November 1, 2013

Going Big, redux: one family's from-the-hip plan to abandon their home, America, and school to hit the road in Central America.

Me in a backcountry ski cabin a day before The Realization. 

I’m not sure why I snapped. Maybe it was watching my kids get sucked into the stifling hierarchies and materialism of American youth culture. Or it was my itch to escape my increasingly insane home country and start traveling in earnest again after 14 years of raising my boys in a cocoon of domestic comfort. 

All I know is that I was sitting by a fire in a quiet mountain cabin reflecting on life and how best to live it when it hit me: I have to liberate my kids from their school desk-rows and escape this gun-crazy, smartphone-infested country for a while. 

I’ve had occasional moments of clarity like this my entire life. Every few years some scheme I’ve been contemplating suddenly crystallizes and — bing! — I realize I’ve got do it (See: One Family Goes Big). From that moment on there’s no question — it’s happening. 

The last time I had a similar epiphany I quit my job as an editor and took the family on a 6-week wilderness mountain bike ride from Glacier National Park to Banff, Alberta.

I’ve never been a good “life planner.” I don’t have the next ten years mapped out, with tiered goals and whatever else super-achiever people do. My general life strategy has been: explore widely, have fun, give back to the world in meaningful ways, and eat lots of spicy food. After that, things seem to fall into place. 

My wife Jacqueline and I had always dreamed of taking a school year abroad with the boys. But just the thought of moving out all of the crap in our home of ten years was enough to squash the dream and keep us anchored in the USA. Moving is a special kind of torture, especially moving a family of four into storage for a year and then moving it all back again when you get home. 

Then my mom died suddenly and I realized, with a gut-wrenching clarity I’d never known before, that life is only a brief gift. As the Buddhist writer Jack Kornfield said, “The problem is, you think you have time.” 

My mom and dad in Kashmir around 1970.
My whole world changed. I stopped giving a shit about, well, a lot of things — my house, my stuff, security, whatever society said I was “supposed” to do. Why did it matter? We’re all going to take last breaths. As I now understood all too well, there was nothing else to wait for. This was it. 

I came home from that epiphanic trip to the mountains and announced to Jacqueline that we needed to take the kids out into the world exotic. It took her 24 hours to come back and say, “Ok, let’s do it.”

The next generation: Jacqueline and I in the days before kids and houses full of stuff.
Our brief, pre-kid adult lives were all about travel. Jacqueline, from Florida, and I, from Minneapolis, were traveling in the mountains of northern New Mexico when we first met. Two weeks later I invited her to come with me to South America for a few months and she agreed on the spot. After I inadvertently impregnated her when she was only 24, we hunkered down in an attempt to be responsible parents. Now, with Silas and Jonah reaching the durable ages of 14 and 10, we were hungry to be travelers again, with months to spend exploring lands far beyond our knowledge’s reach. Except this time we wanted to bring the boys with us. 

Pictures from our first trip together through Latin America when we were just kids ourselves.

Africa and Asia were ruled out for being too expensive, having absurdly difficult languages, or for being generally unsafe. (We’re not safety-mongers, but having kids changes the lens through which you view the developing world.) Europe, with its $8 croissants, wasn’t even on the table. That left Latin America, a colorful, inexpensive part of the planet where many people live simple lives with their hands in the soil. 

I love the wild Andes, but we decided Central America’s rainforests and beaches were a better fit this time. It also helped that Jacqueline is a halfway functional Spanish speaker. (I can speak like a caveman. With a smile. Which is often hysterically entertaining for my conversation partners, and is better than I can do in Lao or Afrikaans or any other language besides English.)

The administrators for the boys’ schools were upset about them missing a year, to which I wanted to reply: “Look, I know you may have never left this corner of the state, but there’s an entire world of different lands and cultures out there, and if you’re going to give me a hard time for liberating my kids from their crappy little desks in underfunded, over-tested schools to show them the world then I’ve got some forms filled out in triplicate you can stuff straight up your…”

Fortunately I didn’t say that because Jacqueline was the one handling those conversations. Which is good, or I might be facing a lifetime ban from Missoula County Public School property. 
Silas graduating from 8th grade this spring.

Next we reached out to Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, a Bozeman-based group that connects travelers with scientific studies. Thanks to them, as we move through Central America we’ll be gathering field data on whales, sharks, ocean pollution, and — hope against hope — assisting a jaguar study.

Then it was time to pack up our life in Missoula, which was about as much fun as self-administering root canals. This was what my highly organized office looked like during packing — one week before the renters were due to arrive.

I’m still not sure how we pulled that off, but somehow everything made it into storage at the end of August and we said goodbye to our home of 13 years. We were now officially a homeless family of four. Except I had a few stories to finish before our trip, so we headed to our family cabin on the border of Glacier National Park for a couple weeks with bicycles and packrafts and paddleboards and more stuff than physical laws should allow inside one Subaru.


Then, as we were leaving the cabin I had a terrible realization. We didn't have our passports. Worse, they were buried somewhere deep in the bowels of our comically full storage unit, which didn't seem so comical anymore (How we managed to accumulate such an absurd amount of stuff I cannot explain, but we got rid of plenty of it during the move). So it was back to Missoula and into our personal black hole that is Storage Universe, or Place Where American's With Way Too Much Crap Put Their Spillover Crap, or whatever the storage place is called. Fortunately, I have weirdly meticulous mind and the storage unit was actually tightly organized in a way understandable only to me. I found the passports in about 10 minutes. Crisis averted. 

