I wrote this travel profile for my travel writing class. The assignment was to interview and profile two travelers whom I admire. Bart was an obvious, first choice. Without him, our sabbatical would not be possible. He is taking care of our mail and financial affairs while we are away, for which we are grateful. More importantly, Bart challenges the status quo in life and is an inspiration to us in so many ways. Long ago, between undergraduate and graduate school, he took nineteen months to travel. I interviewed him about these gap years, and how he looks back on them now, thirty years later.
In 1983 Bart left his home in Nebraska to travel extensively around Europe, The Soviet Union, Egypt, Israel, India, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Hawaii, and finally California.
Bart explained, “Stanford Business School accepted me directly out of college. They said I could start immediately or take two years to get more ‘experience‘. They didn’t say ‘work experience‘. I went to interview with McKinsey in New York. The guy who interviewed me in early spring had a tan. I asked him, “How did you get so tanned?” The McKinsey guy answered that he just got back from a trip around the world. I asked him, “Why would you do such a thing?” He replied that he once overheard two old men in a shopping mall talking about retirement. “How do you like it?” said one to the other, who then replied, “I have the time to do what I want, but I’m too old to do it.” That triggered something in this guy, and he took the trip, and so did I.”
Bart’s father didn’t like the idea of postponing graduate school. Bart said, “My dad was a small business owner. From his point of view, if Stanford Business School accepts you, you go there. That’s the path up. You don’t postpone that. What if they change their mind or something.”
Bart ignored his father’s advice. He financed his gap years by selling a software business, that he ran while in college. The proceeds were not much, but enough to wander for two years without the need to work.
I asked Bart about his most memorable experience. He said, “I visited the small village of Sagres, in Portugal. I went to the local bar and met a woman friend from back home. We did a double take at the bar, and she introduced me to Uli, a doctor in residence from Germany. “I think you two will hit it off,” my friend said and how right she was. I fell in love, and a week later I moved in with Uli, in the remote town of Simmern in Germany. I learned some German and did the shopping. I was trying to be a good house husband. We lived together for two and a half months.”
“Then what happened?” I asked Bart. Though we know each other for twelve years; I never heard this story.
“Uli decided to go back to his girlfriend,” Bart laughed. “He is now married and has a child. I visited him once, years later, but when he named his son Sebastian, and not Bart, I knew it was over.”
Bart continued his trip, forever changed. He said, “In college I had a boyfriend, but we were very much hiding our relationship. I thought that maybe I would find a girl later. After meeting Uli in Portugal, I knew that I shouldn’t try to find the perfect woman or any woman. I knew for sure that I was gay and that it was not a temporary thing.”
There were more lessons for Bart. He said, “I learned that I could be happy with the possessions that fit in my backpack. I call it my ‘yuppy inoculation.’ There is no doubt that I am less materialistic, and happier today because of my decision to take that journey thirty years ago.”
I asked Bart if he would recommend a gap year to all young people. He said, “A gap year may not be for everybody. If you already know what you want to do in life, you might as well start on that journey. But if you aren’t clear about where you are going, a gap year could be a great way to help you figure it out. It is much easier to learn about yourself when you are out of your normal settings, outside of your routine, and outside your normal society. As a traveler, you are an observer of societies, rather than being a part of it. That takes away a lot of societal constraints.”