But when that open ro-oad starts to callin me/ Theres somethin oer the hill that I gotta see
December 6, 2012 9:28 AM   Subscribe

You have wanderlust, a little money, and unexpectedly, a free month or two. What do you do?

Snowflake details:

For the past few years, I've keenly felt the lack of adventure in my life. I have a great gal, dog, and apartment (rental). I live in Brooklyn, where there's lots to do and plenty of opportunity in new media, which is what I do to make money. But at the end of the day, I'm always missing the freedom and excitement of having longish, uncommitted blocks of time. I get up to the Catskills and the Delaware Water Gap often -- more or less every weekend this Summer -- but it never feels like enough. The process of renting a car, dealing with traffic and the drive, hiking in to a campsite, and then turning around 36 hours later is always such a compromise. I appreciate it and the various good things in my life, but I am itching for something more substantial.

I just gave my notice at work, without having anything else lined up. I know, I know. Rule #1 in job-hunting: it's easier to find a job if you currently have one. But I've saved 6 grand in the past year, and I have a standing offer to do some freelance work, as well as a decent number of contacts that will help in finding employment a month or two from now. It's a risk, but I wasn't happy at work and hadn't been for a while, so I took the plunge. And besides, whenever I've changed jobs I've always felt rushed -- maybe I take a week off between the old gig and the new one, but not enough time to really TCB (whether that's simple stuff like chores at home that I put off because work is so much WORK, or something exciting like a multi-day hike).

So I'm flying to SF to visit family for the holidays from 12/22 through New Year's and after that... nothing! My wonderful girlfriend has said if I want to do some kind of travel that would take more than a week, we could sublet my bedroom for a month or two (we've got two between the two of us), so that would take care of my biggest financial commitment. Oh, and she recently got a new job and isn't in the position to take a bunch of time off right now, so whatever I do it's going to be solo.

My question is this: if you were me, how would you spend this unspecified amount of time to maximize fun and adventure? I have no intention on spending all of my savings on a luxury hotel in Europe -- I know I need to set some money aside for when the trip ends and I need to find work. But I am OK spending some money, maybe 2 or 3k, on memorable travel experiences. It's a weird time of year to be doing this, given my interest in the outdoors, because there is snow in lots of places I'd like to go hiking.

Thoughts that come to mind:

-Stay at Mom's place in the Bay Area for a while, rather than coming straight back to New York after New Year's. There's a car I can use and she'll be away for most of January so I can either just hang out in the area, or use her place as a base from which to take a trip or two (Marin County is a piece of cake; the Sierras are appealing but I'm not sure about a 5-day solo trip if in the snow. Not totally against camping in the cold but I'm not experienced enough to make this a smart idea). Any other places within a day's drive of the East Bay? I've heard good things about the John Muir Trail -- anyone have experience with that? What's a good amount of time or miles to budget for a stretch of it? Oregon? Washington? Joshua Tree?

- In an AskMe about 6 months ago, someone asked for suggestions of physically demanding and selfless work they could do. One answer, which I thought was great, was trail maintenance. I don't have experience with a chainsaw or anything more heavy duty than my hatchet, but I really do like this idea: it'd be outdoors (key!) and new (yes!) and also would be a contribution to a thing I love (love it!). Ideas for either Bay Area organizations that do this kind of thing? I'm aware of NYNJTC, but I don't know that they're too active this time of year.

- Change my return flight to New York and plan an extended layover at some unnamed place in between the coasts. Again, I fear weather may be against me for things like, say, Yellowstone. But I'm sure there are good places to hike, sleep outside, make a camp fire, etc., even in January. Right?

-Come back to NYC after New Year's as planned and find adventure on the East Coast. I'd have to rent a car or use public transit to get places though... and part of my restlessness stems from NYC itself. So I'd probably want to be outside the city.

-Wild Card! When I told my mom about my (non-)plans, she mentioned that one of her friends needed someone to cat-sit in her Paris apartment for a couple weeks in January. I'm not sure this one is actually an option -- I might be too late to take advantage of it -- but something like this could be perfect. Free lodging, a new city to explore, a rare chance to make use of the old Art History degree, etc. Things outside of a city are generally more appealing to me, but if there was some opportunity like a free place to crash in Paris, you better believe I'd jump at the chance.

