with my mom’s commentary of this or that town she had memories of from growing up), or cutting through the granite-laced mountains of western Massachusetts. On our trips to “the Cape” we would heighten our anticipation of the destination by all four competing to see who would be the first one to see the Atlantic ocean.

There would also be those funky one-of-a-kind places where we would always stop. Like a little restaurant outside of Binghamton that had this really cool pinballesque bowling game played by sliding this heavy metal disk down an eight-foot metal alley. The disk would slide over metal triggers which would cause the pretend pins to fall, and then the mechanisms would calculate and display your ten-frame bowling score.

We all understood that the whole point was the change of scenery, the change of perspective, going with the flow and rolling with the punches. Even bad weather was reframed from an anxiety producing obstacle to an exciting challenge that would make this trip that much more memorable.

Sleeping Compartment

Part of the adventure of travel was sleeping in strange and interesting places. Nothing fit that bill more than having a sleeping compartment on an overnight train. No travel experience from my youth was more romantic and thrilling than the winter holiday train trip we took several times from our home in Ann Arbor to my grandparents’ house in Binghamton New York. “Over the meadow and through the woods…” as it were.

The train originated in Chicago and got into Ann Arbor in the early evening. Since Ann Arbor was a smaller town and just a short stop, we had to wait for the approaching train on a cold outdoor platform and quickly drag ourselves and our luggage on board. The conductor then led us to our small compartment, what they called a “roomette”. With our luggage either stowed in the baggage car or in a small “closet” in our room, the seats in the room folded down and a mattress was pulled down from the wall and pretty much covered the entire floor of the compartment. This in effect turned the small space into one maybe queen-sized bed, shared by all four of us, with a window looking out at the passing countryside.

It was particularly that window, and the view it provided, that was the key to the exciting adventure ahead. My brother and I would change into our pajamas and sit on the bed looking out while our parents maybe had coffee or a drink in the lounge car before joining us kids under the covers. The fun was being all warm and snuggled under the blankets while being able to watch the cold winter world go by outside.

The train’s path took us from Ann Arbor some forty miles east through Detroit with a major stop at the big station there. From Detroit the train continued east, and in one of its most exciting anticipated moments, took the tunnel under the Detroit River, reemerging in Ontario Canada. The descent into the blackness of the tunnel, with only an occasional light zipping by for maybe a quarter of an hour underground, was one of the big highlights for me of the train journey.

After crossing the farmland of southern Ontario, the next great moment of the journey was crossing the Peace Bridge over the St. Lawrence Seaway to leave Canada and arrive in Buffalo New York. Picture a small boy in a darkened train compartment under the covers in bed looking out a big train window down through a metal frame railroad bridge at the icy waters below, full of small icebergs, ghostly white against the dark water. What could be more memorable?

I still love riding the train whenever and wherever I can. Maybe not the fastest way to get across town or across the country, but a multi-faceted adventure in ways that few other means of travel can offer. Like driving a car or riding the bus, you can watch the world go by, but on the train there is the interior dynamic as well – all the fellow passengers and train staff (even if just a conductor) that you can interact with, and an interior space that you can move around in and explore. The latter is particularly true on the longer-haul trains that have the various lounge, dining and observation cars. It all can synergize into its own little ad hoc short-time-span community of travelers, as good a community as one could find I think. Certainly as a metaphor for life, on the train it is not just about getting from point A to point B. The journey plus sharing it with one’s fellow travelers, and not necessarily the destination, is the point.

Burnt Out in Brussels

Travel of course can be problematic and stressful, particularly when best laid plans break down and one is in a strange place where it is not clear how to proceed. Rising to those occasions is one of the great developmental experiences one can have. I had such an experience traveling with my mother and younger brother through Western Europe when I was 15.

