Air Canada enRoute
Can travel transform who you are? One man journeys across the Tasmanian wilderness – eating Vegemite, gazing at eucalyptus trees and willing himself to be in the moment – in order to find out.
Transformation or bust: Our writer heads to Tasmania in search of a life-altering travel experience.
ASeattle asked me if I wanted to change my life.
Michael Bennett and Jake Haupert are the fortysomething co-founders of Explorer X and the Transformational Travel Council, which, as far as I could tell, made them some combination of spiritual gurus and travel agents. Their pitch for Explorer X was simple: What if, instead of picking a destination and getting my head all gummed up with preconceived ideas about that place, I just described the personal transformation I hoped to experience and let the two of them do the rest? And what if they then steadfastly refused to tell me where I was going until days before the trip? How would that go?
“Have you heard the phrase ‘travel like a hero?’” Michael asked me over Skype, stubbled and beaming. To be a HERO, he explained, was to be Humble, Engaged, Resilient and Open. Michael and Jake’s job was to get me into that frame of mind with a series of probing conversations before the trip, a voyage tailor-made to address my personal shortcomings, specific journaling exercises for the journey, then a follow-up conversation on my return, to make sure the changes stuck.
It was a service, they hoped, that would lead a revolution in the way we travel. Transformative travel is the logical extension of experiential travel, a trend in which tourists pay for deep, “authentic,” dinner-with-a-Mayan-family-in-a-Guatemalanvillage experiences. Now, travellers bent on self-improvement wanted those experiences to follow them home. Instead of selling Michelin-starred meals and sumptuous accommodations, travel agencies like Explorer X were offering the ultimate luxury good: life-altering epiphanies. Keeping my destination a surprise was another way for them to ensure I focused on my interior journey.
If I was skeptical and a little anxious about putting my travel plans and sense of self in the hands of a couple of enthusiastic strangers, I tried not to let it show. Michael asked me a series of questions designed to plumb my depths. Did I like nature or prefer the bustle of the city? Was I someone who took moments to reflect and even meditate during a busy day of travel? Had I read the work of Joseph Campbell, the professor of mythology who had inspired Star Wars and popularized the idea of “the hero’s journey,” the very journey I myself would soon be undertaking? “And is there anything that you would really love to get out of this trip from a personal growth standpoint?” Michael asked.
I looked around the toddler’s bedroom where I was taking the video call, the only place in my crowded apartment that had good Wi-Fi and wasn’t embarrassingly messy. Were there things I wanted to change about myself? There were many, from modest goals (more exercise; less Internet) to somewhat larger
projects (raze my entire personality to the ground and rebuild myself as someone less anxious and more emotionally open). But I was at a point in life – living with my partner and our oneand-a-half-year-old, constantly overworked and underslept – where the very idea of personal growth felt almost suspiciously decadent. The alternate lives and possibilities for transformation that, a decade ago, seemed infinite had since been winnowed down. Life had become cozy, comforting and often sweet, but also very small. I couldn’t think of the last time I’d had what could plausibly be called an adventure. “That’s a good question,” I said.
SEVEN MONTHS LATER – AFTER WHAT FELT LIKE AN ETERNITY SPENT anxiously peering at world maps – Michael’s business partner, Jake, finally got in touch. “We’re so excited to send you Down Under!” I was going to Tasmania to hike the iconic Overland Track, a six-day trek through the glacial lakes and craggy mountains of the Australian island’s Central Highlands. It was a trek, Jake explained animatedly, that had enough reliably terrible weather to really push me toward transformation. I had a week to pack.
Before I left, Jake sent a manuscript filled with inspirational tips, journal prompts and even a pledge (“I am the HERO of my own story”) to aid me in my growth. Then he left me with a last set of instructions: “As soon as you arrive, find a pebble. That pebble will be a totem representing you, your son and your partner. Find that totem on day one.”
But by the time I landed in sleepy Launceston, all thoughts about some symbolic pebble had vanished. My brain was eight time zones east. I felt anxious about abandoning work and heartbroken about being away from my toddler for the first time – and leaving cellphone service behind, as well. By the time I remembered to grab an utterly unremarkable rock from a parking lot and plop it into one of my hiking pants’ many zippered pockets, it seemed desperately clear: I was already failing at transformation.
A few hours later, I stood on the Overland Track, gazing up at a series of massive footholds dug into a steep cliff. “Those are
Were there things I wanted to change about myself? There were many. But I was at a point in life – living with my partner and our one-and-ahalf-year-old, constantly overworked and underslept – where the very idea of personal growth felt almost suspiciously decadent.
the steps of doom,” said trek guide Stef Gebbie, with a little too much chipperness. My trekking companions didn’t seem concerned. Stef’s guiding partner was Bert Spinks, a rail-thin philosophy major who had walked across Iceland and was working on a book about a 19th-century explorer who’d done the same on horseback. Trekking alongside me was Pete, a charming Melburnian who hiked with a tiny woollen hat perched atop his head. Tony, a Hong Kong-born outdoors enthusiast, was travelling with his 13-year-old son, Justin, and had convinced a posse of five friends to join them.
