When he was 18, Lyle McPherson spent the summer in Alaska working sixteen-hour days in factory conditions gutting fish and sleeping in a shipping crate with seven other men.
His parents weren’t concerned. In fact, they encouraged the experience. Before he turned 18, McPherson and his family lived in North Carolina, Maryland, Oregon, Armenia, Thailand, and Nepal. As far the McPhersons are concerned, adventure takes priority over stability.
Now McPherson is a student at the University of Oregon. But he is blatant and unwavering when he explains why his family decided to live so unconventionally for a time.
“They hate America,” he says.
They believe American culture is monotonous and highly-structured, qualities the McPhersons find distasteful.
“It’s not different in that you have to play to society to get fed and all that, but in America it’s much more evident . . . it’s a much more set lifestyle,” McPherson says. “What you’re going to do in your life you have to decide early on. There aren’t many surprises. It’s average living in the suburbs and going to stores that have everything you need . . . people get used to that and take it for granted.”
Such predictability was never a part of McPherson’s upbringing.
McPherson first moved to Nepal when he was 10 and the country was in total upheaval. A civil war between the Communists and the monarchy had just erupted and, for the next four years, he lived amongst the turmoil. Three years after they arrived, a revolution shut down the entire capitol for seven days as the Communists overthrew the king. Roads were constantly blocked and there were frequent gas shortages. In the spring, the hydro plants failed, leaving citizens without electricity for nearly eighteen hours a day.
“For my AP Exams, I had to walk fifteen miles across town because the Communists had brought in villagers to protest,” McPherson says. “They shut down the whole city and that was a common thing.”
However, once he returned to the United States to attend college, McPherson found that he missed the unstructured nature of his previous life.
Stephen Frey can relate to McPherson’s desire to live without boundaries or predictability. Both men were deeply dissatisfied with their surroundings, particularly with the stifling expectations of American culture. They continue to uproot themselves in search of the satisfaction and self-improvement that comes from overcoming new challenges.
Frey, unlike McPherson, grew up with stability and structure. He attended Christian schools all his life, and after he graduated high school in 2008, he decided to take ownership of his life.
“I thought, ‘If I’m going to do something, I might as well do it all the way,’” Frey says. “I’m just going to go to South Africa. Maybe I’ll die. Whatever.”
He embarked on a two-year journey before college, starting with a mission trip to South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Kenya. After returning home, Frey’s wanderlust prompted him to leave once more. For a short period of time he lived in an isolated log cabin built by his uncle. It wasn’t enough to ease his restlessness.
What started as a half-formed plan to live homeless in Portland for a week evolved into year-long hitchhiking expedition leading him from the redwood forests of Northern California to the foothills of the Andean mountains. He made his way down the Pan-American Highway, funding his travels by selling Peruvian flags made from stickers attached to pencils and occasionally doing short-term work such as dishwashing.
“The Peruvians loved that a gringo was waving their flag,” Frey says with a hearty laugh.
“They thought it was so funny.”
While Frey’s upbringing differed drastically from McPherson’s, he was motivated to travel by the same dissatisfaction with American culture.
“I think America is one of the few developed countries in the world that discourages [taking a year off before college],” Frey says. “And you feel that very strongly—this pressure—like if you take more than four years to graduate college, ‘you must have been way off track, son.’ We’re free to [travel] in the sense that there’s no one actively suppressing us, but that’s kind of the danger, because it’s much more subtle.”
Frey, however, believes this negativity leads people to make positive changes in their lives.
“Dissatisfaction is a tough mindset to survive with, but I think the more driven by demons you are, the more you might end up finding,”” Frey says.
Torello Disher, the manager the Northwest Portland hostel, sees this mindset in many of the travelers who come through his hostel.
“The short-term travelers who come here are usually here on business or because they’re curious and have never been to Portland,” Disher says. “But the long-term travelers seem to always be running from something. They have to be unhappy at home or else they wouldn’t want to leave.”
One such traveler is Samuel Rushford, 47, a guest at Disher’s hostel. Though originally from Detroit, Sam has been “roaming” across the United States for the past twenty-five years. Similarly to Frey, who battles with restlessness and a feeling of entrapment, Rushford was inspired to travel as a way to fight his own personal demons. A former drug user and alcoholic, Rushford moved from state to state working odd jobs in hopes of finding inner peace. Now sober, he credits his recovery to the growth that has come from traveling and meeting others who are in search of something.
