When I first started this project a year ago, it was not much more than a "radical dream." I had some brief experience traveling solo in the States when I was younger (my freshman attempt at a travel blog right out of college didn't make it much further than the first post) and planning a trip of this scope was so far beyond my knowledge base that I had difficulty visualizing how to actually accomplish it. I didn't really know how to begin, and eventually I would realize that I didn't need to. I became a better traveler by traveling, and found that making the choice to leave was the only step that was really important.
To really get to the heart of what has brought me to where I am now, let's start with a story:
When I was a junior in high school, my father took me along with him on a business trip to Japan as an interpreter. At the time, I had been studying Japanese for almost six years, and had a pretty good grasp of the language. As a surprise, we went on a short trip to the Fuji-Hakone area of Japan, and that's where I caught my first glimpse of the base of the majestic Mt. Fuji.
There's even a picture somewhere of me packing up a snowball, frost-breath just barely visible, sure of myself that my father had no idea what he was about to be surprised with. Although we had our differences when I was younger, it is still one of my fondest memories of him. He knew that I was going to try and get him with a snowball, and was one step ahead and got me first right after this picture was taken.
As with most things that I really set my heart on, I knew that I would be back. Japan was a place that held a special significance for my culturally curious and excited younger self, and I would spend most of my adult life trying to find a way to go back. When my 30th birthday was approaching, I had finally found my way.
I have a friend that told me once that what you do on the first day of the year sets the tone for the rest of it. I felt that by doing something momentous and important for myself would set the tone for the entirety of my thirties. I didn't want to fear the age, like many of my friends seemed to, but to embrace and be exhilarated by it. So I chose to go back to Japan, and to climb that mountain that I had been dreaming of for almost half of my life. I was originally going to take my father with me, but as with most great storie, nothing ever goes as planned.
Fast forward to mid-January 2014 in the San Francisco Bay Area, and I was driving to visit my father at his home in Palo Alto. The barren trees lining the expressway began to blur at the periphery of my vision, and I started to realize that I was losing focus. Deep breaths, I told myself, deep breaths. I caught a whiff of the artificial scent of the ocean coming from the blue dolphin air-fresheners dangling from the rear view mirror in the cabin of my green Toyota truck. I coughed, chuckled, and turned the steering wheel in slow, controlled movements for the last few turns towards my destination. It wasn't until I reached down to pull the parking brake that I realized that my leg had been shaking uncontrollably.
My father had been diagnosed with terminal cancer the previous summer, and after caring for him six months, my brother had kindly offered to take the reigns so I could decompress and get some space. As it is with many houses one has lived in long enough, the memories become as tangible as the walls, and remaining there to care for my father had been difficult after a messy breakup with my girlfriend at the time. We had lived there together for almost two years (and at times with her daughter), and though that had been a part of my life that I chose to walk away from, the thought of losing my father as well really hurt. I put on a strong face for my father, and my brothers, and for myself, but at times it felt as if I was seeing a ghost in the mirror. My life as I had known it was in the process of being washed away, and I was only beginning to learn how to swim.
I had still returned frequently after work to assist my brother, and this particular occasion was nothing special. Yet, as it felt on many occasions, something was wrong, and I couldn't quite tell what.
As I opened the heavy front door to the house, I could hear wheezing from the corner of the room. My father compared the sensation to having newspaper jammed inside his body that he couldn't get out, and whenever I heard him breathe or speak I got the image of dry newspaper rustling around his lungs. It hurt immensely to see him like this, laying out in his favorite chair, a shaking skeletal fragment of the man that he was. I knew that I had to be strong for him, to give him hope until his very last moments, and I was having a hard time being strong for myself.
I didn't realize it at the time, but I think that he had been watching me watch him, and he looked at me then with an intense stare and he started to cry. I had only seen my father cry once before, at his father's funeral, and this was even harder to see. Through the shaking, I could hear his high pitched raspy voice with a newfound determination, and he said, "Matt. Promise me Matt, that no matter what happens to me, you will go to Japan. Even if I am still here when you leave, it is too important for you to stay. Promise me."
I was speechless. It was one of the most selfless acts that anyone has ever done for me, and I will never forget it. I told him, "I promise. I love you Dad, and I always will. I will make it to the top of that mountain no matter what."