My mom, ever skilled in creative improvisation on a modest budget, figured out how to trade houses for the summer with a couple in Oxford England, who had arranged to attend classes at our local university that summer. The trade included using each other’s cars. Since at the time the cost of living was actually less in Oxford than Ann Arbor, our only major additional expense for the ten-week trip would be the air fare to and from Europe. My mom found a cheap charter flight for us from Detroit to Amsterdam in mid June and returning from London in late August. Only problem was the flight arrived in Amsterdam several days before we could take possession of the Oxford house. So she parted with some additional money to reserve a few nights of lodging in Amsterdam and surface travel from there to Oxford. No big deal, though an added expense against a tight budget.

I don’t know if it is endemic to right-brained creative people like my mom and me, but we aren’t good at keeping a large set of bits of information in our heads, so we need to make extensive use of lists and other planning and organizational devices to keep it together. Despite our best efforts to plan, we are subject in a bad moment not to remember a key bit of information and panic, which causes our minds to go blank, increasing the panic and at times causing a sudden, temporary, but total dysfunction.

My mom had one such episode when we left Amsterdam after our three day stay there, headed by train to Brussels to catch a second train to Calais and then across the Channel to England. I recall that our train got to Brussels late and my mom took a wrong turn in the station and we missed our train to Calais. At this point, normally subject to panic perhaps, she managed to keep it together, find out that there was a nice hotel not far from the airport and hired a cab to take us there. I don’t remember the hotel name, but I do remember the lobby with its high ceiling and antique curtains and couches, including the one we sat down on to regroup. My mom did her best to communicate in English with the desk clerks only to learn there was no room available in the hotel, and the alternative lodgings suggested all involved logistical complications that were daunting and problematic in one way or another. It was at this point that my mom lost it and started to sob in the big crowded lobby of this hotel so far from home in a foreign land.

It’s funny sometimes the things that motivate you. Like many teenagers, I was shaky enough in my own self-esteem to be easily embarrassed by my parents’ behavior when I was with them in public. In the Brussels hotel I did not want to have anything to do with a blubbering parent. The only thing more humiliating (in my thinking at that moment) than a crying woman in a public place, was to be the powerless kid of that crying person sitting there next to her and unable to do anything about it, feeling every set of eyes in the place looking and judging. I imagined that someone would shortly volunteer to help somehow and my mom would be reduced to utter obsequiousness and humiliation which would also be humiliating for me (projecting my own self-esteem issues of course).

This turned out to be a milestone in my relationship with my mom and her transition in my eyes from iconic parental authority figure to fellow human being and more of a peer. I discovered that I was perfectly capable of asserting my own personal authority when the situation called for it. Such is the developmental milieu of travel that it can take you out of your conventional patterns, things can come completely unraveled, and one must take the reins and improvise.

Before anything else happened I said pointedly to her something to the effect of, “Listen… here’s what we need to do.” I laid out a plan where we would get something to eat at the hotel, since we were all tired and hungry, then take a cab back to the train station and set up shop there for as long as it took to find another train to Calais. It wasn’t rocket science, but it was a path forward and more that my mom, in her temporary diminished capacity, was capable of piecing together.

So we executed my plan. Found the hotel bar to have some sort of sandwiches and then got a cab back to the train station. I helped my mom negotiate with the station agent and we found an evening train to Calais. We would deal with what to do next once we got there. Turned out we got to Calais too late to do the channel crossing, but got good advice on a nearby reasonably priced hotel where we spent the night and were able to relax and regroup. The next morning we took our space-age hovercraft ride across the Channel to the English side and then by a wonderful open-air double-deck bus on a beautiful early September day to London and another bus on to our destination in Oxford.

After rising to the occasion in Brussels, I took more ownership for the trip in general, and my mom relied on me as her co-planner and car trip navigator. It was weird sitting in what would be the driver seat of an American car, as my mom braved driving on the “wrong” side of the road, and I encouraged her onward as we explored the country on three- or four-day excursions from our home base in Oxford. She later would joke proudly with friends about how I took over in Brussels, embellishing the story as she always would do, and how I relentlessly forced the three of us to see every cathedral and castle in England.