-Central/South America. I speak Spanish, love Ecuador, and recently read another AskMe with interesting specific recommendations for places to go in Nicaragua. If I could get a $700 flight and stay in a hotel/hostel for under $50/day, I could get a few solid weeks on my arbitrary budget. Good idea? More fun with friends? How about the weather this time of year? Eco-lodges are probably outside of my price range and I didn't have the foresight to say, book one of the rare tickets to Maachu Pichu. In general I'm not nuts about lying around on the beach -- I mean I like it and all but those trips that are supposed to be relaxing are kind of boring to me. More forest, less beach, is I guess what I'm saying.

-Cancel my return ticket and take Amtrak back to the East Coast after New Year's.

-Find someone who needs their car driven across the country and take my time traveling back East, and maybe make a little money besides (is this even a real thing? I believe it exists, but I know nothing about it in practice).

-Learn a skill/take a class etc. Doesn't really scratch the travel itch, but I do like learning and I think if I found the right class, it would be different enough from office drudgery that I'd get fulfillment out of it. Things I want to learn: intro to computer science. Banjo (or "better banjo"). Woodworking. Baking. Some kind of skill where I use my hands or brains, and something that produces a tangible result. Doesn't have to be marketable (though that'd be nice), just "useful". Playing the banjo well would be useful to me. Knowing more about computer programming would be useful to me, even if a month or two isn't nearly enough time to learn the nuances, maybe I could take a crash course where I'd learn fundamental skills necessary to pursue it further on my own.

-Something else I'm not even considering.

I know this was a long one and not especially focused. But heck, I am excited at all the possibilities and I genuinely value the input of this community. Happy to give any clarification if necessary but I think you get what I'm saying here: Please hope me have an adventure. All suggestions welcome.
posted by andromache to Travel & Transportation (26 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Go check out the Kayak Explore feature and see where is cheap to fly from San Francisco that you're interested in going. If you're willing to rough it a little, it's almost always possible to get a bed in a hostel (if not something a lot better) for around $30/night. Do some research into what there is to do there and how much it will cost to eat what you want to eat, experience things, etc. Voila, you have your adventure! (This is how I plan almost all my travels.)

You would be stupid not to follow up on that Paris thing.

Some friends of mine have spent time at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina. This would be along the lines of your "learn a skill/take a class". They offer classes in a lot of different Appalachian and general American Folk type activities. It's also possible to do a residency or a fellowship or something where you would work at the school (I think it requires an 8 or 12 week commitment?) and take classes in your spare time.
posted by Sara C. at 9:39 AM on December 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

This is an open-ended question.

Money is always a factor in any extended furlough or vacation, but time... time is absolutely precious and hard to come by.

I like the car idea. What about planning a road trip throughout continental North America? Crash at relatives, friends, couch-surf (if you're willing to take on the risk), camp. I'm projecting on to you, but I imagine that would be a transformative experience.
posted by seppyk at 9:42 AM on December 6, 2012

If I were you, at this time of the year, I'd head south. I would either pursue your idea of going to Central/South America OR I would head to the Florida keys and do some sailing (if you know how) or camping (if you don't). Specifically, I would rent a place on the water in one of the less-popular keys OR rent a live-aboard space on a boat -- I'd take advantage of whatever the local environment offered (hiking, snorkling, swimming, learning how to sail, etc.) and spend a lot of time in local watering holes talking to people. You could even combine this with learning a skill -- here's a Key West chef that offers cooking classes.

The above is only relevant if you don't go to Paris. Seriously -- do that.
posted by OrangeDisk at 9:42 AM on December 6, 2012

I would absolutely follow up on the cat thing first and foremost. Compared to the continental US, Europe is teensy weensy, and once you are in Paris it is ridiculously easy to get to many other interesting places within a day's travel.
posted by elizardbits at 9:46 AM on December 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

I cat-sat in London for a few weeks this summer and it was BRILLIANT. So do that. It was the same kind of thing, friend-of-a-friend, last minute, seemed like it was going to fall through but it didn't and it was great.

If you do want to do trail work, the AMC has volunteer trail maintenance vacations to the US Virgin Islands and Southern California this winter. The SoCal one is in partnership with the Pacific Crest Trail Association, which probably has its own volunteer opportunities in California.
posted by mskyle at 9:52 AM on December 6, 2012


If that falls through, WWOOFing is a great way to see new places, meet new people, learn stuff, and actually feel like you're doing something with your vacation time, for little to no money.
posted by WidgetAlley at 9:54 AM on December 6, 2012


If you have the need to do it, then go do it. Otherwise, you're going to get another job and sit at that job wanting to quit. Embrace the horizon my friend.
posted by nickrussell at 9:55 AM on December 6, 2012

Cat sit a Parisian Cat? Oh HELL yes! Then Eurail and Hostel around.