Our intrepid hero dives deep into a world only he can understand.

Next we flew to Florida where Jacqueline’s sister — whose family would be hosting the four of us in their two-bedroom house — was surprised to learn that we hadn’t actually purchased our outbound tickets yet. Not that I was concerned. Heck, I was just happy we’d chosen a country to start in.

Countless trusted traveling friends had recommended Nicaragua as friendly, safe-ish, and full of relaxed, off-the-beaten path locales. Guatemala, with its dramatic volcanoes and Maya ruins was our other focus country, but choosing Nicaragua as a starting point was a no-brainer after Jacqueline’s discovery on the internet one night in August. 

“Wait, did you just say you found a small biological research station/hostel/Spanish school in an ecological reserve on the shores of a volcanic lagoon in Nicaragua?” I said, looking up from some other last-minute thing I was doing and realizing that I really should listen to what my wife is telling me more often. 


“Okay, Nicaragua it is!”

We finally bought one-way tickets after a few days in Florida (can’t rush into these things), hopeful that Nicaraguan officials wouldn’t stop us at the airport for not having return tickets. We think we’ll be heading back to the U.S. in seven or eight months from Guatemala, but it could just as easily be Belize or Mexico. The point is we wanted the road to unfold before us naturally, without forced itineraries and places we had to be. We didn’t need no steenking return tickets, we just had to get there and start exploring. 

Riding the commuter train to the Fort Lauderdale airport. Note preposterous quantity of bags on nearby luggage rack. More about that in a future post. 
Silas showing me one of the stunning birds we could encounter on our journey. Jacqueline would like to point out that she'd only had two hours of sleep the night before due to our packing frenzy, which was more than I'd managed.

It’s funny, lots of people told me how brave we were to take our kids to Central America like this, how they could never do that. Which always surprised me for some reason. It’s only brave if you’re scared of leaving the U.S. But what’s scary about going to Nicaragua? So what if it’s poorer, less developed, and most places don’t have wifi (sounds like a win-win-win to me). Aren’t there thousands of families raising children there every day? Read the headlines. I bet plenty of Nicaraguan dads would be terrified to take their kids to America, land of weekly school shootings and too many super-angry, xenophobic, rich white guys to count.

I couldn’t deny, though, that in the final days before our departure an ambient anxiety knotted my gut. We were doing the right thing, weren't we? I hadn't momentarily lost my mind and plunged my family into a quixotic journey to raw and dangerous lands, had I? Not that it mattered at that point. The only thing to do now was get on the plane and go….


  1. I am so glad to see your post about this big trip. I have two kids (6 and 2) and my wife and I are thinking about doing the same when our 2 year old is at least 7. I am really looking forward to reading about your adventures and wish you safe travels.

    By the way, when I was in Nicaragua 12 years ago, I remember it was the nicest and friendliest of all the Central American countries (we bought a car and drove through them all).

  2. Way to go! As I was reading your story I just kept nodding my head. The social and educational environment for our kids can be very disenchanting and seem so short sighted. You are far and away making the right decision for your family and I applaud you and your wife for having the bravery to follow your hearts. The Pietraszewski family looks forward to hearing all about your adventures!

  3. Have a great trip! Can't wait to hear how it unfolds. I grew up in Bozeman and went to Guatemala for 2 months with my parents when I was 12, it was a great experience. Now I have a 3 and 5 year old and look forward to doing something similar down the road!

  4. I'm excited for you and your family! My wife and I have talked about taking our son, who's 3 now, on a year long trip sometime in the future. Our friends who have done something like this seem closer as a family while raising bright and interesting kids and always say it was a seminal part of their lives. Enjoy yourselves!

  5. Have allways wanted to do something similar and never got the courage.will be living viacariously by you. Good luck and good travels....

  6. I'm so envious . . . but then many of us dream of doing this and never do because we lack the courage and conviction. My son graduates from high school in 2014, and he's already pretty much on to his own life . . . your family will have the experience of a lifetime. Nothing they would gain sitting behind a desk for hours a day week after week will ever come close to the education that you and your wife are providing for your boys. Thanks for sharing your adventure ~ bon voyage!

  7. I think you may like this funny, not politically correct, intelligent homeschooling mom.

  8. Hey guys, great story. Anything new since november 1rst?...Looking foreword to following up you guys. If, by any chance, the family and you want to stop in Montreal, our house is wide open for people like you.

  9. Didn't you get voted "Most Likely To Have More Fun Than Anybody Else" in high school? Good job fulfilling that prediction.

  10. Aaron

    We are about to leave on our "walkabout." I read "Go it alone" and when you wrote about your decision to pull the plug I wondered how our conversation up Sawmill Gulch impacted your thinking and feeling. Kim and I wanted to invite your family over for a meal and more conversation when we learned that you were already gone : )

    We are in freefall towards our departure date of August 1st 2014. I suspect we will see you after many moons when we return.

    Great to heat and read about your adventure and family focused intervention.

    Walker (and Kim, Ham and Frances)