This week marks 12 years of living on and working from the road for travel journalist Karen Catchpole.
One of the founders of Sassy and a former editor at Jane, Tell and Shop Etc. magazines during publishing’s boom times, Karen and her husband, photographer Eric Mohl, packed up their Manhattan apartment in the wake of September 11, 2001, hoping to find their place in a world turned upside-down. That’s when they took off on the Trans-Americas Journey, their 200,000-mile road trip through North, Central and South America.
From wherever their Chevy Silverado is parked at the moment (right now, that’d be Bolivia) the two explore on a deeper level than any vacation could ever allow. They also freelance, sometimes together, for the likes of Travel+Leisure, National Geographic Traveler, Every Day with Rachael Ray, Elle, WSJ Magazine, Slate.com and loads more.
In her exclusive interview with Bare Necessities, find out why this Power Figure took a leap of faith to reprioritize her entire life, and learn how she keeps on keeping on more than a decade into an epic adventure with no end in sight.
Q: How did this trip of a lifetime come to be?
A: My husband and I spent years backpacking through Asia together in the back half of the 1990s. That’s when we realized this new thing called the Internet allowed us to work from anywhere, and it was a big part of our inspiration: to turn our love of travel into a way of life by finding a way to take our careers on the road.
Originally, we were planning to work and travel through Africa. Then the attacks of September 11 happened. We lived three blocks from the World Trade Center in New York then, and we’d recently spent time traveling in Pakistan. So when the President climbed on the rubble in our backyard and started shouting about getting “them,” we were chilled. The country was changing. States were turning blue or red. We were confused.
Then it occurred to us: Why do we always choose to explore so far from home? The United States was suddenly a foreign country to us, so we shifted our focus to the Americas, the continent, and it was just a short hop from there to decide that a road trip was the best way to do it. The Trans-Americas Journey was born. That “s” at the end of America is on purpose. Part of our point in a post 9-11 world is to reinforce the importance of global neighbors and the fact that everyone who lives in the Americas is American, not just those who hold a U.S. passport.
Q: What did friends and family think, and how did you find the conviction to go through with it?
A: After high school, I moved to Australia for a few years before returning the U.S. to start Sassy, so my friends and family were habituated to me spending long periods far away.
I strongly believed that the concept [of this trip] was sound, my skills were up to the task, both as a traveler and as a journalist, and that it would work out. Just don’t ask me exactly how. Remember that in 2006, the term “digital nomad” hadn’t been invented yet. Hell, “digital” as we now know it barely existed. Blogs didn’t come into the mainstream until three years after our journey started. So there was some understandable angst about exactly how my grand plan was going to pan out. Over time, however, I proved that I could make it work—I haven’t starved to death yet, and the tank in our truck is currently full—so some of that angst has fallen away. And they see that I get to do cool things like visit the Galapagos Islands and Antarctica. It’s hard to argue with that.
Q: What made you say yes to the unknown at such an uncertain time?
A: Because we were already planning a long-term journey when the attacks happened, our concern about the after-effects on the character of our country was more than enough to prompt us to move forward. I believe that uncertain times are the best time to do stuff that upends your life. If you’ve already got to deal with chaos around you, you’re better prepared to handle whatever chaos you create for yourself. And isn’t the chaos you create better than the chaos imposed on you? Weirdly, there’s some control in that. In the dozen years or so since my journey began, things have gotten no more stable in the world around us. So, if you ask me, now is still a good time to do some upending in your own life.
Q: What did you have to do to prepare? Did you have any idea what you were in for?
A: That first backpacking trip taught me how to overcome the biggest hurdle: fear of taking the first step. The hardest thing about a project like this is time. To keep my career and the Trans-Americas Journey going is like having seven different jobs that all need to get done now: researching future travel, doing the travel and reporting at hand, finishing current assignments, pitching new ones, writing for our blog, trying to find the mental bandwidth to glean story-worthy facts and nuggets from it all and, oh, have a good time, too.
Q: What does it take to keep going?
A: Patience (working on it), tenacity (got plenty), thick skin (50/50), teamwork (I couldn’t do this alone, logistically or creatively), flexibility, optimism and time management. Anyone who thinks this is just a really long vacation is dead wrong.
Q: When, if ever, will you know it’s time to stop?
A: At one point, about four years into our Asia trip, there came a day in a hostel in Bangkok when I turned to Eric and said, “I just want a shelf to put some books on.” I knew I was done. We went back to New York City and, within a few months, I was in an office with a shelf to put books on. I haven’t hit that point yet and I have no way of knowing if, when or why I might. I go day by day. Mile by mile. Country by country. Also, I’m stubborn and I’d really like to see our goal through: “From the Arctic to Tierra del Fuego and back.”
