What a 74 Year Old Man Can Teach Us About Backpacking

Contrary to the chaos you might observe at a party hostel on a Saturday night, backpacking isn’t just for the young. I’ve met all kind of people in common rooms around the world: from brave 18-year old solo travelers to cool dudes old enough to be my dad. Or, in the case of Bill, my grandfather.

Finding my hostel in Beijing was kind of a nightmare. It was well past dark and the hostel was down a dark, poorly signposted alley that I walked by about 4 times before realizing where I needed to go. My stress levels were already high, so when I finally went to claim my bunk and stumbled across a snoring geriatric, I was a little alarmed. I’d been expecting the usual mix of young party kids, frugal couples and other solo twenty-somethings, not dentures in a glass next to the bed. The alarm turned to annoyance as serious snoring kept me up late into the night.

The next day over complimentary tea and toast I sat down and actually had a chat with my roommate. His name was Bill, he was 74, a navy veteran, and as it turned out, pretty awesome. He’s been traveling the world non-stop for 6 years now. He’s been through Europe, the Middle East and much of Asia. He’ll travel for 6 months at a time, then take 6 weeks off to visit his children and grandchildren in the States before leaving again. He told me that people often call him Grandpa Sunshine because he brings good weather wherever he goes.

So what lessons can we young’uns learn from Grandpa Sunshine?

Exploration is a Part of Human Nature

“The biggest problem with kids today,” Bill told me, “is that they’ve lost the drive to explore. It’s human nature to want to see what’s out of sight, what’s over the next mountain.”

Personally I can’t agree more: the desire to learn and explore is something innate and important, and I think that many of us (particularly in the US) neglect those urges. I think that’s part of why travel is so dangerously addictive: once you uncover that drive to explore and discover, it’s pretty hard to keep denying it.

Life Changes Fast

In one year Bill’s life was turned totally upside down: his wife of 30 years died of cancer and his house was destroyed by a hurricane. It was then that he decided to take the insurance money and use it to travel around the world- he’s been going ever since.

Nobody wants to experience tragedy, but it’s a fact that the twists and turns of life can be radical and sudden. I think that’s part of the reason some people embrace travel: it’s also constant change  and growth. Instead of allowing devastation to take hold, Bill took control of his life and started pursuing the things that really mattered to him.

Red Light...
photo credit: Kıvanç Niş

Ignore the Nonbelievers

Bill’s grown-up children think he’s lost his mind, “they keep asking when I’m going to just come home.” I think that anybody who has traveled long term is familiar with the nagging doubt that comes from the people who just don’t get it. They are always going to be there, the key is learning how to manage them effectively while staying true to yourself.

Push Your Limits

Bill’s kids weren’t the only ones skeptical about his abilities: the chinese staff in the hostel simply did not know what to do with him- particularly when he insisted he was able-bodied enough to join the rigorous Great Wall hiking tour on offer at reception. Torn between traditional respect for elders and sheer disbelief the staff vigorously tried to dissuade him from hiking even though he insisted he could do it. Bill handled this with grace and firm resistance.

Okay, so you may not be a septuagenarian with something to prove, but it never hurts to push yourself a little. I mean here I was, sitting on the couch like a lazy bum, fretting over how hard the hike might be. You know what? It was pretty tough. But it was so worth it and I’m glad I pushed myself to do it instead of visiting some pansy part of the wall like Badaling.

STOP Making Excuses

Bill walks with a cane, wears thick glasses and has dentures. After many years of traveling he’s on a pretty tight budget so he travels slowly and sleeps in dormitories. Still, he loves traveling and has no plans to stop anytime soon.

If that guy can keep it up, so can you. I mean come on guys.

When I last saw Bill he was sitting in the sun, typing on his ENORMOUS Dell laptop. Grandpa Sunshine. It certainly is true that my time in Beijing was the clearest and sunniest few days I spent in China. Really though, I think he gets his nickname from how inspiring he is to other travelers. I mean, I hope when I’m in his age I’m still doing the things I love, whether that is still backpacking or something else entirely.

UPDATE APRIL 2012: I last saw Bill back in October 2010 but apparently he is still circling the world, doing his travel thing. A friend of mine recently had the pleasure of meeting him in Uruguay. It makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside to know that he’s out there still, inspiring people as he goes.

Have you seen Bill? PLEASE contact me if you do! Steph@whywaittoseetheworld.com

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31 thoughts on “What a 74 Year Old Man Can Teach Us About Backpacking”

  1. This story encourages me to do more traveling, and I really want to meet an old man like Bill when I’m traveling, or maybe I’m going to meet Bill himself one day. Who knew?

  2. Brilliant. At the end of the day “stop making excuses” is the be all and end all. Once you confront that and even simply realise that you’re making excuses, everything else often falls into place.

  3. Nice story! When we traveled abroad for 18 months we met some amazing people of all ages and backgrounds. It was nice to see since we ourselves were early 40’s! I hope we run into Sunshine Bill when we hit the road again for our next (hopefully 2 year) adventure abroad!

    Cheers to an inspiring topic!

  4. What a great post! Bill is an inspiration. A lot of people his age are in nursing homes watching mindless soap operas. But this guy understands how to make the most of his life. Yeah.

  5. When are you just going to come home? I don’t think some people will ever get that not all people are the same. Most want you to simply do what they think is better for you. I can only imagine seeing dentures in a glass.

  6. Steph, this really is a great post! I especially loved the part where you say “ignore the nonbelievers”. I think that this is one of the biggest challenges in life to find your own path inspite of everybody elses opinion. And when it feels right to you and you feel the need to do it: Go for it! This post reminded me of why it is so important to travel and why travel has so much to do with finding your personal freedom. Thanks for sharing!

  7. Of all the great posts you’ve published, this is one of my favorites! It’s always inspiring to talk to those who have been through a lot. Thank you for sharing!

  8. This was such an inspiring post! I like that travel teaches you lessons and that some people find their happiness through traveling. I saw that you travel a lot and gtrot is a great place to share your travels!

  9. I really enjoyed this post. I think my favorite part was when he mentioned that his children think he has lost his mind and keep asking when he is going to come home. I know personally, family is a large influence in my life whether that is good or bad and I think that Bill being able to put himself first is absolutely wonderful, you only live once! This was great and thank you for sharing 🙂

  10. This is a great story. Bill sounds like a pretty cool guy who is not letting societal convention and age slow down his joy of exploration. I love running into older travelers in guest houses and hostels – they usually have so much life experience and perspective to share. And, we’ve been out-trekked by them a few times as well!

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