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The Travel Trap: How Greater Freedom on the Road Led to House Arrest



“The bluest skies you’ve ever seen are in Seattle.” — Keller and Sheldon

Back in 1998, I took my first backpacking trip to Western Europe.  Rather than pay for a traditional airline ticket, I saved money by traveling with a courier service.  Back then, acting as a courier or buying tickets through a service was a great way to cut costs: Fly on the cheap while you accompany unknown goods being transported on a commercial airline.  Your checked luggage and travel dates were limited, but the price of flying to far-flung destinations was usually only a few hundred bucks, or even free.

Courier services went the way of the dodo after 9/11, but I remember poring over the brochures back then and imagining how great it would be to have the flexibility to take off at a moment’s notice to Europe, South America or Southeast Asia and spend a week or two at a time exploring exotic locations several times throughout the year.  It was a lifestyle with few restrictions and even fewer responsibilities.

Nearly two decades later, I’m actually living that life, partially.  Last year I spent more time away from home in the first six months of the year for the first time ever.  This year I’ve upped the ante, leading tours in four different destinations, taking a private scouting trip and even going on a personal trip with my wife.  This included a month in Costa Rica and three separate journeys to the Southern Hemisphere… all before August.

Max Waugh, World Traveler!  Just what I always wanted.

But there’s always a catch, isn’t there?  I finally started to detect a problem 1 during one of my brief stints back in Seattle this spring.

The freedom of travel had trapped me in my home.

Unlike the nomadic life that I dreamed of eighteen years ago, my travel-based lifestyle today isn’t without responsibilities.  Not just to family, but also to my career.  This isn’t vacation (whatever that is), it’s work.  And the work doesn’t stop when I hit the tarmac at SeaTac.  Photography is like a big, noisy, not-so-eco-friendly factory.  In order to churn out the occasional captivating image or lead a fun and interesting tour, I have to spew out a lot of less-appealing byproducts in the form of image processing, marketing and paperwork 2

What happens when I travel for two, four or sometimes six weeks at a time and come home with less than seven days before the next trip?  Well, someone’s gotta do all that busywork. 3  So I scramble to send as many emails, invoices and newsletters, process and publish as many images and plan future trips as I can within a week.

Normally, I’m used to this routine.  Staring at a computer screen all day is typical.  But I made a mistake some time in early April, when I happened to glance away from the monitor and looked out the window.  A sliver of green trees and bright blue skies were framed in the tiny rectangular 1960s window of my office, like a postcard’s worth of insight into a better place.  That place happened to be my hometown.

There are few cities more beautiful than Seattle on a warm, sunny day.  The intense azure sky, green trees and fresh air, combined with lake and mountain views.  All the stuff I’d grown up with and which was mere footsteps away.  Yet I was rooted to my chair, plowing through work that had to get done.  I think at this point I actually moaned a little.  Like, a whiny little puppy-like noise.  Well, I sighed at least, because I had just come to the realization that my free, nearly-nomadic lifestyle had trapped me in my own home.

Perhaps part of the problem is that the beauty here seems fleeting.  Seattle has a reputation as a dreary, rainy place, and that’s actually true for a good chunk of the year.  But summers here make up for all the gray, providing balance and justification for the pride we feel living in this little green corner of the country.  It’s just too bad that it’s so short-lived.  Which is why it’s tough enough to be traveling so much when it’s sunny back home, but even harder to not be able to enjoy it even when I actually am home.

There is no quick, easy solution.  I’m looking forward to the second half of the year, when I only have two tours scheduled.  Of course by then it will be autumn, and the rain and darkness will arrive.  But the air will still be fresh, and the city will still be green.

In the meantime, I’ll escape my office this summer for a couple more minutes at a time, even if it’s just to stand on the deck again and soak in a little more sunshine.  It’s the same vitamin D that I get in Costa Rica or Yellowstone or South Africa, but somehow I know it will feel warmer and more comforting.  Maybe because it means I’ve started to rediscover the freedom to enjoy my hometown.


  1. In addition to the more obvious issues of missing my wife or having several weeks of Game of Thrones spoiled on social media, both of which were expected.
  2. Don’t believe me?  Read this.
  3. Prospective interns, apply here.

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