My life as a traveler

I never finished my posts recapping my trip to Nepal. That trip, save for a bout of food poisoning that hit during my 30-plus hours on flights and in airports on the way back to Texas, was incredible. Seeing Everest from a plane was incredible. Becoming friends with the people I met on that trip was incredible. But then I just felt uninspired writing about it. Like writing about it somehow took the trip away from me.

I went to Nepal in December 2015. I went to Taiwan and the Philippines (Boracay, specifically) in October 2016. Then I was in Guanajuato, Mexico, in January; Medellín, Colombia, in February; and Antigua, Guatemala, in March of this year. Thanks to my location-independent job, my trips to Mexico, Colombia, and Guatemala were for the full month each – I worked full-time during those jaunts abroad.

Even with all the travel and adventures, I still had no desire to write. I journaled a little. But no blogging. My domain renewal notice came up, and I let it expire. This blog just sat. Dormant.

I’m going to Peru in September for a much-needed vacation. I’ll share photos on Instagram, as I have with my previous trips; where words have refused to flow, my photos helped me tell the stories.

Everest, Nepal. December 2015

My search history would show you my efforts to figure out if I can work abroad again sometime soon. Paris. London, maybe. Berlin? Or Frankfurt? Tel Aviv looks incredible. As does Dahab, Egypt. And I found out about this place in Tanzania…

That’s when I push my computer away and tilt my head back, eyes closed. This always happens. I start with a potential location – for vacation, to work remotely, to live – and then zoom out of the map little by little to explore more options until entire continents fill the screen and I’m overwhelmed.

The world, and the possibilities within it, is overwhelming.

I tried to quell that feeling of being overwhelmed by places to go by moving to Taiwan in August 2010. This site was born not long after; I’d started a listserv called Mandy’s Pushpins to keep friends and family updated on my life abroad. When that listserv turned out to be a pain to maintain, I bit the bullet and signed up for WordPress. I wrote regularly about my life in Taiwan, the trips I took in the two years I lived abroad, and how I handled coming back two years later on September 1, 2012.

(Spoiler alert: I didn’t handle it well.)

Then this blog became my personal space for feelings, some of which should have stayed in my journal, I’m sure. When I settled in Dallas and tried to join the dating scene there, the name of this site should’ve changed from Mandy Travels to Mandy Dates. Instead it became “Mandy travels… and stuff”.

“Stuff” is a vague word. It’s the kind of word you throw around when you’re not sure what word you actually want. And that signified where I was at the time. I wasn’t sure want I wanted. I’m still not sure what I want.

“Hey, Mandy. What are you doing with your life?”

“Oh, stuff.”

Boracay, the Philippines. November 2016

In order to better shape what I meant by “stuff”, I did what I tend to do when I get antsy: I moved. Thanksgiving of 2015 found me on the road with a U-haul full of the belongings that survived the great cull of 2015. Northern San Diego County, I decided, was where I’d figure out my life. Dating, exploring – LIFE – was going to happen. I was finally going to feel like I had my act together.

The itch started again about six months ago. It’s inescapable, powerful, and not necessarily something I’m happy about. Even my mom, as we talked on the phone Sunday evening, asked if it was coming back. I told her I wasn’t ready to leave, which is true, but that I’d started thinking about it. And, for the first time, that I was torn about moving.

This past Wednesday night I had a very “hippie California” experience, and that’s when everything seemed to become clearer.

I went to see a friend who practices Eastern Medicine. As I rested on the table, we talked about my physical aches, and with my guidance she poked, pinched, and prodded before administering acupuncture needles. My right knee and foot were a mess, which I expected. When she moved to my head without my prompting, I lay quietly. She put one in my left ear.

“What’s that one for?” I asked.

“Anxiety,” she said.

Guanajuato, Mexico. January 2017

The needling itself hurt very little. But randomly I’d really feel a needle. My eyes were closed, but I knew exactly where each needle was, especially when a particular one kind of… pulsed. My body was relaxed, but every few minutes it felt like a charge of some sort coursed through it. Not electricity – more like my body was adjusting and resetting back to how it should be. It was a wave of energy that gently passed as I lay there with a dozen tiny needles sticking out of me.

Lindsey asked how I was, and I told her what I was feeling. It was normal, she assured me. She then stepped out so I could just be. I asked if I could fall asleep, but even with her permission it didn’t happen.

