etween March 1, 2021 and May 22, 2022, Shelby, Skutull, and I traveled to 26 states and 13 countries, a journey that covered 35,000 miles by car, train, plane, and boat. We crossed the Atlantic twice, once via air and another by the sea. The places we called home ranged from studio apartments in dense cities to farmhouses in the countryside, which were nestled amongst an array of deserts, beaches, mountains, forests, swamps, and pastures.
Time passed in a warped arc during our nomadic life. Sometimes I’d look back three months and it’d feel like years had passed, yet days and weeks flew by like jet planes in the sky. Just as we’d settle into a home and get to know a city, it’d be time to pack up and start over somewhere new. When we returned to our hometown Boulder at the end of our trip, it felt like nothing had changed since we’d left. In some ways home felt like a time capsule.
Nomad life was more difficult than I thought it would be. I knew going in that it wouldn’t be like living a perfect dream. I knew that travel is romanticized to an extreme degree online and that we’d encounter hardship and challenges, but even still I can see now that I held nomadic life to an unrealistic standard.
Life on the road was exciting, but it was also consuming and unsustainable long-term for me—distance degraded social connections, time zones exacerbated stress at work, and packing limitations eliminated hobbies. I had no choice but to let travel become my companion, boss, teacher, job, hobby, and identity. I thought I would l like that, but I didn’t.
I’d dreamed of traveling indefinitely since I was in high school and started following people like Nomadic Matt and Expert Vagabond online, so when my dream finally became reality fifteen years later, I was determined to make it live up to my expectations.
What surprised me most about our adventure was how much I changed between the sunny morning we first packed up our car and drove out of Boulder to the snowy evening we returned fifteen months later.
There was a honeymoon phase for nomadic life where everything felt perfect, but the novelty wore off as our journey progressed. I originally envisioned myself seeing and experiencing things around the world that’d I’d take with me throughout the rest of my life—vistas I’d never forget, history that would reshape my perspective, experiences that would make my life feel fulfilled. This is how the travel industry markets itself, and throughout my fairly extensive travels prior to our nomadic trip, these were some of the treasures of travel I thought I cherished and wanted more of.
As we drove south along the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains on our way out of Boulder, I felt like I was following a treasure map and knew exactly what riches I was about to uncover. It was simply a matter of walking the dotted line until I stumbled upon the sequenced red X’s that we (mostly Shelby) had meticulously planned.
It turns out that our treasure map wasn’t always accurate. Factors outside of our control frequently forced us off our path; other times we veered willingly toward greener pastures. When I reflect back on our chaotic and unpredictable journey, I’m astonished by how much the adventure changed me.
I’m not talking small changes in the food I eat or surface-level perspectives on how the way I live compares to other people, but major changes in personality and life trajectory. Our nomadic adventure forced me to take a crash course in myself. Looking back, I frankly can’t believe how poorly I knew myself.
This growth did not blossom without pain. We endured a varied bouquet of hardships. If I had to describe nomadic life in one word, I’d use “challenging.” Nomadic life is a wise but ruthless teacher. It throws you into a struggle that bombards you and forces you to look deep within yourself.
Remote work is currently heralded as a way to take back time for yourself—no getting ready in the morning, long commutes, or packing lunches. I’ve worked fully remotely since 2016, which should have given me plenty of free time, but I still succombed to a deep-rooted urge to work around the clock. I always felt like I had a long to-do list, but if I plowed through for just a little while longer, I’d finally cross everything off and feel fulfilled—then I could relax.
Unfortunately, life doesn’t work that way; it throws you more curve balls than lobs. My to-do list refilled itself at the same pace that I could cross items off. During our travels a lot of my free time was spent traveling. I don’t know how many hours we spent physically on the move, but it was at least a few hundred. I couldn’t work long hours even if I wanted to. That, combined with the fact that the chaos of nomadic life broke many of my long-term habits (both good and bad), forced me to carefully examine what I want to prioritize for the first time.
Nomadic life created enormous amounts of space, both physically and psychologically. Sometimes that space felt uncomfortable and I had to fight a primal urge to fill it. But it was in that space that I finally got to know myself.
