How lessons I learned while traveling have helped me through family tragedy (and can help you)

While this is my story, I’m sharing it because we all have family and those that we love. When we least expect it, tragedies happen and the skills that we hone while traveling can be invaluable in getting us through.

Chris Plough - Siberia - 20140218

Camping in Siberia en route to the Arctic Circle (-43C)

Truth is – this year has been a roller coaster of euphoria and darkness. In February, I rode a Ural motorcycle through some of the harshest ice roads in Siberia and into the Arctic Circle. Hitting the finish line was exhilarating – an accomplishment that I will remember forever. Just hours after reaching Salekhard, I was faced with some devastating news – that Al, a man who had been a mentor and a father figure since I was 16, was gravely ill. I immediately began planning my trip home, so that we could spend what time was left together. By the time I hit Moscow, however, I had learned that he had passed. I’ll tell the story of that night another time, but suffice to say – I’m glad that I was in the company of fellow travelers (thanks Dalbs, Dylan and Karan). After returning home and helping with his arrangements, I was also faced with the challenge that both of my grandfathers are fighting terminal diseases.

Now, this may sound like the pit of despair – and that I’m likely kept from all sharp objects and belts – but the truth is that I’m doing as well as can be expected. Of course, some days are better than others – but the lessons that I’ve learned while traveling have been key to putting all of this in perspective.

Face difficult things
Many of my travels have included an element of danger – from surviving sub-zero Siberia to breaking down in the middle of the Gobi Desert. Time and again, I’ve been taught the value of facing difficult situations head-on. I’m not perfect – all I wanted to do when I learned about each of these tragedies was to put my head down and ignore what was happening. If I don’t acknowledge it – it isn’t happening, right? Wrong – ignoring the problem only allows it to grow larger or saps away the time we have left with those we love. As conscious beings, we can’t control what happens, but we can control our reactions. Regardless of what I “wanted” to do, I chose to face reality and accept the situation as it stands – which then gave me the freedom to act upon it, instead of hiding from reality.

Freedom to move
Once I had accepted the situation, the next step was to travel and spend time with my family. To some, this may seem trivial – but many people (including myself a few years ago) are mired down with false responsibilities and material possessions that keep us cemented in place. One of the greatest benefits to the Vagabonding lifestyle is the freedom it creates to follow the next adventure and travel as you desire. In this case, that power allowed me to immediately fly to El Paso to help Al’s family and then up to Washington to spend quality time with my grandfather. Soon, I will ride to Missouri to do the same with my other grandfather. This doesn’t mean that I dropped everything, but simply that my lifestyle allows me to work wherever I am and my “home base” is wherever I happen to be. I know that years from now, I’ll be able to look back on this time and realize that this flexibility is one of my greatest freedoms.

Enjoy the moment
When I’m in the middle of an adventure, I’m much more in the moment – my thoughts are nearly all present, rather than lingering on the regrets of the past or stuck on the fears of the future. There’s a lot of research around this state (being in the zone, mindfulness) and ways to achieve it (meditation, focus, etc) – but put simply, it is a practicable state and the more you experience it, the easier it is to achieve. When I’m spending time with my family, there are a lot of emotions that try to pull me out of the present, and into past memories or anxiety about the coming days. The truth is, neither of these are the right place to be – instead, the right place is here and now, while we are together and enjoying each other’s company. For us, sharing meals and playing cards at night, while joking with each other is a special time that I’m grateful for.

The journey is long and ever changing
One of the greatest lessons that my adventures taught me is that he terrain change down the road. So – no matter what is happening and how dark the times in front of you may be, with persistence and endurance, you can make it through. This is a lesson that I often need to be re-taught, which is exactly what happened while I was in Siberia. I’ll share the full story another time, but the core of it is – on the first night camping, I spent several hours waiting for the sun to rise, while manually flexing my feet with my hands in order to stave off frostbite. It was a long, torturous night that I wasn’t sure I’d make it through. Minute-by-minute and flex-by-flex I did. Eventually the sun rose and I can say that all of my lil’ piggies are warm and pink today. This lesson helps today when days get tough and emotionally dark. I know that if we just endure and continue on, that there will be lighter times ahead. Sure enough, there always are.

Knowing my life will be full by the time I get there
As I watch my grandfather’s body get weaker and as he becomes more dependent on the rest of us, I can’t help but realize that there will be a time when I reach the same point. We all will. It’s inevitable – we get older and die — quickly, quietly or slowly. I do find comfort knowing that, like my grandfather, whenever I reach that point – my life will have been as full as possible. Sure, there are opportunities that I didn’t take, too many hours spent in front of a television and potential lovers that I shied away from — but on whole, I can look back at my life satisfied. I know that I took advantage of the time I had and made a difference in the lives of those around me. Like the boy scout motto – try and leave this world a little better than you found it.

Look – there is no silver bullet when facing family tragedies. Nothing is going to make all of the pain go away or magically make it better. Like every test, however, you control how you perceive and respond to difficulty. Every challenge has a silver lining and in the case of mine, I’m fortunate to have the freedom and wherewithal to make the most of our time together. I wouldn’t trade that for anything. Neither should you.

Chris Plough writes and podcasts at, where he shares stories and advice from his adventures and from the incredible people that he’s met along the way. You can also follow him on twitter: @chrisplough.


Posted by | Comments (1)  | May 16, 2014
Category: Asia, Ethics, Vagabonding Advice, Vagabonding Life

One Response to “How lessons I learned while traveling have helped me through family tragedy (and can help you)”

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