Travel And Life Goals: Lessons From My Grandma

My grandma is one of my travel role models. We’ve been road tripping together a lot this summer, checking out a museum, shops and what the Le Cordon Bleu-trained chefs were cooking up in a Mississippi River town in Minnesota, touring frontier Forts and eating an absolutely absurd amount of authentic Mexican food in southern North Dakota and hanging out by the mighty Missouri River on a steamy summer night.

We watched the sun sink over this incredible river (the largest in North America), drinking beer in the sand (okay, she skipped that part, but most of her descendants did not) while the kids and the bravest adults swam in the icy water and (I am not making this up) people we’d never met revved their engines all around us, racing dirt bikes and dune buggies across the sandbar, “Mad Max: Fury Road” style.

In the middle of this already surreal scene, my grandma decided to get her feet wet. (That’s her in my cousin Austyn Bitzer’s photo below, with one of my uncles on each side.) Despite being very athletic (she played basketball in high school and college), Gram doesn’t swim. I can’t even remember ever seeing her in the water. But she decided to get in anyway, just because she wanted to and figured there was no time like the present. I admire that.


Photo by Austyn Bitzer

My grandma has sat in my passenger seat a lot in the last few weeks, and I’ve gotten to hear her travel stories. She told me about how a family she worked for took her on a train clear across the country, from North Dakota to Texas, where she first tried raw oysters. She’s told me about epic road trips with her friends and coworkers during a more than 50 year sales career, funny conference speakers in ballrooms in Utah and Michigan, hotel room horror stories and her favorite roadside eats from decades of driving.

She’s still traveling and exploring closer to home. She regularly fills me in about cool little restaurants she tried with her friends. She finally retired, but she connects with friends and colleagues more than anyone I’ve ever met. Or she’ll call me up to tell me to interview the owner of a shop she thinks I’ll like or to remind me to tell all of you about my cousin’s pick for the best hamburger stand in the state. (That post is coming soon!) She tells me to stop at food trucks and food stands and random roadside attractions more than anyone I know. (Except for myself and my mother, of course. This is clearly genetic.)


We brake for tacos. Even when we’re not hungry. I’m not saying this makes any kind of sense, I’m just saying it’s a fact.

I’ve been lucky enough to build a life traveling and telling stories about it. But hanging out with my grandma reminds me that living this way is something anyone can do.

Over gelato (one of our mutual obsessions), I told Gram a story about a friend of the family who asked when I was going to “grow up and finally settle down and stop traveling, because we’re all getting older now.” She gave a derisive little laugh. “Oh please,” she said. “Tell him to have a little fun. I’m way older than he is, but at least I’m not being so boring.”

Words to live by, folks. Getting older happens, but growing up (or getting boring) is totally, completely optional. So have a little fun. Get out there and see something new. Do something. Discover something. Anything. Life is short.

This conversation got me thinking about what I wanted to accomplish in the next phase of my work/travel life. I’ve been been busy building things over the last five years — a business, a book, a family — but the next five years will be different. Fellow travel writer Valerie Stimac, the woman behind Valerie and Valise, encouraged me to make a #40Before40 list to really refine exactly what I wanted from the next few years of my life.

I read her list. I liked it. And I made my own. After all, if my grandma can be constantly revising her version of the good life and having adventures well into her eighth decade on the planet, I really have no excuse to get lazy.


More hiking — just one of my travel goals for the next phase of my life. This is Horsetooth Reservoir outside of Fort Collins, Colorado.

So here’s what I’m working on accomplishing before my next milestone birthday. Every item on this list lights me up in some way. Some of them have already started to come together in the few days this list has been sitting here, waiting to be published. If you can help me check an item off of this list, please let me know! I’m looking for ideas, leads and stories about similar experiences you’d had and the lessons you’ve learned.

I encourage you to make a similar list for yourself, one that sets goals that are meaningful to you. What do you want to accomplish in the next year or the next decade? Where you want to go? What you want to see and learn and taste and touch. So let’s talk about the things that burn inside of us and figure out how we’re going to make them happen.

Here’s what I’ll be up to in the next few years? How about you?