They’d all come to Tasmania’s Central Highlands for the same reason – to experience wilderness that only an island isolated from the rest of the world could provide. Tasmania currently has just half a million people spread across a landmass the size of Ireland. The air in some areas is so pure scientists use it as the baseline against which to measure the rest of the globe’s pollution. The place still feels wild enough that many locals remain convinced, more than 80 years after it was declared extinct, that the Tasmanian tiger is hiding somewhere in the leafy vastness.
Lugging my backpack up the steps of doom, I was pleased to find leg muscles unused for years slowly springing back to life.
Up on the plateau, we were greeted with a brilliant view of Cradle Mountain, with its vertical columns of dolerite rock shooting into the sky. We crunched across the snowfield, the shadows of clouds racing toward us, carried by a wind that hit us square in the face.
And then, suddenly, we turned a corner and were in a different world. A miniature rainforest had grown nestled in a craggy corner of rock, watered by mountain streams. The sound of Tasmanian froglets in nearby marshes filled the air, bleating like newborn lambs. “This is one of the world’s special places,” said Bert quietly. I dipped my Nalgene bottle into the stream, filling it with cool, clear water, and took a long drink. My pebble clanked against the phone in my pocket.
OVER THE NEXT WEEK, WE FELL INTO A COMFORTING RHYTHM THAT
made me feel as if I’d been hiking in the Tasmanian wilderness for years. Waking up at dawn in one of the cozy cabins along the trail, I’d eat as many Australian breakfast oddities as my trekmates could feed me, carbo-loading with slices of Vegemitesmeared toast. Then we’d pull on our gaiters and various layers of Gore-Tex and head into the misty Tasmanian morning.
The kilometres slipped away, plains of button grass turning into rainforests of towering eucalyptus and King Billy pines. At home, it seemed vitally important to keep up with the world’s atrocities online, minute by minute, but here I was content to let my mind wander. Putting myself in the hands of Michael and Jake was strangely freeing. It had eliminated all choice, the ultimate source of anxiety, so I could try my best to remain open and engaged and heroic.
My companions weren’t on some kind of mandated transformative experience, but it seemed like that was exactly how they were living. Tony had circled the globe on hiking trips and wanted his son to be shaped by experiences in the natural world. Bert, a fifth-generation Tasmanian, spent his life with a backpack on. Stef planned to spend her next vacation riding her horse, Richard, across Australia, a trip that seemed to take the idea of the “hero’s journey” to absurd lengths. “It should last about eight months,” she said casually. “And you’re going alone?” I asked, incredulous. She frowned. “Well, no — with Richard.”
Everyone in the group seemed to be actively improving themselves through adventure. But whenever I turned my mind inward, searching for epiphanies, my thoughts felt embarrassingly trite. Slouched in front of the fire one evening, I opened up Jake’s manuscript, determined to follow his prompts. What was “one thing I learned or discovered” today? I strained for something profound. I tapped my pen. “Australians call a kettle a ‘billy,’” I jotted down finally. “Vegemite is delicious.” I gave up and went to bed.
DURING ONE OF OUR LAST DAYS OF HIKING, WE DECIDED TO SPREAD
ourselves out along the trail and spend some time with our own thoughts. It was a particularly lush stretch of rainforest, the landscape painted in hues of green with moss and lichen. Everywhere you could hear the sound of running water, tiny rivulets streaming across bare tree roots. A faint smell of sassafras filled the air. I gazed up at the giant 1,000-year-old King Billy pines overhead and tried my best to feel the profundity of the moment.
I suddenly thought of being 18, hiking alone in the south of France in a similarly beautiful spot and willing myself toward an epiphany. I’d taken a year off before university to work and travel through Europe with the explicit idea that it would change me for the better. I had left a shy, skinny teenager who turned a full-body scarlet after half a glass of wine, but I was certain I would return home worldly and confident. Instead, of course, I came back me.
If I’d been skeptical about transformative travel, it was because I was dubious about the seductive idea that you could leave the old you behind with a mere change of scenery. But Jake and Michael weren’t trying to give people a drastic spiritual makeover. Instead, with their prompts and totems and strange obsession with Joseph Campbell, they were trying to conjure the travelling feeling – that subtle, fleeting sensation you get on the very best trips, when time moves strangely and you suddenly see yourself and the world in a new light.
And that seemed to be the real transformative possibility of travel: not to change yourself wholly, but to help clarify the person you’ve always been. Standing alone in the forest, holding my parking-lot pebble, I didn’t feel a dramatic metamorphosis. But I did feel a new appreciation for the boring solidity of the person I was. I loved my family; I missed them; and whatever transformation I’d hoped to find in the wilderness of Tasmania paled in comparison to the changes that had already happened in my small and messy apartment.
Near the very end of the trip, I found myself at the top of Mount Doris. It wasn’t the most impressive peak, and the side trip had added three hours of trekking to an extremely long day, but it felt like an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. Walking away from the others, I surreptitiously tapped my phone off airplane mode. The device buzzed and flashed in my hands. A flood of texts came in from days of updates. There were photos of my kid rolling around on our IKEA carpet, gripping his stupid plastic frog. There were videos of him blowing me kisses but steadfastly refusing to say “Hi, Dada,” in the contrarian way of toddlers. There were texts from my partner, telling me about her morning, her week, about the life that was waiting for me, once I was done transforming. After all, the ultimate point of any hero’s journey – even the most Vegemite-fuelled version – is to come back home.