Though I won’t detail it in this piece, I’m sure those of you who have lived in foreign countries for parts of your lives would agree that there is no more compelling developmental experience, particularly so for young people. All the big or even little differences you encounter living within a different culture (even one with a shared language and much shared heritage like England), jump out at you and make you examine a myriad of things you might otherwise do under the radar of your awareness under the banner of “business as usual”. I think the experience can teach you to be more present, and even when returning to your home, continue with a heightened awareness of the assumptions behind your home culture.

My Own European Odyssey

In 1973 at age 18, having surly caught the travel bug three years earlier, I planned a ten-week journey to Europe with a female friend. I’m not sure I really knew what I was getting myself in for, but I did have that previous experience spending the summer in England with my mom and brother, plus a two-week high school Russian Club trip to the Soviet Union a year after that. Add to that the adventures of long family car trips back east or the ad hoc day-trips with my brother and dad. So I felt comfortable with being a traveler and the logistics involved, including not being intimidated by being in other countries where I did not speak the language.

So my friend and I got our passports and bought our plane tickets and alerted people I knew in Oxford and Munich by mail that we would be coming and trying to look them up. Other than that there was very little additional planning, other than deciding what clothes, toiletries and other personal items to fill our backpacks with. I recall having basically two changes of clothes besides what I was wearing to take me through the ten-week trip.

Long story short, my friend got cold feet in our first few days in England, and decided to abandon the trip and return home. After struggling with the decision to continue on my own (including a tearful international call to my mom from a pay phone), I pushed forward for nine weeks on my own. These events turned the trip from a fun adventure with a good buddy into a much more intense existential odyssey, a stranger in a strange land of languages I could not speak or understand and other heavily developmental experiences.

On My Own

After parting company with my friend in London, I boarded a train that would take me to a ferry across the Channel and then on to Basel, Switzerland. From there I would change trains and head to my next destination, Munich in southern Germany, with the hope of hooking up with a German couple I had met with my mom during our trip to England three years earlier.

I arrived in Basel at three in the morning after that long train ride, exiting the train in the midst of a huge busy station, full of people speaking languages I did not understand and train schedules in German on the various displays on the walls. I had to fight back fear and homesickness to keep focusing on the task of buying a ticket for and finding the next train to Munich. Luckily there, and most places I went, I could find somebody who spoke at least a bit of English, and I even learned a few phrases in German along the way to help me navigate mass transit.

By morning I was on a train to Munich, feeling a bit better that I had successfully negotiated my first foreign-language train station, and that I would hopefully end the day connecting with my friends in Munich who knew me and spoke pretty good English as well. Things did not work out that way.

I had thrown myself into a hugely developmental “deep end” that I could not say I was looking forward to but was determined to traverse somehow and return home a triumphant world traveler. I quickly discovered that when you are on your own, wrestling with loneliness in a “strange land”, encounters with other people and time spent alone have a more profound impact, than when one has a familiar buddy to help buffer and process the new experiences.

Army Brats

It is interesting that some of us are bitten by the travel bug while others of us don’t seem to be into this sort of adventure at all, even when blessed with golden opportunities to do so.

Arriving on the train from Basel, the Munich station was even more chaotic, with people everywhere including outside on the surrounding streets. I did not know at first that I had stumbled into the Bavarian capitol during its yearly Oktoberfest, the busiest week of the year. I called the number I had for the couple we had befriended in England three years earlier, but repeatedly there was no answer. Looking for a “Plan B”, I discovered that the nearby youth hostel was full, along with virtually all the hotels, cheap or otherwise, that I might have in desperation paid for a bed to sleep in.

On my own in this crowded chaotic environment, I quickly learned that these major European travel hubs, like the Munich train station (and youth hostels I later stayed at) usually had a fair amount of other older youth and/or young adults like myself from the U.S., Great Britain, Australia and other English-speaking countries, traveling about like myself. This impromptu network became a very important asset that I often tapped into during my trip.

