In 2015, I was finishing up a one-year Work and Holiday Visa in Australia. I had spent the five years between college graduation and that point focused largely on long-term travel: basing myself at home in upstate New York while trip planning, leaving for several months, and then returning home to save money and seek out the next opportunity.
I had no clue what was coming after Australia. It had been an exhilarating, beautiful, challenging, lonely, eye-opening, perfectly imperfect year. I loved the laidback, nature-centric, beach-filled way of life that had become my norm. I loved experiencing new things every single day – big and small, good and bad – and regularly feeling out of my element.
But I felt a little tired, too.
As cherished and irreplaceable as my time abroad had been, I also felt like my life had taken on a very stop/start quality. I was never fully settled anywhere. There was always an end date looming, usually involving a visa expiration. It was hard to plan anything further than a few months in advance. It was becoming increasingly challenging and heartbreaking to develop close relationships with people that I would soon say goodbye to and potentially never cross paths with again.
Each time I came home, I’d essentially start over: move back in with my parents, shudder at my empty bank account, and try to figure out what would come next.
There’s a quote by E.Y. Harburg that’s always resonated with me:
My heart wants roots
My mind wants wings.
I cannot bear
I felt pulled in different directions. Between 2009 and 2015, I hadn’t gone more than one year without a big international adventure. Most of them lasted between three and twelve months. I loved this pattern, and I didn’t want to give it up.
Meanwhile, a steady home base was sounding more and more appealing. Finding a job I felt excited about instead of cleaning campground bathrooms or waiting tables. Not living out of a bag. Forging connections that wouldn’t inevitably be interrupted by national border regulations.
The one thing I knew for sure: I wanted travel to continue to be a focal point of my everyday life, not just fade away as a passing phase from my early twenties.
So I made a goal for myself: I would travel to 30 countries by the time I turned 30.
At the time, the challenge felt comforting: a sort of safety net (or really the exact opposite) that would help me maintain the steady streak I had developed.
If I found myself based in New York, the goal would motivate me to continue seeking new adventures. To not get too comfortable. Because luxuriating in routine and familiarity can be very tempting. And I know myself. I’m as big of a homebody as I am an explorer, and I was worried I might lose sight of travel if I didn’t make a conscious effort not to.
I also love alliteration, and I thought the idea of 30 countries in 30 years sounded pretty cool – let’s be honest!
Fast forward to 2018, and it turns out my initial inklings of returning to New York were correct. I have been based here since coming home from Australia, and as expected, traveling as much as I’d like to has been challenging at times.
One year ago today, I woke up in a tent on the morning of my birthday. I was camping with my boyfriend in the Thousand Islands, a region along the US and Canadian border where I’ve been vacationing with my family since I was a baby.
A sneaking sensation of dread was the first emotion that I felt. I was 29, and while the number itself didn’t bother me, it was starting to feel like achieving my goal wasn’t going to happen. I had only visited 26 countries and had four to go, with no concrete plans to get myself any closer over the next 365 days.
I lay there, anxious, thinking about how I’d either wake up in one year feeling victorious and excited, or just disappointed in myself.
I was frustrated that while I had wanted to prioritize international travel, it just wasn’t happening. Limited vacation time, lack of people to travel with, and just getting caught up in everyday life had all gotten in the way… just as I had feared they would.
It had been over a year since my last international trip. I had recently spent two weeks in Florida – Florida! – and I thought with shame of the new places I could have gone to during that time instead. I felt like I was letting my younger self down.
Meanwhile, Dan comforted me. He pointed out that in travel terms, borders are relatively arbitrary. He wondered why I was worrying so much about something that was just a number. And I partially agreed.
Was focusing on going to new places unnecessary? A return trip to one of the many places I had already been would be just as worthwhile… right? Not to mention some of our recent trips, which shouldn’t be devalued simply because they were domestic. (Including Florida, where we had an amazing, relaxing trip and spent quality time with family members who I don’t get to see nearly as often as I’d like.)
Was I assigning way too much importance to something that didn’t actually hold that much meaning?
Doubts crept in. Maybe this wasn’t a very constructive goal after all. Still, I remained hopeful and determined that I’d reach it. Rational or not, I had set a challenge for myself, and I wanted to make it happen.
I thought about the countries I had visited since Australia: Thailand, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Norway. All places that I might not have been motivated to spend time and money traveling to without my goal in play. I thought about how much I had loved exploring each and every one of them, and the number of unique experiences I have to look back on from each of those trips.
I thought about the Central America itinerary that I had been vaguely thinking about for months but hadn’t made any concrete arrangements for.
I thought about how easy it is to get complacent. To let time pass. To spend money on other things. To forget why you wanted to prioritize something in the first place.
And I bought a plane ticket.
Five days after turning 29, I confirmed plans to visit Mexico, Belize and Guatemala.
A few months later, I bought tickets to Portugal.
Now here we are, on the morning of my 30th birthday, and I’m waking up feeling the exact opposite of the dread that weighed me down last year, because I reached my goal after all! And it feels really good, even though my thoughts on the goal itself have fluctuated over the years.
In today’s travel blogging culture, I’ve seen negative opinions on “counting countries” that have made me feel like my objective was silly, or unevolved, or not focused on the right things. But I’m also a firm believer that people should travel however they’d like to. Negative stigma or no, I don’t think there’s ever going to be a time in my life when getting a new stamp in my passport is going to feel anything but exhilarating.
Plus, sometimes it’s okay to let yourself celebrate something just because. You set a goal for yourself and you achieved it? That’s awesome. Skip the self-doubt and let yourself enjoy it!
As I welcome a new decade and start thinking about the coming years, I’m undecided on travel goals. Am I trying for 40 by 40? Not officially. Will I continue to seek out new places, both international and domestic? Absolutely. Am I already planning my next fourteen trips in my head?
In celebration of this milestone, and because sharing music has often been a big part of my time abroad, I’m sharing this 30 by 30 playlist I put together on Spotify. It’s made up of 30 songs that became important to me while traveling: songs I laughed to, danced to, cried to, and celebrated to. Songs that kept me company when I needed it. Songs I sang with friends on road trips, or blasted at the end of a hard work day.
Years later, they continue to take me back to the moments I first listened to them, and the people I listened to them with.
So settle in with some music and tell me all your thoughts on travel goals! Do you currently have any, do you feel opposed to them, or have you never really thought about it?
Pin it for later!