Two minutes after she stepped out, I teared up. No warning, no reason, just tears in my closed eyes that eventually made their way down my cheekbones. I wasn’t sad. At the time, my mind was fairly blank. She let me be there, alone and responsibility-free, for roughly 20 minutes.

When I left, I felt good. Tired. Since I was close and the sunset looked promising, I made my way to my favorite beach, where a wooden set of stairs takes people down to a local surf spot. The tide was up, so onlookers stayed on the stairs, and there were over a dozen people in the water catching the last waves of the day.


The sunset was beautiful, but I was fascinated watching the surfers. They would casually launch into a wave, none of which were larger than a few feet. At the end of their run, each surfer would fall into the water.

What brought me immense joy was how they fell. It wasn’t a graceful hop or dive. Legs splayed, most of the surfers crashed into the ocean on their backs or sides in a full surrender. They’d resurface, violently shake their hair out of their faces, pull themselves back onto their boards, and paddle out to the next wave.

One let out a gleeful, surprised yell as he crashed out. From 100 yards up, I watched and laughed.

Several surfers surfing at sunset. San Diego. July 2017

I realized at that moment that I’d love to be as in-tune with the ocean as those surfers were. But I’m not a surfer. As the night went on, I realized what causes my antsy moves and my near-constant wanderlust.

Most people describe themselves with an -er. Hiker, biker, entrepreneu(e)r, surfer, mother, father, homeowner, volunteer, shopper, skier. Even the non-ers, like wife or husband, still have a way they identify themselves. And where they live needs to fit them.

I struggle with feeling like I fit in. In Dallas I wasn’t a wife or mother, a shopper, or a proud Texan. In Southern California I’m not a surfer or hiker. All I know to use to identify myself is “traveler”. I don’t have many other -ers that feel right. And when a traveler cannot travel, they get antsy. Since I want a home base in the States, that complicated things a bit, too; otherwise I’d hop place to place and be a permanent digital nomad.

There are two key steps to take now. The first is that I need to adapt better. I’m in one of the vacation capitals of the country, and I need to take advantage of that and try everything it has to offer. I might find another -er here. In fact, it’s highly likely I will. But that takes more effort than I’m currently putting forth.

The second step is to be able to afford to travel. That means making hard decisions and committing to some major lifestyle changes. At least, I think it does.

Flying over Los Angeles

As far as this blog goes, I’m not ready to delete it. I considered it multiple times over the last year, but I don’t feel done with it. For a while I thought I wanted to become a travel blogger, and I was going to use this as my launching point. I even contacted Intrepid Travel, the company I used for my trip to Nepal, and let them know I was blogging about my trip. I’m now connected to a couple people from Intrepid on Twitter, but nothing else came of it.

It’s taken time, but I realized I don’t really want to be a travel blogger. Nomadic Matt does a fine job, but a lot of travel blogs are just content for the sake of content (and popularity) (and free, touristy trips). If I see one more faked photo or fluff piece about a place, I will do nothing of consequence, but I’ll be annoyed.

Really, the travel blog “industry” shouldn’t bother me. I think the frustration comes from thinking for years that it was my dream job. When a long-term dream fizzles out, you start to wonder if you’ll ever figure out what you want to do.

I still want to tell stories. Hopefully my stories help someone somehow. I don’t know. But I need to figure out a new name for this site, because “Mandy travels” isn’t my entire life, and “Mandy travels… and stuff” is such lazy copywriting.

I’ll figure it out.

(Now it’s “No time for regrets”. We’ll see if that stays. I kind of miss “Mandy travels” already. The tagline, “Figuring out life by running directly at it”, stays.)

For now, it feels good to have written again. I wasn’t sure I could still do it, to be honest. Cory Richards, a photographer who has worked extensively with National Geographic, puts it well.

I can go months without touching my camera. Most of what I make is garbage. I’m relentlessly hard on myself for not shooting more. I’m often paralyzed by the fear that if I make something, it will suck. I can sit for months in despair without ever making a single image. I’ve struggled the last two years with photography… but occasionally it rises new again in a moment of surrender and I remember why I love this so much. I don’t have to be prolific to be passionate. But I do have to show up.

I need to show up. Find my -ers, find out how I can travel more, find ways to tell more stories, and find the time to write. It’s up to me to make it happen.