Even though Shelby and I typically took two international trips per year before we became nomadic, I always had an itch for more. I had this fear in the pit of my stomach that there was too much world out there to explore and that I needed to get to work if I was going to see even a small percentage of it. I never paused to question why I felt like I needed to see so much, time was too short to slow down and think.
Travel culture today is infested with platitudes and clichés that I subconsciously bought into for most of my life, but I can now see them for the strawmen they truly are.
A lot of marketing and branding is centered on making products seem more unique and scarce than they are. I recognize now how prolific this pattern is in the travel industry. Every destination is painted as some combination of “Like nothing you’ve ever seen,” “Steeped in rich history,” and “Vibrant with culture.”
What I’ve realized is not that these clichés are false, but that they are true of literally every single place on Earth. By definition, every new place you visit will be unlike anything you’ve ever seen as no two places are the same; every square inch of the planet has existed for billions of years and has its own history that is no richer than any other spot; and every group of people on the planet has their own vibrant culture, even if they don’t recognize it.
The more I travel, the more I realize how similar we all are. We love, we work, we eat, we worship, we grow our families. A younger version of myself would have said cultures were highly varied, mirroring the vast diversity of life on Earth; now I’d say they are more like flavors of ice cream—the same core components with slight variations. At the end of the day, all any of us want is to live a happy, fulfilled life. The problem for me was that I didn’t know how to do that and I used travel to fill the void.
This same pattern surfaced time and time again throughout my life. Whether it was travel, starting software companies, or writing, I spent years clawing aimlessly in the dark for purpose. I knew that I wasn’t alone in my quest for fulfillment and that many other people felt as hopelessly lost as I did. I thought that my issue was that I wasn’t looking or working hard enough, which kicked off a negative feedback loop whereby I worked harder and dissociated more from living in the present in hopes that it would finally be enough. When the treasure I sought remained elusive, I dug in deeper, convinced that if I pushed a little harder, I’d break through and finally figure my life out.
I had to travel all over the world and nearly work myself to death for a decade to realize that none of that matters.
If you asked me what the best parts of our trip were, you’d probably expect me to list off one-of-a-kind vistas, historical landmarks, and fine-dining restaurants that litter blogs and Instagram accounts across the internet, but those parts of our trip feel stale and soulless when isolated in hindsight. They are what I thought I sought, but along the way, I discovered something simpler and more powerful.
I’ve talked with a few friends who’ve lived nomadically with their kids, and one theme that always seems to repeat itself is that the kids’ favorite travel moments almost never have anything to do with travel. They are usually about a random dog they met, an especially fun game of hide and seek, or cooking a simple meal with their parents.
Skutull is the same way. He doesn’t care about visiting a Scottish lake, a Colorado lake, and an Austrian lake to compare the pluses and minuses of each, he wants to swim. It doesn’t matter to him if a trail is in the Rocky Mountains or the Alps so long as he gets to go on a hike. He wants to lay by our feet as we eat dinner, whether that be at our house in Boulder or a pub in England. Countries, borders, brands, these are all figments of our collective human imagination—they do not physically exist. Skutull could give two shits where he is, he knows how to enjoy life anywhere as long as he has friends to share it with (and some food in his tummy).
I believe there is wisdom in how kids and Skutull approach life.
For most of my life, I thought that I loved travel because it checked off many boxes on my to-do list. Travel felt productive, which I mistook for fulfilling. I felt like the unique experiences I collected were guiding me toward my life’s purpose that I had been seeking for so long.
In order to document these milestones, I took up photography as a hobby when I was in high school. I thought that my “art” was an accurate chronicle of my path toward fulfillment. Each picture represented proof that I’d been somewhere and done something—that I’d checked off a box on my all important to-do list.
Looking back, I realize that I was addicted to productivity and loved travel because it forced me to temporarily break my productive habits and live in the present moment—in American culture we’re taught that vacation is the only time we don’t have to work.
I didn’t think much about why I was spending so much time and effort documenting my travels when I was doing it, but it seems obvious in hindsight: I wanted to remember how I felt unshackled from the need to spend every moment striving toward a goal. I wanted to feel that freedom all the time, but didn’t know how.
