Everything I know about travel, I learned growing up poor

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When I was 8 years old my mother went bankrupt paying for her cancer treatments. Six months later, my father took the family car, all of our savings and left. I imagine taking care of a dying wife and three children was a bit much to handle for a boy in his early twenties. As the dust cleared, my mother found a balance between single motherhood and cancer treatments through church meal programs and food stamps.
Growing up we traveled for survival. If mom got a job, a new husband or an opportunity she packed us up and moved to where her dreams lead her.
We were in Riverside for a medical training program, Spokane for a nursing home job and Rome to be closer to the new husband’s family. I ended up at 11 schools across four states and 3 time zones by the time I turned 21.
Travel and poverty were parts of my life before I had the words to describe them.
One winter when I was in elementary school, I went grocery shopping with my mother. I was standing in line and saw my face in black and white smiling on the front page of the Cheney Washington Free Press. I begged my mother for copies so we could show our friends and family. I felt proud and excited. I remember looking at my 24-year-old mother’s hesitation and peppering her with reasons I needed that paper.

That was the moment that I transitioned from innocent naivety to knowing I was different.

That’s when I learned I was poor.

My mother got down on one knee, looked me in the eye, and told me that being poor wasn’t something to be proud of. I had been photographed attending opening day at the local soup kitchen, and that wasn’t something Grandma wanted to see.
Travel wasn’t a luxury for my family. It was a necessity. My mother’s medical condition required her to undergo several treatments. When mom got sick, we went to stay with relatives. Unfortunately, they all lived several states away. Every year, we drove thousands of miles to visit family, escape bad situations and sometimes because our car was our home.
Being poor doesn’t prevent travel, it changes the kind of travel you do and the expectations you have while traveling. I learned at a very young age that being resourceful was the key to getting where you need to go.
I would sit at the kitchen  table and watch my mother plan our route. She taught me that having all of the answers wasn’t the important part to planning. The important part was asking the right questions and knowing where to find the answers.
My mom would spread the map out on the kitchen table and whisper  “Where do we want to go this year?” Mom wanted to make sure the time we had with her was filled with memories of adventure and excitement — not our family sitting around waiting for her to die.
At the Cheney Public Library, Mom taught us to find answers to all of our questions. Where is the best place to stop in Wyoming? How long does it take to get from Las Vegas to Riverside? Is there a free  campground somewhere near Pocatello? She taught me about the world, one reference encyclopedia at a time.
We learned about American history by visiting the site of the Battle of Little Bighorn on our way to stay with Grandma. We debated religious freedom at Brigham Young’s house when our car broke down outside of Salt Lake. We discussed morality when my brother spotted a lady’s glossy “business card” in a Las Vegas gas station. When my mom was too sick to do these things with us we were shipped off to other family members who took turns shuttling us around the United States.
I remember sitting squeezed between my two siblings, my mother and my aunt on the bench seat of a 1989 soft grey Toyota pickup, playing 20 Questions and singing classic rock ballads with my family. Some of my happiest memories took place in that truck.
At 10 years old, I learned how to navigate sitting on my aunt’s knee studying an old creased US atlas.
“Aunt T, what’s our next stop?” I’d ask.
“We’re in Butte Montana, we need to drive another 400 miles today, where is a good place to stop?” she’d answer.
I would trace the beat up map with my tiny pink index finger.
“Well, we could stop in Idaho Falls or we could continue on and spend the night in Provo.”
My family allowed me to make independent choices and decisions because they knew I wouldn’t have a mother to help me answer  my hard questions. They knew every time I made small choices, like the one  between Provo and Idaho Falls, I was slowly building up my resilience and independence. Turns out both of those skills are excellent abilities for wandering souls.
Growing up on government cheese and welfare checks is the best budgeting education I’ve found. My mother put coupon clippers on TLC to shame. She learned to buy just what we needed and nothing more. We had to balance her medical bills with the necessities of our family. It taught me to identify what was important and what was extra. I learned to make sacrifices and to enjoy delayed gratification.  We’d sit together on the floor of the living room clipping coupons from Sunday morning’s newspaper.
“Peanut butter is a dollar off at Safe Way!” my brother would call out.
Mom would nod her head and he’d begin to cut. By the time, I was 8 years old, I knew how to balance a checkbook, clip coupons and scan the sale racks. Later in life, I would use the same skills to fund trips all over the world.
I rarely talk about growing up, a consequence of stigma wrapped in shame. Most of my friends don’t know the details of my childhood and even my siblings have wildly different perspectives on how we grew up. The youngest doesn’t remember the days of sleeping cuddled together for warmth on the living room floor, and the oldest prefers a boot-straps-American-dream narrative to a story of loss and shame.
Regardless of our perspectives, we are all very well traveled adults. The youngest recently backpacked Europe and the oldest joined the military as a means to seeing the world. We used the skills my mother instilled in us and made travel a priority.
Recently, I posted photos from my trip to Thailand on Facebook and received several comments and messages from friends exclaiming they wished they could travel, but it’s far outside of their financial reality. I just smile and nod and remember my mother’s baldhead and gaunt face as she sorted coupons on our living room floor.

27 Responses

  1. This is a really interesting perspective. I am very aware that many travelers come from a bit of privilege to be able to travel abroad, myself included. You must have so much resourcefulness and intuition from your experiences! It’s really interesting to read about how they shaped the way you travel (and of course who you are as a person). Thanks for sharing!