If that falls through:

I'd stay in SF at your Mom's place and do lots of exploring in the area. The bonus is you can spend an hour or so per day lining up gigs in NY, then go out and have adventures.

There are tons of beautiful areas in Northern California. The Russian River, Mt. Tamilpais, Muir Woods, Sonomoa, Napa, Santa Cruz.

You can go to Yosemite if you like (brrrr.) The Sierras, no, Donner Pass is right there you know.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:00 AM on December 6, 2012

Drive cross-country, and take a good long time doing it. I made the drive six times to move to places for work, and I want to do it about 100 more times. Always fascinating to see the USA from the road.
posted by xingcat at 10:01 AM on December 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Nthing Paris if that option is still up, seriously I am jealous at the thought of that. With miscellaneous traveling around that ideally.

Also, it sounds like you are craving some outdoorsy time - from a more domestic standpoint, Ill second Ruthless Bunny's Northern California suggestions which are great winter spots and would like to add another thought: Big Bend National Park right now has great weather, and it shouldn't be too too cold/snowy in january. My understanding is that it oscillates from ~35-40 to ~80 depending on the day in january. If you drove out from SF, there is some beautiful country in Arizona and New Mexico along the way as well for more outdoorsy goodness.
posted by McSwaggers at 10:08 AM on December 6, 2012

Crazy travel ideas:

1. Make a list of locations you'd love to visit. Roll a die and go.
2. Bike trip! Bike through a chunk of central/south america. Tierra del Fuego to Foz do Iguacu would be one possible route, stopping at all the really cool places along the way.
3. Start in Panama City. Go to Kuna Yala for a few days, then hop a sailboat to Cartagena, Colombia. Take a bus to Bogota. Skip over to Ecuador if time remains.
posted by zug at 10:42 AM on December 6, 2012

If Paris falls through you can sometimes find pet sitting gigs on Workaway or HelpX . You can also find all sorts of other cool volunteering activities all over the world on these sites, which work in a similar fashion to WWOOF mentioned above but over a much wider range of activies.
posted by roolya_boolya at 10:53 AM on December 6, 2012

Response by poster: You guys. These are GREAT. I'm going to look into each suggestion tonight and I'll weigh back in once I've had a chance to dig in. Thank you for the advice. Keep it coming!
posted by andromache at 11:06 AM on December 6, 2012

I think that escaping in the short term is ignoring the real problem. If you have some time and some money, I would use that time to really have a bit of a soul-search about how you could reorganize your life to permit you to do these things on a more regular basis. Check out Location Independent, which is sort of a community for people who suffer from wanderlust and have decided to organize their lives around that fact.
posted by jph at 11:09 AM on December 6, 2012

You call it a travel itch, so trust that and go travel.

Paris is your top priority if that is still an option.

Central/South America...Good idea? More fun with friends? How about the weather this time of year?...I didn't have the foresight to say, book one of the rare tickets to Maachu Pichu... More forest, less beach, is I guess what I'm saying.

I am biased as I'm about to leave for two months in South America. My total budget, including flight, is about $3500, including several multi-day hikes (a desert, a jungle, a canyon). You could halve that by staying only a month, especially with a $700 ticket.

Machu Picchu tickets are not rare. Hiking the Inca Trail tickets are, but there's more than one trail and plenty of hiking/nature (forest, jungle, desert, volcanoes, mountains, swamps, beaches, oasis, canyons) in that region (Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia). The weather is the summer rainy season, but the weather varies drastically depending on where exactly you go and what altitude you're at. If you want more info, memail me.
posted by subject_verb_remainder at 11:25 AM on December 6, 2012

Oh, I might also add-- WWOOF is worldwide (I think I linked you to the North American site), so going to South America/Europe/wherever does not exclude working on farms and staying for free. Frequently, if you explain your situation, your hosts will also be happy to help you get to/from the bus station, train depot, airport, next farm, hotel, whatever.
posted by WidgetAlley at 11:46 AM on December 6, 2012

Drive cross-country, and take a good long time doing it. I made the drive six times to move to places for work, and I want to do it about 100 more times. Always fascinating to see the USA from the road.

Generally I'd second this advice (and I've done this in the past). However, I'm not sure I'd want to count on getting through Donner Pass in the winter. Although I guess if you're genuinely not in a hurry you could just hang out in whatever small town they shunt you off to when they close I-80.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 12:08 PM on December 6, 2012

Do you ski at all? You could try ski buming around Tahoe or someplace else.
posted by mmascolino at 12:13 PM on December 6, 2012

In case you're not aware, WWOOF is a great idea except that many countries still require a work visa in order to participate legally, especially from the US where there's no working holiday visas. Many people ignore this and WWOOF anyway but that is not without risks (i.e. arrest and deportation). If it interests you, it's safest to investigate each country's specific rules.