In the Munich train station it was a Canadian guy named Bill, maybe a couple years older than me, who noticed me looking around perplexed, came up and said hello. I shared with him my dilemma, and he provided the possibility for a solution. He was also traveling on his own, like me, and had arrived just several hours earlier and had been presented with the same lodging dilemma. Bill had had the fortune to meet an American, Stu, again around our ages, whose dad was stationed at the U.S. military base in Munich. Stu was living in a college dorm on the military base and taking classes at an extension of a U.S. university, and had offered Bill a place to stay while he was in town. Bill suggested that maybe his impromptu host could find me a bed or couch for me to sleep on as well.

Sounded good to me… I was quickly learning to go with the flow, have low expectations when traveling, and focus on the basics, which in this case was that anything had to be better than sleeping in a busy train station. I tagged along with Bill as he guided us back to his host’s environ and introduced me. Stu was gracious and welcoming in that sort of stereotypical 1970s Cheech and Chong sort of “cool man” sort of way and offered me the living room couch to sleep on that night.

Bill, Stu and I had a bond that I ended up sharing with many other people my age I met in my European odyssey. We were immersed in that wannabe flower-child, hippie ethos of solidarity with others of our kind. I certainly looked the part with my long hair, bell-bottom pants and pack on my back. Stu had his long “freak flag” hair as well. Thinking about it now I recall Graham Nash’s opening lyric in his 1970 Crosby, Stills and Nash song “Teach Your Children Well”…

You who are on the road
Must have a code that you can live by
And so become yourself
Because the past is just a good bye

Part of that bond was very often celebrated by “recreational intoxication”, which was the state of things when Bill and I were invited into Stu’s dorm suite. Stu’s living room couch (my prospective sleeping place) currently sported two of Stu’s fellow army brat student buddies sharing a pipe with a big chunk of hashish in the bole. There was also a half-full bottle of Tanqueray gin on the coffee table with a scattering of shot glasses. I unburdened myself of my fifty-pound backpack and gratefully (dutifully?) took my place in that third spot on the couch, joining, at least for now, this “circle of equals”, passing our “peace pipe” of sorts.

Between the THC and the alcohol chasers I got seriously stoned pretty quickly. With continuing gratitude and great focus I endured this ritual without passing out or getting physically ill (on other occasions I was not quite so blessed), until my couch mates and my host decided to call it a night, and I had the sofa to myself and transitioned more gracefully into unconsciousness.

Over the next three days Bill and I explored Munich and frequented the Oktoberfest tents set up by the region’s brewers, with their oom-pah-pah bands, big glass mugs of beer and even bigger bouncers at the entrances and exits. I quickly learned to request, “Ein grosses bier, bitte”, and was rewarded with a grand foam-dripping mug of amber liquid way tastier than any of the standard American beers I recalled from before my European trip.

We also spent a fair amount of time those three days talking to our hosts and their circle of army brat college student friends. I was a bit shocked to find that most of the group spent the bulk of their time in their little campus enclave, attending their classes during the day and limiting their evening hours to pretty much just hanging out with each other, generally getting high and drinking the cheap booze they could buy at the base PX. I thought it was ironic that I had spent all this money and done all this planning to get to Europe so I could explore this historic continent, while they were already here, but rarely ventured out into the surrounding environment of Munich and the beautiful environs of mountains, forests and the Rhine River in the larger Bavaria. Somehow sharing that certain ennui, while passing the bottle and hash pipe, was more compelling (or perhaps more comforting and even medicating) than venturing out into these wonderful foreign lands.

Their choice (and thoughts about its possible motivations) stuck with me as I parted company with this group and continued on with my travels, with Bill as a companion for a while, and then back on my own. I was pondering whether, at least at this point in our lives, I was perhaps more of a “seeker” and a “free agent” than they were. Then again, maybe it was mainly pride and ego that drove me to continue on my own, not really knowing what I was in for and lacking the safety net of a close friend ever at my side to help with difficult decisions along the way or help get through the lonely patches.