Q: Where is home now, and can you ever go back again?
A: Home is still the United States and I could absolutely go back, but I’m not married to that. After so many years in Latin America, the way of life here is beginning to feel as much like home to me as the way of life in the U.S. When I return to see family and friends, I’m always relieved when I leave again. I’ve become comfortable with the more relaxed pace and laid-back attitude here, and I’m open to stumbling upon a place down here that becomes home. I half-jokingly say that part of this trip is all about discovering a horse ranch next to a winery that needs a helping hand.
Q: Superlatives time! What’s been the hardest part? The easiest? The worst? The most surprising? The most awe-inspiring?
A: The worst was having our side-view mirrors stolen in Mexico and a window of our truck smashed in Peru. So much of the journey involves meeting people who only want to do generous and helpful things for us. However, there have been very-extremely-really-rare-almost-never occasions when people have targeted us with theft in mind, and that always feels shocking and frighteningly personal.
Many sacrifices were made in order to make the Trans-Americas Journey a reality. One of the hardest is that I don’t have a steady cast of friends around. Sure, we make friends on the road but, like Army brats, just when things are getting solid, we’re off to another destination. And despite trips back to see family, it gets harder and harder to be away from them.
In terms of the biggest surprise, I was a bit afraid that the people I would meet along the way would look at me and the Trans-Americas Journey as some sort of privileged U.S. vanity project. I am privileged and I am from the U.S., but it’s no vanity project, and I work very, very hard for the privileges I have. Happily, everyone we’ve met along the way understands that, supports our efforts and appreciates the work we put into telling people about their corners of the world.
The scariest time was waking up naked and disoriented in a shaking room during an earthquake in Chile. Oh, and so many bad roads in bad weather.
The freedom is the best part. If we like a place, we stay. If we don’t like a place, we leave.
I’ve seen such awe-inspiring things as the northern lights in Canada, a jaguar in the wild, a crazy Chilean rodeo in the Atacama…shall I continue?
Q: Having been on this odyssey so long, what’s changed about you? What have you learned?
A: I don’t actually think travel changes you. I certainly wasn’t looking to change myself. I was looking to change the way I work, and to take more control over my career as my industry continued to atrophy. But that was the sum total of my goals, and I’ve achieved that, however clumsily, which feels like a personal triumph but not a personal transformation.
I have learned that there’s a lot I can do without. That will happen when you spend more than a decade making do with what you can cram into the back of your truck. Turns out, you can cram a lot in and, honestly, there are still probably things I could get rid of.
Q: What have you discovered about people and our world?
A: It’s such a cliché, but we really are all pretty much the same. Deep down, we all want to be happy and healthy and have the rights and opportunities to achieve those basic goals.
Most of us also want to do the right thing. In Brazil, a woman I barely knew saved my life. I was experiencing alarming pain in my abdomen while staying at her guesthouse. She escorted me to the local hospital at 11 PM to be sure I was cared for and to translate—I speak virtually no Portuguese, and the language is not just like Spanish no matter what anyone tells you. The inexperienced, ill-equipped staff at the hospital were baffled, but they sent me for ultrasounds and more tests the next day. My guardian angel accompanied me again. Still in pain, she then called in a favor with a gastroenterology professor, a colleague of her sister’s, in the nearest city. The doctor heard my symptoms and told us to come to him right away, so we drove for four hours. She remained with me in the operating room during my emergency appendectomy. She didn’t have to do any of that. There was nothing in it for her. She was just doing the right thing. Try to remember this whenever you’re tempted to focus on perceived differences between us, or some nebulous threat of ill will from a stranger.
Q: What can others take away from your experiences?
A: Try not to pack any preconceived notions about what your destination, its inhabitants, its food, its politics, etc. will be like. You are probably completely wrong, and you’ll waste days of your trip trying to shed those misconceptions so that you can see the true nature of the things you’ve left home to learn.
THE WORLD ACCORDING TO KAREN
Favorite bra: This DKNY Liteware Convertible T-Shirt Bra is what I always look for. I travel with three bras. They’re all the same. They each need to be comfortable and versatile, so a T-shirt bra in a fleshy color is best because it can be worn under anything. I also like convertible straps for the rare occasions when I wear a racerback shirt.
Happy place: On horseback.
Greatest extravagance: Wine.
Greatest strength: I’m a card-carrying type A control freak.
Character flaw: I’m a card-carrying type A control freak.
Best way to unwind: Wine.
Current obsession: Learning to play polo in Argentina.
Hidden talent: I flaunt them all.
Impossible to resist: Wine.
Most common refrain: “Pothole!”
Favorite souvenir: Memories.
If I weren’t a writer, I would be: Frustrated.
Perfect day must contain: Wine.
In a word: Determined.