How to Cross a Continent

Few people travel across entire continents these days.  It’s a shame.  Cheap airfares allow time-pressed travelers  to skip across our earth without ever seeing what lies between Point A and B.  But you’re different – you want to experience a continent in its entirety, to gain an intimate understanding of the land and her peoples.

Traveling across a continent doesn’t seem practical to most.  You need a healthy streak of romanticism to undertake a voyage that largely disappeared with the advent of modern transportation.

So the key is to be a dreamer, albeit a practical one.  You must balance your vision of the possible with the limitations of the practical.  It will take imagination, research and some improvisation, but you can pull it off.

There is no feeling more liberating than arriving at the tip of a continent with no fixed itinerary and nothing but a huge, bulging land mass rolling out before your feet.  You are free and your final destination is just a hazy image laying beyond a thousand unforeseen adventures.  So read this article, conjure up the wildest travel dreams in your soul, and figure out how to get yourself to that moment.  Let’s start with Step One:

Step One – Dream Big

It’s time to rediscover your childlike sense of wonder at the vastness of our world.  Put on your PJ’s, pull out the biggest maps you can find, and let yourself dream the impossible.  Run your fingers across the foreign-sounding cities and trace the courses of ancient rivers from their mountainous sources to the distant coastlines where they reunite with the seven seas.  All is terra incognita and you are an explorer on a mission of discovery.  The possibilities are endless and you are free to wander anywhere you want.  Where do you go?  What do you do?

Chose a continent and then consider your starting point.   Some continents offer obvious starting points – Capetown to Cairo, for instance, or from the tip of South America right up to Alaska – while others require creativity.  Europe and Asia can be traversed in any direction or linked via the Trans-Siberian Railroad, the Silk Trail, the Hippy Trail, or any path of your choosing.  Get creative.

Next create a bucket list of things/places you would like to do/see.  Again, don’t limit your options at this point – just dream it up, write it down and try to rank them.  Figure out where you must go and what you must do and then add in your secondary travel goals below that.  If you can, draw their locations on a map to help you naturally see where your route might take you.

Continents are thematic by nature.  Finding a theme to unite your journey will help guide your travels and keep things interesting.  Easiest theme could be transport – following Route 66 in a convertible, crossing Africa in a Land Rover, walking El Camino de Santiago on foot, or touring India in a renovated rickshaw.  If you have a hobby, apply it in your travels – photographing smiling children in each country, learning a cooking recipe from each region, or sketching a new scene every day.  Your trip will end up much richer for it.

Now that you’ve got all your wildest dreams written down, it’s time to meet Reality.

Be Practical, But Not Too Practical

The truth is, you won’t be able to do all that.  Sorry to break it to you.  But you can still do a lot – you just need to temper your dream with some rationality.  So bring your head down from the clouds and take out a pen and paper.

Begin with research.  Start with the basics – your dates of travel, how long you expect to stay in each place and how much money you have to spend.  There will be visas, vaccinations, warzones to avoid and unsurmountable obstacles that must be considered.  But such a massive  voyage must be, by nature, mostly spontaneous, so don’t too get caught up in the details.  For now just get some ballpark figures so you can some gentle limits on your trip.

The perennial buzz-killers of travel dreams are Time and Money.  We tend to have either one or the other, seldom both.  More than Money, crossing a continent takes Time – much more than you think.  You will need to rest, you will want to extend your stay in some places and you’ll have some unexpected delays.  Stack as much paper as you can and beg borrow and steal as much time off work as reasonably possible.

Then find out how to turn your wilder dreams into realities.  This is where most people loose their gumption. Imagine, for example, you dream of catching the Trans-Siberian Railroad from Asia to Europe, as do many wandering the Asian backpacking circuit.  What separates them from you is diligent research – how to jump through bureaucratic hoops to get visas and cheap tickets through China, Mongolia and Russia.  Most give up when confronted with the complexity, others just show up cluelessly in Beijing and try to buy a ticket on the spot.  Don’t be like these people.  Do your homework and figure out how to make it happen.

Part Three – Finding Balance on the Road.

You’ve dreamt wildly, calculated coldly and now you are ready to begin your adventure.  This is the tough part.  It is essentially a challenge to find balance – your romanticism versus realism, planning versus spontaneity, and finding the pace just right for you.

First off, you must fight to keep the dream alive.  Fend off the naysayers back home and while you’re on the road – you’ve done your homework and you know exactly what must be done to pull it off.

When you first start out, the distance before you will seem daunting.  Just remember the old saying on how to eat an elephant – bite by bite.  So just focus on getting from one city to the next and don’t lose faith in what you dreamt up back home.

You’ll also need to find a balance between making plans and staying flexible and spontaneous.  Truly one of the best things about travel is the freedom with which you can move across the Earth.  Avoid tying yourself down with too many plans.  Ideally you can just buy a one way ticket and let the wind blow you where it may, though you’ll probably have to make a few reservations in advance.  Here’s my tip:

My personal philosophy is a combination of the Boy Scout motto of “Be prepared” and the spontaneity of Dean Moriarty from Kerouac’s On the Road.  I do my research so I know all the options before me, but I make as few advance decisions as possible.  When I come to a crossroad I know what’s possible to my left and my right but I don’t decide until I get there.  Otherwise you might plan to stay one month in a country only to decide you dislike it upon arrival.  You gotta preserve your flexibility.

Above all it is a challenge of finding the right pace.  You’ve got a lot of places to see and only a fixed amount of time.  It’s kind of like life in that regard.  You will rush impetuously past some of the best spots and you will linger in cities that are proven mediocre by your later discoveries.  There’s no real way to avoid this, as learning how to move slowly and deliberately is one of the great lessons of travel.    It’s all part of the process.  Just set aside as much time for your journey as possible and try not to be in a rush.

Setting Off

You’ve prepped, packed, and purchased your tickets to that distant locale.  You’re ready.

And then you simply do it.  You make mistakes, discoveries, and friends.  You explore one country at a time and watch the flora and fauna change mile by mile.  Then you reach the end of the continent only to appreciate the significance of the old saying, It’s about the journey, not the inn, which would be cliché were it not so true.
Earlier, I said that there was nothing better than standing at the edge of an unknown continent and marveling at the terra incognita stretching out before you.  That’s not quite true.

What’s even better is standing on the other end of that continent, staring back to where you began and letting all the experiences you’ve just had rush over you in a flood of perspective.  Then you turn around, stare across the sea and realize the best thing of all – that there are still six more continents left.

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