A Very Long Day

One memorable day of my European odyssey began before sunrise in Trier Germany and ended finally at 4am the next morning in Brussels Belgium, with four cities and six train-rides in between, and me gaining a better sense of the extent of my own physical and mental stamina.

I left the youth hostel where I had been staying early Sunday morning and headed for the train station, my fifty-pound pack on my back. I was now four weeks into my odyssey, and though a healthy youth with a dependable constitution, I was frayed at the edges, both physically and psychologically. I was traveling with the clothes on my back plus two changes in my pack, and neither I nor my clothes got washed more than once a week. (Though most of the hostels I stayed at had showers, they generally did not have hot water, and I hated cold showers!) I also was feeling the dry mouth and stuffy nose of a cold coming on, and the weather had turned chilly and gray.

Being quite the geography and military history geek (we used to say “buff”), I got it in my head to go to one of the places featured in my various historical war board games… maybe Waterloo or some place associated with the Battle of the Bulge. Researching my youth hostel guide (one year out of date), I found no hostel in or close to Napoleon’s final battle, but Clervaux, a fortress town on my Avalon Hill Battle of the Bulge game-board, did have one. I could stay there and maybe find a way to get to Bastogne, the famous town where General McAuliffe and the U.S. 101st Airborne Division held out against the German assault.

It was as good a plan as any! I had nowhere I had to be and no one expecting me. With my rail pass I could improvise, hop on any random train and just show the plastic card with my picture to the conductor. I recalled the lyrics of the Beatles’ song “You Never Give Me Your Money”…

Oh that magic feeling, nowhere to go

… as I boarded the train that would take me to Luxembourg City, where I would catch my second train up into the mountainous forests of the Ardennes to Clervaux.

Clervaux was a beautiful little town built on and surrounded by steep hills, nestled in a small river valley, the town center dominated by an old castle and church. I found the street to the youth hostel, which wound its way up the hill. Carrying the fifty pound pack, and nursing that cold, I felt glad that my day’s travels were almost done.

But when I got to the hostel, there was a sign on the door saying it was closed for the season. It was Sunday and the whole town was pretty closed down. My throat was getting sore and I was low on water and not finding a place where I could get more. Being on a tight budget (that could afford a $2 youth hostel but not $10 to $20 for a hotel room) I retraced my steps down the hill to the train station to catch the last train of the day back to Luxembourg City.

Back at that city’s train station, and now desperate to find cheap lodging (and not sleep in a station as I had done once or twice previously), I found a train leaving for Namur Belgium, which according to my guide, had a hostel as well. When I got to Namur it was the end of the work day and the station area was bustling with people going here and there. As in all these situations, if I was not fortunate enough to find someone who spoke English, I knew how to say “youth hostel” in French and German, but could not really understand more than the most rudimentary instructions and directions. Somehow I found out what bus I needed to board and what stop I should get off at. The bus was crowded (I could not find a seat and had to stand) and the driver was in a churlish mood, yelling at a boarding passenger at one point in a language I did not understand. I screwed up my courage and tried to tell him that I needed to get off at the stop for the youth hostel. He nodded grimly, said nothing, and drove on.

After what seemed like an hour or more, I got off the bus at a stop that seemed like the right one, but I was certainly not sure. I wandered around the streets asking anyone who looked reasonably willing for directions. I did not understand their words, but they pointed in a direction that I would walk for a block or two, then ask for directions again.

After two or three iterations of this (and not finding my destination), I had the fortune to come to the attention of two young Dutch women driving a car who were kind enough to hail me and ask if I was looking for the youth hostel. I said yes and they offered me the back seat of their small sedan. We finally found the hostel, but consistent with my day’s karma, it was full. My two vivacious and good-looking rescuers were gracious enough to drive me back to the train station (though not gracious enough to fulfill my fantasy and offer me a place to stay for the night).

