Jill Ottman

Jill Ottman

So many of my friends, their parents and grandparents have done relatively little traveling as younger people. Some lacked the desire to explore, or didn’t want to plan trips. Others were reluctant to engage with unfamiliar cultures, foods or languages. For most, though, not traveling is and was a simple lack of money for tickets or insufficient vacation time. “We’re going to travel when we retire” is what I usually hear.

When I was less than half the age I am now, some friends approached me about going with them to Europe. I bought Ric Steve’s third edition of “Europe Through the Back Door” and started to think I might be able to pull it off. I got a passport. My friends backed out at the last minute, but I went anyway. That trip changed my life. After that, I went overseas as often as I could scrape the money together. I helped friends drive a truck full of medical supplies to Central America, and took up the offer of free hospitality in places like the UK and South Africa. Yes, I did without a lot of things, but what I gained from traveling was worth so much more than having a hot car or a nice place or a lot of the other toys my friends used their money to acquire instead. I’m not really being judgmental, but spending your money on experiences is ultimately a lot more satisfying than accumulating stuff.

Folks have their reasons, but for most people, waiting for retirement to travel ends up being a mistake. When you’re old you may not want to walk cobblestone streets for hours or have the stamina to do multiple museums in a day. Staying in cheap hotels can be a lot more of a burden than an adventure, and your formerly cast-iron stomach may not now be able to handle strong cheese, meats that are not pork, beef or chicken, and the odd but delicious sauces that anoint unfamiliar vegetables.

My mother just got home from what I am certain was her last big trip. She was terribly excited about leaving a month ago. I was confident she would have a great time on this church group trip to Israel. What she ended up experiencing is what I am now referring to as the “Holy Land Trip to Hell.”

Everything began unraveling when the landing gear folded up into the jet as it left the runway. She would kill me if I went into the gory details, but let us say that her husband’s alimentary canal experienced its own personal Intifada, and many of the people on the trip were trading the latest Middle Eastern influenza virus. What was truly awful about the trip, though, was that she was one of a group of nearly 100 senior citizens. This is no way to visit the nearest shopping mall, much less Jerusalem. From what I could pick up from assorted Facebook posts, everything was a pretty hot mess. When Mother got back to the U.S., her husband was so ill they had to get off the plane and check him into a hospital in Newark, New Jersey (which, if you think about it, is not unlike Hades). Jet lag, no food, no sleep, a hospitalized spouse and a case of the flu would have put me in a seriously bad mood, but for my 70-something mother, who had no phone and no way to reach anyone, it was a nightmare.

The two morals of the story? First, if you do wait until you’re retired to go on a magnum opus trip, be aware that there will be issues that weren’t problems when you were 30. Tours are okay, but do your homework. Don’t get on the plane if you are sick in the boarding line. Second message: you don’t have to wait to travel until you’re old, and you can do it with careful saving and some planning. I realize that saving money and banking vacation time are alien concepts to many people, but they’re not impossible. Drive your decrepit car for another year. Go on camping vacations and save that hotel money for a bigger splurge down the road. Begging or borrowing gear isn’t that hard to do. This is Wyoming, and for most of us, there are great, inexpensive places to visit for relatively little money right in our own backyards. Save your vacation time. Take advantage of time between jobs. You can do this. You should do this. You can even do it with kids, who often rise to the challenges of travel like pros. Just get out there, and do it while you’re still pliable, flexible, and can climb multiple flights of ancient stairs.

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Jill Ottman lives in Laramie and is backpacking this summer so she can pull out her passport again ASAP.


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