Why Am I Wanderlusted?

How can we accept the wanderlust inside—and leave the traveler’s guilt behind?

“She is free in her wildness, she is a wanderess, a drop of free water. She knows nothing of borders and cares nothing for rules or customs. ‘Time’ for her isn’t something to fight against. Her life flows clean, with passion, like fresh water.”
― Roman Payne

It strikes. For some of us it happens when are very young, maybe upon seeing our first mountain, or after a whiff of salty ocean air. For others the feeling comes later in life, perhaps when gazing out the office window while sipping a cup of coffee. Regardless of when it happens, many of our readers recognize this feeling.

I’m talking, of course, about wanderlust.

The definition for wanderlust is a simple one: A strong desire to travel. But the word encompasses so much more; when we travel we are victims of the unknown, we are students of a foreign world. We think about traveling before we fall asleep, as we make our daily commute, or when scanning a morning magazine. We crave the feeling of tasting the unexplored, knowing that a new story, face, or flavor dances every corner.

My wanderlust recently carried me on a road trip to the Pacific Northwest. A friend and I spent two weeks living off granola bars, apples, olives, and gas station coffee, sleeping on the ground and on couches. The idea for the adventure came from a place on spontaneity; an average afternoon lunch turned into the planning of a hypothetical road trip. Somehow the idea came to fruition, and we soon found ourselves gazing out over the coast as we climbed coastal rocks in our bare feet.

Despite the beauty and excitement of the journey, there was a creeping feeling that occasionally snuck into my brain. A little voice whispered, “You should be in an office,” and “How is this going to look on your resume?” I wondered about my family, and if my time would be better spent with them. It was travel guilt, alive and well. Despite all of our saving, our financial and mental planning, and our commitment to the adventure, my mind was critical, asking me why I had chosen to use my time for such an indulgent choice.

There are others afflicted with this “travel guilt.” When interviewing fellow backpackers and adventurers, several friends have revealed their struggle with balancing a life expected of them, and the life they want to live. “Why am I wanderlusted?” we asked. “Am I doing something wrong? Am I running from something important?”

Even after we’ve dedicated ourselves to the journey, travel guilt can wiggle its way into our mental framework. It can occur in Irish hostels, on the train to Berlin, or while chatting with the locals in Peru. I’ve found this often occurs when we compare ourselves to others, people who have the stability that doesn’t come along with traveling. Not everyone is wanderlusted, and that’s neither a bad or good thing. Sometimes our wanderlust depends on where we’re at in life. We all have different sets of values, whether they be building a home or chasing a horizon.

I had only a few friends in the latter, and this made me feel like there was something wrong with me. When I was fortunate to meet a fellow traveler, I felt like I was making a spiritual connection. I collected their stories and motivations, packing them away for future inspiration.

“Why do you travel?” I recently asked via an email to some of my fellow nomads. They responded with enthusiasm.

“I travel to practice living in and for moments, to feel connected to a global community , and to be humbled by my smallness in the face of it,” one explorer divulged.

From another, “We do not owe anyone a certain lifestyle, just an honest one to ourselves.”

But, if you’re one of the wanderlusted, know that you are not alone. Your wild soul is dancing out there among a stream of others, even if you can’t always find them. Your family can be a priority even if you aren’t physically with them. If you ever find yourself experiencing travel guilt, here are a few tactics to help you overcome your fears:

  • Find like-minded travelers. This is a big one. Finding kindred spirits provides a support system. You can also swap stories, or offer advice when searching for the next big adventure. Websites like Couchsurfing and Meetup are great ways to increase your network.
  • Send postcards. Sharing your experience with loved ones is an act of giving. (After all, who doesn’t smile when receiving mail?) Not everyone has the flexibility and means to travel, and the snapshot of a foreign land can help make that person feel as though they are a part of your journey. It’s also a great way to connect with your family and friends from faraway places. Sometimes missing someone makes your communication stronger.
  • Catch yourself in comparison. Self-doubt tends to arise when we’re examining our journey compared to the path those around us. Meditation allows us to create space between our thoughts and notice when we’re going down a not-so-healthy line of thinking. Pay attention to what’s going on in your brain. If you find yourself in a rut of comparison, remind yourself of all you’ve learned and accomplished. Did you use some new language skills, or show kindness during travel delays? You’re doing things out in the wild, whether or not you recognize it.
  • Spread love to the locals. When we throw ourselves outside our comfort zone and into new spaces, we work as unofficial ambassadors. By connecting with the locals, we bridge the gap between various groups of humans. Finding universal connections among strangers is a wonderful way to inspire honest relationships. To quote Mark Twain, “Travel is fatal to prejudice.”
  • Be a witness. Someone once told me that the definition of “spoiled” was letting something go to waste. When you’re out in the open, take this as an opportunity to absorb the differences in the world around. Listen to the conversations of others. Sit in a restaurant without any distractions. Take in as much as you can, because who knows when these opportunities will come again. And if you feel like you’re learning something (you are!), this might help lessen any potential guilt.

Do not feel guilty for listening to your intuition. Our journeys teach us how to overcome obstacles, because traveling isn’t always about having fun. Car batteries die in the middle of the woods. Tents need to be set up in the pouring rain. Foreign roads need to be navigated, and you might find yourself standing in Japanese subway station wondering if you’re ever going to get home.

Your wanderlust is as much a part of you as your blood and bones. It brings forth strength, adaptability, and compassion. Because contrary to what some people might think, it’s not that we’re running away from something, we are running with something. 

Happy trails, little wanderer.

Amanda Kohr is the editor at Wanderlust. You can find her exploring new highways, drinking diner coffee, and on Instagram