“It’s all about the journey. It helps you heal; it helps you grow,” Rushford says. “That’s my philosophy. ‘G and G’: Grow and Go.”
Disher also noticed a unique camaraderie amongst such travelers as Rushford.
“Travelers all seem to be able to relate to each other. But there are definitely two different travel communities,” Disher says. “The short-term travelers want to meet and travel in groups. The long-term travelers just want to continue on their own.”
McPherson, Frey, and Rushford prefer to travel unaccompanied. Although McPherson and Rushford moved around often while growing up, Frey did not. Yet each found he learned the most through their independent experiences. They developed the skills necessary to adapt to new situations by becoming self-reliant. In fact, McPherson feels journeying alone is the only way to reap all the benefits traveling has to offer.
“New situations are the most fun thing in the world, especially if you don’t bring any of your old self with you,” McPherson says. “When I go to new places, I really like going by myself. People hold you back more than anything.”
Rushford shares a similar philosophy. Although he stays with friends or family members from time to time (for instance, he most recently stayed with his brother for a few months in South Carolina), he lacks enough attachment to anyone in particular to establish roots.
“Maybe if I find what I’m looking for or who I’m looking for, I’ll settle down,” Rushford says. “But I won’t know what that is ‘til I find it.”
Frey shares a similar ability to detach from people and objects. From an early age, he felt no connection to toys or other material items. He even expressed an interest during high school about living a homeless lifestyle free of possessions.
“You can’t be too attached to anything when you travel because it’s going to get ripped out and you’re going to move again,” Frey says. “I purposely did not engage in any social groups or try to form any deep relations or get any job that required a commitment of three months or more, because if I did I knew I would have an excuse [not to move].”
Frey says this mentality gives him a sense of ownership over his life.
“There’s such an empowering feeling when you wake up, you look at where you slept last night and you think ‘I will never see this place again,’” Frey says. “It’s so empowering because I don’t need that spot; I never needed that spot. If I didn’t find that spot, I would have found somewhere else. It’s about me, and me being able to find things for myself.”
It is that very sense of ownership and growth long-term travelers crave and often can’t find when they’re finally forced to settle down. While traveling has its many benefits—cultural awareness, independence, and adaptability among them—it also has its drawbacks, particularly after the traveler stops moving. Both McPherson and Frey want to be on the move, an impossible task when finishing their education.
“I get restless here,” McPherson says. “Ten weeks is a long time in Eugene. I like to get out. One of my most content ways of being is on the bus. Traveling, being on a plane, because you’re in transit. You’re accomplishing something.”
McPherson and Frey say their travels have given them a set of skills and knowledge most of their fellow students don’t possess, which, at times, can make it difficult for them to relate to their peers. Frey in particular noted that he is often irritated with his classmates. He was excited to return to school with his fellow students after spending so much time with people outside of his age group and cultural background, but was disappointed when he discovered he no longer related to them.
“I’ve been stagnate for two years,” Frey says. “I haven’t met anyone who has inspired me. I ask myself this everyday: ‘Should I move where I know I can continue to grow, or is the challenge to bloom where I’ve planted?’ I know I’ll never be satisfied. Because the more you see, the more questions you have.”
Rushford, on the other hand, is not confined by an institution, yet suffers the same agitation as McPherson. He claims he cannot stay in any place longer than two years or he will go “stir-crazy.”
“If you’re still, you’re stagnant,” he says. “Doesn’t matter if you’re clean and sober or dealing and using, you have to keep moving and doing something or you’ll be stagnant. You got to keep moving and growing.”
Frey, Rushford, and McPherson continue to fight their insatiable restlessness every day, not because they are bored or uninterested, but rather because they crave the stimulation travelling provides them. Setting down has left a void in their lives—one that can only be filled by the thrill that comes from movement and exploration.
“One of the greatest gifts we have as human beings is to change our environment,” Frey says. “Fill it with people and things that inspire us, and that will turn us into the kind of person we want to be.”