It was now evening when I boarded my next train from Namur to Liege, where another potential lodging was indicated in my guide. I got into the station after ten in the evening, and the station master gave me directions (mostly in English) on how to get to the youth hostel, which was a long walk from the station across the Meuse river to the other side of town. Dog tired with sore throat and now aching shoulders hoisting my pack, I set off through the dark cold stone city. I must have walked at least four miles, when I came across an open tavern where I stopped and ordered “Ein grosses bier bitte”.

It was the best tasting pint my lips have ever tasted. The bitterness soothed my throat and the alcohol gave me enough of a buzz to press on. Unfortunately, the time spent indulging my thirst led to my arrival at the hostel just past midnight, and despite my pleadings the proprietor stuck to his guns that his establishment was closed for the night and I was once more out of luck.

Bewildered and still buzzed from the beer, I walked the five miles back through town and over the Meuse to the train station. There was a train due in at 2am headed for Copenhagen. I had talked to other fellow travelers (at previous hostels where I had actually managed to secure lodging) who had used overnight trains to sleep. This train was scheduled to arrive in Copenhagen Monday morning, so I boarded it with the plan to sleep in my seat.

The first stop happened to be in Brussels about 3:30 in the morning, at an open platform rather than an enclosed station. I saw a neon sign across the street that said something close to “Hotel”. Now sneezing with a runny nose, without much conscious deliberation I debarked from the train, crossed the street and stumbled into the hotel and asked the night desk clerk for a room. He had one which cost me what I remember to be several hundred Belgian francs (about $15 American I recall). I shelled out that budget-busting sum and was so grateful and longing to sleep in a real bed after my ordeal of a day.

Just like no beer had ever tasted as good as the one I had sucked down a few hours earlier in Liege, no clean sheets, soft mattress and pillow had ever felt better against my beaten body. In that little room, just hours before dawn, I contemplated my existential situation.

Feeling very lonely, I again contemplated bailing out and returning to the States. But maybe pride, maybe a sense that I might never have this opportunity again, drove me to continue until my money ran out. I had budgeted my trip to be about ten weeks to see all the sights of Western Europe. I was apparently developing enough tenuous self-respect that I did not want to risk losing it truncating my trip and not completing that itinerary. I finally passed out from utter fatigue pondering where I would head off to tomorrow.

Tunnel Under the Alps

Seven weeks into my European odyssey, on a train from northern Italy to Switzerland, now a very weary traveler and feeling like somewhat of a lost soul, I entered what I recall as the Saint Gotthard Tunnel under the Alps, and emerged into a completely transformed world and a new chapter in my existential journey with fresh insight into the human condition. (I may have actually gone through a different tunnel of comparable length, as noted by someone who has heard this story with a good knowledge of Western European railway geography, though at the time that was my recollection.)

It was now early November, and I had boarded the train in Venice headed across Northern Italy then under the Alps to Interlaken Switzerland. My now lengthy trip was mostly behind me, but my soul was fatigued and longing to go home, yet determined not to do so until my money ran out. You can add in my own personal ennui having spent the last few nights in Venice, a city that might qualify as the ennui capitol of the world with its soot-stained brick piazzas, looking like it had been recently raised out of the Adriatic, still in need of having the water marks cleaned up, and likely to re-submerge.

I recall the train left first thing in the morning on a sunny early December day with a temperature in the fifties. It was mid-afternoon before we reached the famous tunnel, an astonishing nine miles long, dug under the Alps between 1871 and 1881 at the cost of at least 200 worker’s lives lost. The sun still shone in a cloudless sky when we entered the south end of the tunnel, and though the actual time might have only been about twenty or thirty minutes, in my spent psychological state it seemed quite longer, long enough at least for the blackness to capture my attention and my imagination in all its metaphorical power.

Alone, rattling along in the all-encompassing dark, a sense of dread flowed through me that the world, or at least my world, had suddenly ended. It was a month earlier on my trip that I had watched on German television the start of the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War, and then met an American soldier on a train, called back to his base to counter an imminent Russian military move against Israel. It all felt like the world was coming apart with me right in the middle of it an ocean away from home and family.