    1. I have definitely noticed the privilege of some of my fellow travelers while I’ve been adventuring. I use it as a learning experience rather than dwelling on any negatives I’ve witnessed. I think there is a lesson to be had in all things. Thanks for commenting Laura.

  2. Wow! That was quite a hard but also adventure -filled way to grow up. Your mother sounds remarkable in how she dealt the best way she could with being dealt a very bad hand. Kudos to you for finding strength and resourcefulness from your childhood instead of spending your life wondering why you were handed so much at such a young age! It sounds as if your extended family all did their best to help. You have a book there – as I’m sure you know!

    1. I’ve considered writing a book for some time now, maybe it’s time to get started 🙂 Thanks for commenting

  3. Our backgrounds, of course, are an essential part of ourselves and our travels. My family took few vacations when I was growing up and I am making up for it now. Best to you!

  4. That’s a very touching article, and inspirational article. Our upbringings and background really do shape the people that we turn into. Growing up my father was a firm believe in experience over substance. I don’t think he ever offered to give me money to go shopping, he never really bought gifts, and he never asked if I wanted anything. But we travelled a lot, and if I wanted clothes for my birthday he’d say no, but if I wanted to go on a trip he was more than willing to fund it. I remember when I came home from college one weekend and we were eating dinner and he asked me if I wanted anything. I pondered for a minute and said I needed a new toothbrush, he said okay but is there anything you want? I had no idea what to say, 21 years and he’d never asked me that before. I was speechless.

    1. As an adult do you find yourself more attracted to things purchases or experience purchases? I find that some people I know are drawn to having all the “things” they never had as a child and some are drawn to living through their experiences. Where do you fall on the spectrum?

      1. The experience far out way things purchased on my trips. I was in Paris on time with a few friends. We all took turns choosing what to do for a day, one of my friends just wanted to shop. it was really important for her to buy some clothes in Paris, I really just couldn’t wrap my head around it. As far a souvenirs I usually spend less than $100 per trip. What about you?

        1. I’m usually traveling with little more than a backpack so I don’t have a lot of room for the “stuff”. I do enjoy the experience of shopping and I have a soft spot for handmade goods. I bought an absurdly large painting in Cambodia that I absolutely love, but for the most part the experiences I’ve paid for stick out in my memory way more than the “stuff”

  5. This is really inspiring- thanks for sharing such a personal story with us <3

  6. our backgrounds shape who we are and what we believe we can achieve – thanks for sharing such an inspirational story

  7. Fantastic, inspiring story Meg. I’d definitely agree with some of the commentators below that our backgrounds and our families for sure have an impact on how and maybe why we travel.

    1. For sure! Background is huge, I always find it really inspiring when someone breaks the mold of a background with no travel. Seeing the importance of it when you have no exposure is so much harder than being raised with it. Thanks for commenting Adam 🙂

  8. Beautiful, beautiful post Meg. Thank you so opening up and sharing your story. I agree that growing in poverty shapes your adult life, though I had never considered how that translated to travel before.

  9. This is one of the most beautifully written and honest travel posts I’ve ever read. Through your sincerity you really cut through all the sh!t that people use as a reason not to travel aswell. Congrats!

  10. Wow, Meg, that was such a very deeply honest and raw post. I tip my hat to you for opening up and I see absolutely no shame in any of it. I hate the stigma around poverty, it’s not like people WANT to be poor and sleep on floors. I have heard some incredible stories throughout my travels and am constantly amazed by both people pulling through awful things happening to them and other peole just badmouthing shabby looking strangers. Who are they to judge someone? We all should be more considerate of one another.

  11. Such a beautifully written post. I love the imagery of you sitting on your aunt’s knee and tracing the map with your finger. I get a resounding sense of that although money was scarce as you grew up your family had an abundance of love. Thank you for sharing such an honest
    article with us.

    1. I tried to keep it vulnerable without being an over share type post. Thanks for reading and commenting Meg!

  12. This post is so beautiful, I imagined all the memories in your head as you wrote it. Your mum has built some very important life-skills in you!

  13. Meg, What a touching post. I think the lessons you learned, maybe from necessity, were not just travel skills, they were life skills. Allowing children to make small choices from the beginning, teaching them how to find the answers to their questions, and navigating from a young age are to me all vital life skills. I hope people read this and start including their children more in planning and problem solving. What a gift.

  14. Such a beautiful, inspiring, piece of you. Thanks for sharing with us your deeper self, for remembering us that is all in our hands: the way we live our life, if we want to sit home waiting for some illness, cancer or stress, to take away our lives, or to make every day count, live it at the fullest, Thanks to you and to your mum for being such a courageous, inspiring woman. A big hug to you.<3

    1. That’s the thing about travel, it shows you how much of the world there is to experience. We can’t sit around waiting for life to happen to us. I like to believe we need to be proactive in our adventures.

  15. Your story is inspiring and motivating. It’s really about attitude and perseverance, not just money. As someone from what people call a “third world country”, travel is expensive and takes a lot of work and saving up. But your post, especially that last paragraph is both an encouragement and a challenge to me. Thank you so much for being open about this and sharing.

    1. You’re welcome Sarah. You’re right it really is about attitude and priorities in a lot of ways. Good luck in your adventures.

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