He passed away a few months later, and you can best believe that I kept my promise (I don't make them if I can't). Not only my promise to him, but to myself as well. His attitude instilled a curiosity and lust for experiencing the world around me that has become a fundamental part of my identity. After his passing, I was resolved to make choices in my life that would allow me to live the life that *I* wanted. Starting by chasing my dreams all the way to the land of the Rising Sun.
I spent two weeks hiking through Japan in August 2014. My first stop, as you've probably guessed by now, was summiting Mt. Fuji. It was my first serious climb, and despite the training that I put in beforehand, I wasn't really prepared for some of the surprises on the road:
First, altitude can be a real surprise if you've never experienced it before. As I passed the sixth station (of ten total on the mountain) I started to realize that I wasn't just out of breath, I was actually having trouble breathing because the air was thinner there!
Second, when you get up high enough, and there are just enough clouds present it's as if you're walking through them. I felt as though I was flying the closer to the summit that I got.
Lastly, climbing the mountain was so much more than a physical experience for me. I felt as though with each step closer to the summit, I was closer to conquering the difficulties that I had been going through over the past year. No longer was I feeling that my life had been washed away, but that the unnecessary aspects of it had been cleansed, and I was free to forge myself anew after having conquered my fears. Sitting on the top of the mountain watching the sunrise on an unusually clear day was a powerful experience, and it was the moment that I realized that I would never let life bring me down, and I would always be capable of climbing any difficulty that arose if I let myself.
The next few weeks were spent walking through remote areas of Japan along the Kumano Kodo (an ancient pilgrimage for the Kumano faith) and the Nakasendo (a historically important road connecting former capitals of Japan that has been traversed by millions over the years).
[Fun side note: this article is being published as I complete a portion of the Shikoku 88 temple pilgrimage in Japan, set to end exactly one year after leaving on my journey. This was, as I'm sure you can guess, by choice. I will have an article detailing the experience available in the coming months.]
Sitting in my office and dreaming about traveling the world was a fundamentally different experience than actually doing so. The physical act of collecting all of my belongings for sale or donation, and bringing them down three flights of stairs was beginning to give me an omnipresent sense of internal vertigo. As if I could feel my old self slipping away, one box at a time, and in that void was an opportunity to reinvent myself. The experience was as exciting as it was terrifying, and I have not regretted a single moment.
Midway through this process, and in preparation for my first trip around the world, I spent a few weeks in Canada as a trial run for the year long trip that I had intended to leave for that May. When I arrived, I launched a tumblr account as an outlet to write while traveling and as a way to keep my friends and family updated on my travels.
I visited sixteen countries, walked over a thousand miles, saw some incredible things, and shared some amazing experiences with wonderful people. Along the way, I played around with mobile photography, videography, writing in different formats and lengths, and even gathered a small following. To say that I've learned a lot from the experience would be the greatest understatement of my life. I have transformed into something greater than the man I was.
This is why the launch of my new website (www.theradicaldreamer.com), one year later, is so exciting for me. Just as I did with my dreams of seeing the world, I'm now taking my hopes of becoming a writer and making them real. I want to share my world with you. I'm planning on posting stories of my experiences, practical travel advice that I have learned, interviews with fellow travelers, a podcast and more. As I continue to learn, your feedback is crucial. It will help me determine what you like most, and develop my skills as a writer (I'm a bit rusty) - so please leave comments or contact me directly.
Welcome aboard as we explore this radical dream together. Enjoy!
Special Thanks: My family, near and far, for always encouraging me. Raj, Carli, Srishti, Christian and Amanda, for being my constant champions back home. Patrick, for inspiring me to keep the dream alive by continuing to write with fervent tenacity, and by trusting my judgement enough to include me in the process. Maegan, for being an integral part of my journey by setting me up with friends abroad to help me get started, and for instilling the courage to stay abroad many years ago. Mirna, for walking through hell and back with me, and being present and considerate during one of the most difficult periods of my life. Emily and Karrine, for getting my butt back out on the road. And Lea, for the creative thinking that gave this blog a name. Couldn't have done this without you all 😊