From that dark nothingness the train emerged from the north end of the tunnel into the other extreme, a white-out blizzard with thousands of large snow flakes impacting against the window of my train car. I recall it was ten or fifteen more minutes before I could see anything but white out that window, as the train found its way out of the snow squall. From my now cozy seeming compartment I could see a winter wonderland of evergreen trees punctuated by the occasional wood and stone houses all decorated in a thick icing of fresh snow. The train finally pulled into the station at Interlaken, my intermediate destination and transfer point to another train that would take me up to the mountain town of Grindewald.

I only had time to buy and eat some way too expensive railroad station food before I boarded the train to my final destination. The snow continued outside at a less frenetic pace as the train climbed upward into the mountains, stopping at every little village along the way. It was late afternoon and the end of the school day, and at every stop dozens of Swiss school kids either boarded or debarked from the train. They sat in the seats all around me, with their rosy cheeks, brightly colored hats and backpacks, laughing and chattering in what sounded to me like German, full of energy and enthusiasm for the daily adventure of the ride home from school.

I was a lonely soul surrounded by all this joyous youthful energy and hope for the future, and the irony of this scene was not lost on me. I had my reasons to be sad and reflective, but the world was full of other people with reasons for hope and joy. The view of the Swiss winter wonderland out the window was appropriately stunning and I was headed to what by all accounts was a gorgeous little town at the base of one of the world’s most photogenic and storied peaks. Not enough perhaps to get this eighteen-year-old to shelve his angst and ennui, but enough at least to give his darkened places glimmers of light and hope.

I arrived in Grindewald in the early evening and checked in to my youth hostel. On its upstairs balcony I looked out over the valley below at the lights of the town, though darkness and clouds obscured the view of the Eiger across the valley from my location. Like most youth hostels I stayed at I found other English-speaking older youth and young adults to talk, swap stories and even venture into town for a beer with. My extreme wave of angst had passed through me and moved on for now.

The next morning brought blue sky instead of clouds, and out on the hostel’s balcony, there across the little valley where the town nestled, was the amazingly huge mountain, with its jagged peaks gleaming white and silver and filling half the sky. I had somehow found my way, on my own, to one of the most spectacularly beautiful places in the world with a whole lifetime of additional adventures ahead of me. Yes I was still homesick, but I knew at some level that I had the courage and the agency to seek out and find a place like this. Other destinations would be attainable in the future when I was ready to seek them.

Saying Goodbye to my Home Town

Five years later, after completing college in 1978, I decided to leave Ann Arbor for Los Angeles in a half-baked scheme to fling myself off the deep end again and into adulthood in a big strange city, leaving behind my hometown with its close and dear friends, plus ghosts and memories in every neighborhood, park, store and other venue from the 23 years of my young life there. Lacking a really well thought out plan, this one at least made me feel like I was moving forward with my life somehow.

I was readying myself to depart from my comfortable little university town and all of its tree-lined streets I had walked, barefoot and shirtless on warm summer nights, bundled in down jacket, wool beanie and scarf wrapped round my nose and mouth on pristinely frigid winter days, or in the spring rain, with or without an umbrella. My brother Peter had left town two years earlier to go to college in Chicago. My mom had remarried my dad and gone south (literally and maybe figuratively as well) for Dayton, Ohio a year after that. I still had my war game buddies, JLO youth theater friends, and my “Feminist Aunts” Mary Jane and Carol, and other old friends of my folks. Despite the absence of my biological family, it was certainly enough of a network to build the foundations of an adult life, but not for me.

