Published on September 5th, 2012 | by Adrian Simpson0
Michael Helmuth: The Man who left it all behind
What inspires a man to forgo a job, a home and a regular life to undertake amazing adventures? A lot of people may dream of giving up the day job, ripping off the tie and wandering the planet but few actually get past the point of discussing it at the pub. We talk to Michael Helmuth, a man is who is living the dream:
Adrian Simpson: When did you first realise that you were going to lead a life less ordinary?
Michael Helmuth: When I was about 11 years old in the dull suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia my mom gave me a book called Walk Across America by Peter Jenkins. It’s the account of a guy who, as you might guess, walked coast to coast in the US and worked along the way. I still remember how that affected me. It really opened me up to the idea of a long term travel lifestyle by alternate means. Until then, “travel” meant driving to the beach in the family car and wandering among the hoards of pasty tourists to buy overpriced food and trinkets. Those thoughts of independent travel never left me.
AS: What was your first big adventure?
MH: When I was in college I bought a Suzuki VX800 motorcycle. Over a break in summer, after some difficult personal circumstances, I decided that if I could ride 10 miles, then I could ride 100 and if I could ride 100, then I could probably ride 1000. I strapped a school backpack on the back of the bike, and without even proper rain gear, I headed north from Atlanta. I didn’t have a clear destination, but I had never been to New York City or out of the country, so that seemed like as good an idea as any. As it turned out, I followed hurricane Dan right up the east coast. Along the way I visited NYC, then ended up working for my keep at a hostel in Ottawa, Canada.
AS: Did your parents ever think you should get a ‘proper job’?
MH: Coming from a middle class upbringing I suppose it was expected that I would have a standard life and professional job. For the last 15 years, I’ve been a software developer, while taking off chunks of time for various adventures. It’s only with this current adventure that I’m really walking away from that life entirely. This trip is a complete departure from that life with no easy path of return.
AS: When did you come up with the idea for your latest project?
MH: After spending three months last summer traveling on the motorcycle through the US and Mexico, something clicked. I’m 36. It’s time. I really want to pursue a different life.
The longer you sit and become comfortable in life, the harder it is to really overcome that inertia. At some point you have to be willing to look around and realize the comfort isn’t worth it to you anymore. I started selling off all my possessions and planning my exit.
AS: What are you hoping will be the result of your work on the trip?
MH: My goals are twofold. First, I’m trying to establish a podcast that explores population and transportation through interviews with different sorts of people about their life experiences as well as various other authorities and experts on the topic. Second, along the same lines, I’m working on gathering the material for a book.
AS: What is the one thing you would never go on a trip without?
MH: Maps. . . Real Paper Maps. . . For many years I’ve been an enthusiastic user of GPS’s but I still never travel without the best paper map I can find. I just simply don’t trust gadgets all that much. Paper maps don’t run out of batteries, have a screen failure, crash, or otherwise freak out. (All of which has happened to me)
Also, I when you are designing a route a proper map really gives you an overview and a perspective that I believe it’s difficult to get any other way.
AS: What has been your most fulfilling adventure to date?
MH: In 2009 I bicycled through North America starting in northwest Oregon and ending in Southeast Georgia. I weaved around all over the place covering about 4000 miles over a period of about 3 months. It was the first long term bicycle tour I had ever done. I really discovered that bicycle touring offers an amazing way to connect with people and places as you travel. I still find that I have many more relationships and connections from that trip than any other.
AS: What has been your biggest travelling disaster?
MH: There have been lots of mishaps, but thankfully I’ve never had anything really bad befall me. My most recent was this last summer. My girlfriend and I were traveling 2-up on the motorcycle, loaded with all of our stuff plus camping gear for two people. We were going to spend a few days traveling the dirt roads in the back country of Montana. It had not rained a drop in over two months and the roads were good, solid dirt roads. No problem, even on a big bike like a BMW 1150GS. We had everything mapped out in the GPS. We were staying on the major fire roads. Then, 60 miles in, low and behold the sky opened and the rain came. Unfortunately, the area where we were was mostly dirt as opposed to gravel. It even included freshly graded areas. It quickly turned to this god-awful slippery, goopy mud. We were reduced to moving at just a few miles per hour trying to keep control. Suddenly it seemed like I had no control at all. We got off the bike and realized that mud had totally filled the mudguard and the wheel was barely even turning.
We found sticks and dug the mud out from around the mudguard and decided to find the quickest way to a tarmac road. . . how you ask? With the GPS. For some reason, I opted not to get the super detailed backcountry paper maps I knew I needed and just trust GPS. . . It was pure foolishness. We started following the GPS and quickly realized it was sending us on to wagon tracks that had not been used in decades and no longer really existed. Also, a road it noted as paved was anything but. All the while it continued to rain and the conditions worsened. Needless to say, there was no cell phone access, nor was there anyone around. We finally passed a creepy looking house where we clearly imagined a serial killer or perhaps some sort of backcountry militiaman to live. It was the only thing for miles. We decided to see if there was anyone there. No one was home. I’m still not sure if that was a blessing or curse.
We continued on slipping and sliding as I cursed and sweated. The road would improve for a bit and we’d finally think we were nearing a solid gravel road, then, more mud. Stressful and exhausting. All the while we really had no idea if we were going the right way. We were simply guessing based on the road being in the general direction of a town on the GPS.
Finally a pickup truck came along in the other direction and we managed to flag him down. He told us were headed in the right direction and we’d come upon a town in another 10 miles or so.
I’d never been so happy in my life to see tarmac with a diner sitting beside it.
AS: What will be the most challenging part of this latest adventure?
MH: I wish I could tell you some exciting and noble goal involving climbing something or perhaps crossing something. . . However, the greatest challenge has really been developing the skills to market and promote and subsequently fund this venture. While I’m quite comfortable with life on the road, or repairing a broken motorcycle / bicycle / truck in the desert with whatever is at hand, the experience of self promotion and marketing has really forced me to move out of my comfort zone.
AS: Has there been any point where you’ve thought ‘I wish I was at home on the couch?
MH: I think anyone who says there’s never been a moment of that isn’t really telling the truth, though I’ve never regretted a trip overall. The moment that jumps to mind for me is bicycling through Wyoming in the brutal heat after the 3rd day of massive headwinds. I found myself riding along screaming at the wind like a looney. I kept thinking about just throwing down the bike and walking away. Of course, in a calmer moment it’s pretty obvious that that would have made things considerably worse.