1. Dive into slow travel with my friend Haikuhi at her family home in Armenia. She has been asking me to come since I was in high school and it’s really beyond time to go.
2. Take a North American train journey.
3. Join a professional organization as a travel writer and photographer
4. Volunteer abroad
5. Apply for grants to offset travel expenses for my travel book
6. Visit Central America (I’m not picky about where, so send me your ideas!)
7. Do a Spanish immersion trip or camp. (My Spanish skills plateaued after college.)
8. Research and approach agents, since I want to write at least three more books that don’t specifically match the objectives
9. Finish and get a book deal for my travel book
10. Learn basic Arabic
11. Visit the Middle East
12. Do a DNA test and basic geneology research with my dad, brother and sister so we can start planning a trip to visit the countries our ancestors came from. My grandma just informed me I’m part Dutch – news to me – and I suspect that family lore might have forgotten about other corners of the globe as well.
13. Go on a yoga retreat
14. Speak at a travel conference
15. Finish the novel that’s been burning inside of me for more than a decade.
16. Live abroad for at least a month
17. Get inspired by other authors by reading their work and featuring their books in a regular Instagram post.
18. Mentor a new writer
19. Speak on a panel at a writing event
20. Sell off everything in my Etsy store and Poshmark Closet and use the money to start a travel fund.
21. Research and maximize the networking opportunities in The Author’s Guild and the Minnesota Newspapers Association. I’m already a member of both organizations, but I don’t really take advantage of the opportunities they provide.
22. Start an online store to sell my books and related merchandise.
23. Get a byline in three international travel publications that I haven’t written for yet.
24. Stay on a houseboat

Photo by Carrie Kahly
25. Walk the Camino de Santiago from Portugal to Spain. I’ve been to Spain a lot and hiked a little bit of the Camino (that’s silly teenage me in the orange skirt in the photo), but I’ve never set foot in Portugal.
26. Pitch at least one story idea a week. (This is so much easier said than done. I tend to pitch in spurts or not at all. Consistency is key and I struggle with it.)
27. Take my son on an international trip.
28. Develop a slow travel section of my website.
29. Do a residency where I focus on writing for at least five days.
30. Stay in a monastery.
31. Visit Morocco. It’s been on my list for so long and it’s been haunting my dreams lately.
32. Hike for more than 10 miles regularly. For some reason, I never schedule enough time to hike for an entire day. This is silly, because I really enjoy it. Urban walks don’t count, even though I can easily do more than 10 miles a day. This is about walking in nature, not the city center.
33. Learn to surf.
34. Be a beer traveler in some of the world’s best (and most historic) beer zones. I’m lucky to have already visited (and drank more than a few beers in) The Netherlands, Belgium, Ireland and England, as well as Denver and Fort Collins, Colorado. Next up: More U.S. beer in Portland and  Germany and the Czech Republic abroad.
35. Go camping in a tent, without access to a camper.
36. Promote other authors and photographers by featuring their work in guest posts on my site at least eight times a year.
37. Paddle Voyagers National Park in Minnesota.
38. Focus on photography technique and refining my skills. (I joke that I’m an accidental photographer. The last class I took was when I was about 20. It’s clearly time to brush up on my skills.)
39. Visit Saskatchewan, Quebec and Nova Scotia.
40. Put my feet in the five longest rivers in North America. I’ve swam in the Missouri (the longest) and waded in the Mississippi (the second longest), so that leaves the Yukon River in British Columbia, The Rio Grande in the southwest U.S. and northern Mexico and The Nelson River in Manitoba. (It amuses me to put my feet in a river that shares my name!)

Okay, your turn! If you’ve read this whole list, that means you want to make some cool travel goals too.
So where do you want to go?
What do you want to learn?
What do you want to taste, touch or smell?
Who do you want to bring with you?
Who in your life influenced your travel preferences?
How can you leave more room for discoveries in your every day life?

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2 thoughts

  1. Oh this is a fabulous list! I am just on the wrong side of 40 but maybe I can do 50 before 50 and have plenty of time to get them done!
    Also, I LOVE LOVE LOVE your grandmother and her wise words. Wish mine was still around. Cherish her! (It’s clear you do!). Some people get old, and some people are just so wise and never do.

    1. Oh, that’s so sweet! I’m totally going to tell my Gram you said that. (She’ll shake her head and smile, which means she’s pretty pleased.) I’m really lucky to have her in my life. It’s a privilege that many people don’t have.

      And I’d love to see your 50 before 50 list! I’ve already starting meeting some of my goals. There’s something strangely powerful about writing it all down.

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