Disclosures: I was provided with an advance copy of 10 Years a Nomad as a courtesy by the publisher. Links to books in this post may earn an affiliate commission.
If you’re considering entering into a long-term relationship with travel, you should first read the break-up letter one of its ex’s just wrote.
Thoughtful, candid, and vulnerable, the book should be required reading for anyone aspiring to a life of travel full time.
With today’s boom of digital nomads packing up and leaving home to get paid to travel while working online, I suspect that in ten years’ time the world will have a glut of people who can share their reflections on the effects of super-long-term travel.
Perhaps I’ll be one of them.
But in the meantime, Mr. Kepnes is one of the few voices that can speak with authority on the issue.
And, for those of us following in his footsteps, it’s worth listening to him about what the road ahead might bring.
Not Your Typical Travelogue
There are many ways to write a travel book.
You can write a book about the “how” of it all – how to backpack Europe, how to save money doing it, the best backpacks to buy, where to go, etc. (Mr. Kepnes already wrote that book, entitled How to Travel the World on $50 a Day).
You can write a book about “when,” recording for posterity what it was like to be in a particular place abroad at a particular time (e.g., The Lost City of Z).
You can also write a book about “what,” regaling tales from your adventures around the world. The book Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World is a prime example of this genre, and one of the books that inspired me to leave my career as a corporate lawyer and travel the world full time in 2016.
To be honest, when I opened Mr. Kepnes’s latest piece, I fully expected a “what” travel book filled with tales of his exploits around the world.
After all, a decade of travels surely has given the author more than his fair share of travel adventures to share.
But, while you’ll certainly find more than a few of those, stories frankly aren’t the book’s strong point.
Spend 30 minutes in any hostel common room and you’re likely to hear essentially the same stories you’ll read in 10 Years a Nomad – stories of ephemeral friendships on the road, getting lost in foreign lands and, yes, even stories of sex in bunk beds.
As travel storytellers go, Mr. Kepnes is average at best here.
But to judge Mr. Kepnes just by his stories would be profoundly unfair, because storytelling is not really what he’s trying to do here.
Indeed, he implicitly acknowledges as much in a passage of the book dedicated to what it’s like to come home after years on the road:
Your friends don’t want to hear about that time you were sailing the Pacific while they were sitting in traffic. They don’t want to hear another story set in a place they’ve never been to and featuring people they’ll never meet.
No, Mr. Kepnes isn’t trying to captivate us with fascinating tales of his exploits the road.
His aim is something much higher than that.
And, halfway through the book, you realize that the sheer averageness of his stories actually is critical to that goal.
Because another word for “average” is “relatable.”
And you need to be able to identify with Mr. Kepnes to be able to hear his most important messages.
The Truth About Long-Term Travel
As I said, this isn’t a book about the “what” of long-term travel.
It’s a book about the “why.”
And also the “why not.”
And really, those are subjects that are far more important than even the most enrapturing of travel stories.
Because the world of travel is changing dramatically.
The 2010s have seen an explosion of international travel generally and, more specifically, the rise of a dramatically different lifestyle: long-term travelers who work from their laptops while traveling around the world.
I’m one of those “digital nomads.”
And whether he likes the title or not (it’s not clear that he embraces it), the fact is that Mr. Kepnes was too – and was one of the earliest digital nomads in fact.
And what he has to tell us about the long-term effects of travel on the heart, spirit, and soul is something to which we should listen closely.
Because, as much as I think that adopting the digital nomad lifestyle has been one of the greatest decisions of my life, the fact is that neither I nor just about anyone else really knows how it will affect us digital nomads long-term.
10 Years a Nomad is one of the first long-form attempts I’ve seen at tackling that thorny subject, and it does so with refreshing candor.
Mr. Kepnes could have filled this book with inspiring tidbits about how travel helps you grow as a person.
And you can definitely find some of those in the book.
He repeatedly recounts, for instance, how travel helped him get over his confidence issues and feel secure in his place in the world.
But he also doesn’t censor anything when it comes to relating the perils and pitfalls of long-term travel.
Mr. Kepnes relates how travel tore apart his love life repeatedly.
How it led to post-trip depression when he returned home.
How it contributed to paralyzing bouts of anxiety that caused him to temporarily shut down.
And he doesn’t just tell those stories. He contextualizes them, reflects on them, learns from them.
Indeed, much of the book reads as the inner monologue of a man trying to wrap his arms around the profound ways in which a decade of travel has changed him.
Running Away or Running Towards the World?
Of all the deep and important questions Mr. Kepnes address in the book (and there are many), there is one core one that surfaces repeatedly: whether long-term travel is something people do because they are running away.
Early in the book, he pushes back hard on that idea in a passage that I read while profusely nodding my head in agreement:
I realized that casting deliberate vagabonds and nomads as crazy, maladjusted, antisocial Peter Pans is just another way of perpetuating fear. It’s a way of saying “our life is the only life, and anyone who wants out of it is crazy.” And when you define people who want out of your life as crazy, you never have to grapple with the shortcomings of your own way of living.
Couldn’t have said it better myself.
I highlighted that passage with the intent of saving it to send to future naysayers in my own life.
Except I probably won’t ever do that.
Because later in the book Mr. Kepnes walks it back pretty hard:
“As much as I hated to admit it, I was wrong, and everyone else was right. I was running. I was trying to have my cake and eat it, too, and, in the end, the thing I loved most – travel – had become an albatross that kept me from truly being the person I wanted to be.”
Now, in that passage Mr. Kepnes is influenced by the death of a close friend. So perhaps that context colors his retreat.
But in the end Mr. Kepnes ultimately does retreat from long-term travel (by the way, I’m not giving anything away here that the book’s subtitle – A Traveler’s Journey Home – doesn’t itself).
And in the final chapter, he explains his decision to go home as:
Even Peter Pan grew up. Even I had to stop traveling.
Which, if not a full-throated acknowledgment that he had been running away through travel, seems to strongly suggest at least that Mr. Kepnes felt that there was something un-adult about his travels.
Which is fine – maybe for him there was.
But this definitely is one place where I personally feel some distance from the author, whose story otherwise seems so relatable to my own life.
The rise of the remote work economy has made working online while traveling the world far more feasible today than even a few years ago.
And just like people used to live agrarian lives on farms until industrialization allowed the rise of urban living for the masses, I think that the digital economy is such a fundamental change in the world that a life of long-term travel is something that, if not totally widespread, will at least seem completely normal in 50 years’ time.
And if everyone else is a Peter Pan too, then what’s so wrong with living in Neverland, right?
But, alas, we aren’t there yet. And those of us who are digital nomads can’t truly know what the future holds – both for ourselves and for the lifestyle itself.
Bottom Line: A Book That Belongs on Every Aspiring Digital Nomad’s Kindle
Ultimately, I think it remains to be seen whether the breakup between Mr. Kepnes and travel is one of those that actually sticks.
I personally am not at all convinced that Mr. Kepnes is truly going to leave nomad life behind (at times, the book does read a little like his effort to convince himself “this is really it – I’m really done traveling this time”).
But, whatever the conclusion of Mr. Kepnes’s journey, his reflections at this point are certainly worth your time and money.
Because travel is one of those partners who is all fun when you’re dating casually but becomes something entirely different when things turn into a long-term relationship.
And, given how polyamorous travel is, we should listen to those who have dated it before – especially when they’ve collected their reflections as eloquently as Mr. Kepnes has here.