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. Hey, I’m Grandpa Sunshine’s age also….turning 78 next month….. (tho I have all my teeth) and preparing for my 3rd RTW which I’m calling “Around The World In 80 Years” (RTW in 80 Yrs), going very slooooowly, to make it last at least 4 years out. I have only my social security income and own only what I carry with me. Also, I travel solo, simply because I don’t know anyone else who travels this way. Also, leading a deep spiritual life, I love solitude and freedom. Backpacking, staying in hostel dorms and traveling overland where possible. I much prefer that life to being in The States full-time and experiment with expating for months at a time: Uruguay, Brazil, South Africa, Ecuador, Peru, so far. Just now, my housesitting/petsitting assignment is winding up and after a family visit, I’m outa’ here to sample Mexico, Belize, Central America, the Caribbean and then, wherever my map leads. Am writing my fourth book and planning to start a video blog series on You Tube and my own websites to chronicle this next heavenly adventure.

    Advice to everyone:

    1. If you do not have fear; there will never be anything to be afraid of! In all my years of world travel, since 1990, nothing bad or threatening has EVER happened to me. Don’t do stupid things and keep your eyes open and you can always cope with the inevitable “Stuff.”

    2. Your hostel mates won’t even register your age. What matters is mileage and the conversation is always “Where you’ve been/Where you’re going,” which is a universal Road Warrior equalizer.

    3. Life is less expensive on the world trail. You’ll spend much more per month living in the Western countries and we are much less hospitable than the rest of the world. Not that you’ll be “living off of anybody,” it’s just friendlier and happier out there. And you don’t need a car.

    4. Manage your finances with a debit card and a credit card. Make airline and hostel reservations online, one-way, as you go. Buy bus and train tickets on location. That’s really all there is to it at any age.

    Do link your website to mine! I’m trying to teach myself SEO skills and as an A#1 technophobe, I need all the help I can get!


  2. What a fantastic story! We can learn so much from our elders. My grandmother was my own version of Bill, who in her octogenarian years took me to Angkor Wat and to Palenque in Mexico. She knew she couldn’t do everything and had definitely outgrown hostels, but she was an ace traveler, one who was never shy to get out and keep exploring!

    So very glad to hear that Bill is still out there!

  3. Wow, your grandfather is amazing. Actually reminds me of my grandpa from my dad’s side, he spent last decade to 2 decades just traveling all over the globe. I believe my “travel gene” definitely came from him. Most likely, the travel gene also travels through your family as well 🙂

    Thanks for sharing this great post!

  4. This reminds of the older man in that documentary “A Map for Saturday”. He had all these medications and what not but he didn’t let that stop him from living his life in a way that made him happy. Balls bro!

  5. These people are truly the great adventurers of life! We met someone elderly like Bill too while we were backpacking in Interlaken, Switzerland. He too was so full of zest for his age! Makes us wonder will we be like them later on in life…

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