As our journey progressed, I found ways to integrate productivity back into my life. These optimizations felt like progress toward settling into our new lifestyle—our plan afterall was to potentially stay on the road for several years. The climax of my nomadic adventure was the moment that I realized travel was not what I’d been seeking for so long, it was the state of mind I often experienced when I traveled. By adapting travel to also fit in my old productive lifestyle, I faced the harsh realization that travel was not the treasure I’d been seeking. That was a difficult pill to swallow. I’d been so convinced that travel was the answer to all my questions in life that we’d completely uprooted ourselves to chase it.
I’ll circle back to the question: what were my favorite moments of our fifteen months on the road?
What pops into my head without thinking are: running or walking early in the morning with Skutull, visiting family and friends, eating dinners by a warm fire with Shelby and Skutull, hiking on quiet trails, and meeting interesting people along the way.
I’ve taken care to describe the important aspect of each experience while leaving out the details I now realize don’t matter. Sure, eating at pubs in England was amazing, but I honestly think I could enjoy a quiet dinner at home with Shelby and Skutull just as much if we had a cozy fireplace to sit by and we made the intention to let our meals at home be unrushed and enjoyable rather than something to get through quickly so that we can return to our productive work. Several of the hikes we did in Europe were incredibly scenic, but if I’m being honest, I didn’t enjoy the popular hikes that were swarmed with people collecting Instagram fodder. My favorite trails were the ones where it was just Shelby, Skutull, and I hiking through nature in a place where there was no noise pollution. We spent our first month back in Colorado living in the mountains just outside Boulder and our cabin backed up to a national forest. I loved hiking those empty trails just as much as any trail we’ve hiked across the world, even though the views weren’t as photographable.
The common thread in each of my favorite experiences is that they are all things I could do every day from anywhere in the world. Fulfilment is not crossing items off a list, but a state of being. As darkness is defined by an absence of light, I think fulfillment is our default state in the absence of goals and worries.
One sobering realization I had that helped me get over this hump is that no matter how successful and productive I am in my life, I will be forgotten. Presidents, entrepreneurs, scientists, athletes, celebrities—they all seem important now, but they too will be forgotten. The universe is at least four billion years old, yet our egos make us think that the four thousand years since the beginnings of modern human civilization are all that matter. In all likelihood, one million years from now, a blip in space and time, nobody will remember Barack Obama, Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey, Tiger Woods, or Albert Einstein, let alone Zack Thoutt. And that’s if humans still even exist.
Humans astronomically overestimate our importance in the universe, and for me, that led to a lot of unhappiness as I fought to be recognized and remembered—to achieve.
The simplicity of this realization also makes logical sense. I no longer think that purpose and fulfillment are limited resources, but when I used to measure my fulfillment by my list of achievements, that’s exactly what I was creating. If you need to accumulate influence, fame, or money to have purpose, then by definition you can only achieve your goal if others fail. If we are all rich, nobody is rich; if we are all famous, nobody is famous; if we are all influential, nobody is influential.
I believe that every being on the planet must possess the ability to achieve their version of fulfillment with what they have. I see now how short-sighted it was for me to frame fulfillment in the context of acheiving goals and crossing off items on a list.
It makes sense and is even poetic that simplifying my life helped me find fulfillment, that doing less gave me more purpose.
The ultimate gift that our nomadic adventure gave me was a bucket of ice cold water on my head that showed me I have everything I need to live a purposeful life—we all do. I can live in the present moment all the time, like I sometimes did when I traveled in the past. I can take an entire night off from “productive” work to prepare and enjoy a meal at home with my family. I can get to know my neighbors. I don’t need to travel to Instagram meccas for scenic vistas when I can explore trails in my backyard and connect with nature there. I’ve honestly seen and learned enough human history that I think I’m good—the more I learn about our past, the more disappointing our species becomes, and frankly, I no longer care about what happened 2,000 years ago. There are lessons to be learned from history, but history seems to repeat itself anyway, even if we’re aware of what we should not be repeating.
That’s not to say that I think travel offers no marginal benefit or that I plan to quit traveling. I suspect that travel still has more to teach me, but in the future, I’ll steer my trips toward visiting people, whether they be friends and family who live outside Colorado, or interesting people I want to interact with and learn from.
Nomad Life showed me that I can tear up my endless to-do list and focus on the only thing that truly matters—being fully present where I am with the beings I’m with.
That’s a life worth living.