I had a half-baked dream of being in the film and TV business, wearing some hat or the other behind the camera, rather than in front of it as an actor. I could have actually pursued that dream in Ann Arbor, having connected with a number of other budding film/TV students in my university courses. But I was drawn to Los Angeles, the biggest pond of the entertainment industry, where my former theater group mentor Michael had relocated and offered me a free room in his house. I had never been to LA, and had no idea how overwhelming it could prove to be for a very small fish in that very big metaphorical pond. But at some deep level I knew that I had to have that experience to break through the thrall of my maybe idyllic, maybe sheltered youth. Like my previous backpacking through Europe and ordeal perhaps, but one I had to see through.

Like I had done backpacking through Europe, I was planning to leave Ann Arbor traveling light, with just a suitcase full of clothes, my backpack, and my few other intimate possessions. I had no car or furniture. All the other stuff of real or sentimental value I had accumulated was safely stored at my parents’ new place in Dayton. I think I continue to this day to travel and otherwise to chart life’s journey with a minimal amount of corporeal baggage, and just a few close companions at any given time. Arriving at a new destination with just the barest of necessities increases the creative possibilities of redesigning your life, but at the cost of feeling that heightened sense of being surrounded by the strange and losing the continuity of familiar life-threads and themes.

I have continued throughout my life to periodically dislocate and relocate myself, metaphorically if not geographically, in the name of reinvention, growth and evolution. Though it has continued to be jarring and discomforting, I have persevered on placing my bet and rolling the dice for the unknown with its seemingly unlimited possibilities.

I had planned my trip to Los Angeles to be an adventure of course, on my favorite conveyance the train. Amtrak from Ann Arbor to the Midwest’s railroad hub in Chicago. Then the Amtrak “Super Chief” (or whatever it was called I don’t really remember) to Denver Colorado where I was planning to spend a few days with a friend before boarding a plane for that last leg to Los Angeles. Turns out I got to the Windy City just as Amtrak unions went on strike and I ended up instead on a much less thrilling Greyhound bus crossing the cornfields of Iowa and Nebraska on my way to the Rockies. The lyrics from Paul Simon’s song “America” came to mind.

Jackie, I said, as I boarded the Greyhound for Pittsburgh… Michigan seems like a dream to me now.

Going Forward into Young Adulthood

My first few years in Los Angeles (now as a young adult with all that travel experience from my youth under my belt) would turn into another ordeal. Again, pride and some fortuitous circumstance kept me from bailing out until I had properly played the adventure out. My earlier travel experiences and the resulting growing confidence that I could overcome adversity mitigated my fear and gave me that extra bit I needed to hang in.

I have made a good life for myself in Los Angeles, highlighted by my life-partner Sally and my two now young adult kids. That path to the present has had its ordeals as well, but the experiences of my youth, including the travel adventures I’ve shared, have prepared me to weather them. I have also come to count on having that sort of epiphany I had coming out of the tunnel under the Alps and getting those occasional jolts of inspiration and glimpses of the true power and beauty of our human developmental adventure.

Looking back, my travel adventures have been an education both in the big things – like setting a direction, going with the flow, rolling with the punches, and being present in the moment – plus all the logistical details that help you maintain yourself and surround yourself with a rich environment for growth. There is no better time spent than when you can unhook yourself from your “business as usual” and chart “the road less taken”.

5 replies on “Unschooling in the Art of Travel”

  1. Thank you very much for this. I found your site from ‘Psychology Today’ and the Kate interview. I am a wannabe unschooler, having started home educating my 7 year old and nearly 4 year old, 4 months ago in Bahrain. I love this, “I have continued throughout my life to periodically dislocate and relocate myself, metaphorically if not geographically, in the name of reinvention, growth and evolution. Though it has continued to be jarring and discomforting, I have persevered on placing my bet and rolling the dice for the unknown with its seemingly unlimited possibilities.” – my new unschooling journey is like this but it’s on the back of many other successful evolutions. Lovely writing. Very readable.

  2. Terrific post, Cooper. You’ve probably noticed that we selected this for a post today which rounds up some of our favorite articles from around the web on the benefits of travel as alternative education. We’ve greatly enjoyed this one (as well as several of your other posts) and appreciate the inspiration.

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