Right before I scored my killer new job in September, a woman I didn’t know sent me a snarky message on social media. “Question—how can you afford to be a vagabond?” she asked.
Up until that point, I hadn’t really thought about it. I was making just enough money freelance writing to keep myself afloat. Eking by, as my mom would call it. I scrimped and scaled back on things I didn’t use. (Like, who really needs five premium TV subscriptions?)
Instead, I put all my efforts and energies into traveling with wild abandon. I practically obliterated my frequent flier miles visiting friends in various parts of the country. I got to be really good at inviting myself to stay with people. It’s a lost art. Most of my friends said the same thing, “You’re welcome to stay here—until you’re not.” Hell, I crashed with my friend Sarah and her hubs Brent outside Austin for, like, six weeks this year. Technically, I should have paid rent.
Along the way, I checked off a bunch of places I’d never been before—like …
Door County, Wisconsin
This 70-mile peninsula—which juts off into Lake Michigan—is a well-known weekend getaway for Chicago and Milwaukee natives, but a low-key, hush-hush tourist gem otherwise. The highlight of that trip, you ask? A frigid sunrise fishing expedition where we hauled in about 400 lbs. of whitefish. That catch then fed a bunch of tourists at a fish boil later than evening. (It also helped that it was the captain’s birthday. His crew sang him a song that sounded a lot like “Happy Birthday” but included a lot of f-bombs.)
Perched squarely in the middle of Where-The-Hell-Are-We, Texas, you’ll find The Preserve, an acclaimed (and well-maintained) elephant sanctuary. The Preserve is dedicated to expanding elephant education and knowledge. If you have $125 burning a hole in your pocket, you can join in a once-in-a-lifetime, 90-minute interactive experience that allows you to fully immerse yourself with these amazing pachyderms and gain an understanding of the need for elephant conservation. (My friend Sarah and I helped give them a bath, sanded and manicured their toenails, and watched them paint—yes, paint!—some colorful artwork.)
Big Fork, Montana
I came. I saw. I, uh, outdoors’d. From hiking through Glacier National Park to zipping down a mountain on an alpine slide, Northern Montana was an adventurous, fresh air mecca. (The Canadian border is less than an hour away.) I even hopped on a jet ski for the first time since the Clinton administration and skittered around an ultra-serene Flathead Lake. Oh, and I ate my weight in huckleberries, granola, and trout. I’m practically a lumberjack now.
If Branson and Atlantic City had an illegitimate baby, it would be Galveston, Texas. This vacation hotspot (emphasis on hot) is part cruise ship port, part tourist getaway. It’s also a foodie town with plenty of local flavor(s). (“Bring your appetite—uh, and your sunscreen,” the hotel clerk told me over the phone before I arrived.) When I wasn’t sweating to death or fending off mosquitos the size of my hand, I was enjoying all the death-defying amusement park rides on the boardwalk and inhaling my weight in gulf shrimp. While I can’t say I’ll go back, it was certainly a head-scratchingly good time.
Mackinac Island, Michigan
Think of Mackinac Island as an “all-natural” theme park, one where cars aren’t permitted. Nope, it you want to transverse the island, you’ll need a bicycle or a horse-drawn carriage. (Walking, I suppose, is another option—albeit a pedestrian one. Pun intended.)
With its Victorian-esque theme, the island offers visitors one glorious state park (that take up 80 percent of the island), 417 different fudge shops, and some shockingly scenic selfie spots. If the island’s motto isn’t “you have to see it to believe it,” it really should be. No wonder it’s been an escape pod for city-weary folks for centuries.
Now that I’m back in the land of gainful employment, I don’t have the chance to travel as much, but you can bet I’ll look back on 2022 as my year of being a wayward traveler and consummate couch crasher.
My 2022 motto? “No worries. No hurries. And guzzle a heckuva lot of coffee to get each day underway—you know, once you figure out where you are.”