I believe HelpX, WorkAway, and similar programs have the same problem.
posted by subject_verb_remainder at 12:54 PM on December 6, 2012

I think as long as you plan to stay within the visa waiver/Schengen time limits (or the limits of any tourist visa, if it's not Europe), and it's a place that people frequently travel for pleasure, and it doesn't otherwise look like you're trying to immigrate, you're probably not going to have any problem.

I mean, I went to Italy a couple years ago, and they barely looked at me going through immigration. Nobody asked why I was there or how long I planned to stay. I just... went.

Plenty of people backpack across Europe for a month or two. It's neither illegal nor frowned upon. Nobody's going to care as long as you don't say "Hi, I'm andromache and I'm here to engage in borderline illegal under-the-table farm labor!"
posted by Sara C. at 5:17 PM on December 6, 2012

Your Amtrak idea is the first place my mind went. I <3 trains. The six days I spent on the Trans Siberian might have been the most relaxing days of my life. If I could disappear for a could weeks, I'd take the train to Chicago, stay a day or two, and ride it back.
posted by colin_l at 7:25 PM on December 6, 2012

Both for places to stay and as a way to sublet your apartment, check out AirBnB. My girlfriend and I just used it to find cheap places to stay in many, many places - we just completed a trip circumnavigating the globe on the cheap. Alternatively, you may like CouchSurfing. I've not used that one myself, but several friends have.

For plane tickets, I can't recommend strongly enough using ITA matrix. You use it to find your flight, then book directly with the airline, so you don't have the fruitless runaround that always happens if you book with Expedia or something but then have to change your ticket. Looks like you may be able to do San Francisco -> Nicaragua -> JFK for under $700 (look out, though, for two things: a-the ITA prices don't always include taxes, and b-some airports in developing countries [full disclosure, I have no experience with Central/South America] are so small that they don't have a separate international flights terminal, meaning you will have to meet the entry requirements for that country even if you are just changing planes, so you may need to include visa prices in your budget).
posted by solotoro at 5:44 AM on December 7, 2012

From my limited experience in South America, I found it to be much more expensive than I had anticipated. This is in/around Santiago, Easter Island, and Cusco/Machu Picchu. I would go back to Peru in a heartbeat though - it is so beautiful! Paris CAN be cheap - it's similar to NYC and SF in that way. The house sitting gig sounds appealing, but airfare on this relatively short notice might kill your budget. On preview - I take it back, the airfare won't be that bad from the East Coast.

If I had a month or two off right now, I'd go to New Zealand. Airfare will probably be significant - but much less if you leave from SFO vs JFK or LGA. New Zealand seems right up your alley - there's TONS of active/adventure stuff to do, spectacular multi-day hikes, and the weather will be great. You could rent a camper van or even hitchhike around. Hitchhiking is really safe and common in NZ. Self catering is the way to go and keeps everything affordable!
posted by tealcake at 9:18 AM on December 7, 2012

Joshua tree was great hiking this time of year. Admission to the park is unexpensive, and there's cheap lodging to be had in the area (though we stayed somewhere nice).
posted by ejaned8 at 1:15 PM on December 7, 2012

Response by poster: So what did I end up doing? Campground Host at Steep Ravine in Mount Tamalpais State Park! Here's a photo my gal took when she came out to visit me for a few days, about halfway through my tenure there. It was an excellent experience, and offered me solitude, beauty, a chance to spend a long stretch of time in a place that I grew up camping, and the opportunity to do something "useful" with my free time. I feel very glad that I was able to contribute something to the CA State Parks, which sparked and kindled my love of the outdoors, and there is almost no better place I can think of to do it than Steep Ravine.

If and when you go, stop and pause when you come to the Campground Host cabin, and imagine about how great it'd be to spend a couple months there! Highly, highly recommend anyone who has the means and interest to spend time as a camp host -- I ended up working 5 days a week, about 3 hours a day (cleaning the cabins, restocking the firewood, giving advice on trails and whatnot).

Thanks again to all who took time to advise me.
posted by andromache at 12:45 PM on April 20, 2013

Response by poster: (Here's a link to my GF's blog post about her trip, actually. Nice pictures!)
posted by andromache at 1:08 PM on April 20, 2013

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