Backpacking through Europe
This is the first trip I ever took.
In 1985, after hearing amazing tales of foreign adventures from friends who had gone before us, a girlfriend and I decided to spend three months backpacking through Europe. When the girlfriend decided she was too broke to go, and with our departure date looming, I decided to make the journey alone. I had never been anywhere before.
So in August of that year, I bought a plane ticket, a Eurail pass and a hostel card, strapped on a backpack and headed off to Europe by myself with only a “Let’s Go” book to guide me. In spite of a few moments of panic during the planning process, I figured I would just have to show some confidence in my ability to land on my feet and wing it. I’d take the chance and see what happened. I mean, once that plane landed I’d have to do something, right? It’s not like I could spend three months in the airport. I would figure it out.
Leap and the net will appear.
My backpacking trip through Europe was mind blowing; filled with some of the lowest lows and the highest highs I’ve ever experienced. I was lonely, I was overwhelmed with companionship, I knew where I was, I was lost as hell, I had money, I was broke, I met people I loved and people I hated, I slept in nice hotels, I slept on train station floors, I gathered some of the coolest and most interesting little keepsakes you could imagine and I had all my stuff stolen, I was depressed and I was elated. I also picked up the best souvenir of all time: a handsome Englishman named Snugs who has been my partner in crime ever since.
When I reflect on those months after so many years, one thing jumps out at me that in many ways breaks my heart: this kind of travel no longer exists. In 1985 there were no cell phones. There was no internet; no Facebook, no Google, no websites or online maps, no TripAdvisor, no device or tool to make travel easy and convenient. And there was no way of communicating with friends and family back home. You basically said goodbye to everyone you knew and then disappeared; unreachable except for the occasional post card or the odd afternoon when you could locate a telegraph office where you could make a phone call home…if the office was open when the time difference didn’t mean waking everyone up in the middle of the night. Sometimes somebody from home would send a letter to an American Express office overseas on the off chance you’d be hitting that destination at some point during your travels and could pick it up (“Hey, I think I’ll be in Rome in September so send a letter to me at the Amex office there and I’ll check for it when I arrive”). I got mail that way a couple of times.
If you got lost, you wandered around and asked people until you figured it out. If you needed to find out when the next train departed, you went to the train station and looked at the timetable posted on the station wall. If you needed a room or a bed, you pounded the pavement and visited the various locations in the guide book, hoping for a vacancy. Or you walked to the local tourist office and hoped somebody there who spoke English could help you find a place to stay. Banks were closed on weekends, so if you ran out of money on Friday night, you were pretty much screwed until Monday. That all seems pretty hard to believe now.
I’m not saying I wouldn’t have loved access to a cell phone with a data plan back in 1985. It would have saved me a lot of time and agony missing trains, getting turned away from hostels that were full when I arrived, showing up at tourist attractions right as they were closing for the afternoon… but the drawbacks would have outweighed the benefits by far. In the process of sorting out my own confusion in a technology-free world, I met a million fascinating people and saw a million interesting things I might not have experienced otherwise. It was a world of aloneness that no longer exists; a world unmediated by any device and a world in which an instant result was completely impossible.
There were hours upon hours of alone time when there was nothing but me, my diary, my camera, a few maps and maybe a good book. There were entire days spent in silence, looking out of train windows at strange and exciting landscapes. There were hours spent on solitary wanderings through city streets and country fields, hours of conversation with total strangers I’d never see again. It was just my backpack and me, all alone, figuring it out in the moment with the knowledge that whatever happened, I was utterly and absolutely on my own. It saddens me that most people will no longer experience that type of adventure: just you, with no connection to anyone or anything, out there fending for yourself with a dog-eared guidebook, your own thoughts, your wits, and whatever you have strapped to your back.
Those three months changed me. When I initially planned the trip, I figured I’d “go to Europe and get the travel thing out of my system.” I had no idea what travelling does to a person; no idea that once you get the bug you’re hooked for life. Three months backpacking through Europe created a hunger to be on the road, to see new places, to meet new people and experience new things, that has lasted for 30 years and shows no signs of abating.
Apparently, wanderlust is incurable.
Germany & Austria