Salvation Mountain, California. AKA The Will-I-Ever-Get-There Roadtrip

Salvation Mountain is an art project started by Leonard Knight that’s roughly 35 years old. The version that exists today is the second iteration, after the first crumbled, and is now maintained by volunteers since Knight passed away in early 2014.

You don’t need to know anything about Knight, or even about the mountain, before you go. Because no matter how much you’ve prepared for it, once you show up all you can really do is say, “Huh.”


An iPhone pano of much of the site, featuring my shadow

I drove several hours to and from Slab City, a makeshift, tiny community that exists because people say it does. It’s just north of Niland, California, off Beal Road. There are RVs and other mobile homesteads that make up the area, which was originally the location for the WWII Marine barracks of Camp Dunlap. At least, that’s what Wikipedia says.

Slab City

Slab City, as seen from the top of the mountain

This area is roughly 180 feet below sea level. It’s just east of the Salton Sea, which is even lower. Driving out there, especially solo, makes you wonder if you’ve lost your mind. You feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere, and you kind of are. You drive up 111, desperately scanning the area for this three-story-high supposed mountain, and feeling like you’re never going to get there.

When you finally start seeing other vehicles that are obviously not local, you start to feel better. You follow them as you turn onto Main Street/Beal Street, go through a humble “neighborhood”, and pass the slightly creepy, dilapidated, graffitied, Romanesque, abandoned building on one corner.

That building needs all those adjectives. I didn’t get a picture, but I should’ve. It was something.

Soon you go over a tiny bridge and pass a concrete stand on the right side of the road that looks like a great place to cook meth. But painted boldly on the side facing you is “Slab City. The last free place. Almost there!”

the shack

I considered parking there because I assumed “the last free place” meant for parking. I lived in Dallas too long.

the road

Continue past the welcome shack and around the bend

Around the bend, you see it. And you cock your head to the side and go, “Huh.”


They make it obvious where to turn in

Salvation Mountain isn’t imposing. When I first got there, I didn’t think much of it. Then I started to explore, and soon I felt good about coming. And not because I’m a Christian in a place that has “GOD IS LOVE” painted as high as I am tall – because, honestly, much of Knight’s Christian message is fire and brimstone. Which isn’t really my thing.

the mountain

The mountain and one of the painted vehicles

But for some reason, this pious place brings people together no matter what they believe. I parked, pulled out my camera, and locked my car, with the rest of my gear and my purse fully visible inside. I was safe, surrounded by people who were there because they wanted to be there. I felt a sense of community.

It’s weird.

I wandered around taking pictures, venturing into the two biggest side projects: awkwardly roofed rooms off to the right of the mountain.

side thing

The larger of the two side projects. Once you walk in it’s expansive, with little rooms and the trippiest ceiling ever. “Ceiling”.

Pictures boggle your mind a bit, even if you were the one who took them.


There are also painted vehicles, a simply painted boat, and the creepiest swing on the planet in the parking lot.


As for the mountain itself, there are a number of signs asking people not to climb; there is, however, a “yellow-brick road”, as signs call it, that leads visitors to the top.

road sign

You get to the top, by the cross, and you turn to look around. And the thought that comes to mind is, “Huh.”

It’s not an arduous climb. You don’t have some kind of incredible view at the summit. You see the sliver of the large Salton Sea. You see the humble mountains. The sky is pretty, but you’re staring directly into the sunset. It’s not really anything special.

The view from the top of the mountain. That's apparently the Sea of Galilee, and you can see five vehicles. And a boat.

The view from the top. That’s apparently the Sea of Galilee, and you can see five vehicles. And a boat.

But still, you kind of want to just hang out there for a minute and take it in.

So I sat. I didn’t have any deep thoughts. I didn’t feel closer to God. But I was content.

A few minutes later, I stood and went behind the cross. I saw Slab City at my 11 o’clock, and the two squat abandoned water tanks, embellished with their own art, at my 2 o’clock.


Abandoned water tanks, now artists’ playgrounds

I considered walking to the tanks for a closer look, and if I go back, I will. They were only a quarter-of-a-mile away, give or take, but I was thinking of the 3ish-hour drive back to San Diego. I didn’t want to get on the road too late.

If you enjoy kooky art projects and road trips to the middle of nowhere, go. If you’re a hippie, go. If you’re a photographer, go – there were lots of us there. It’s a unique experience, to say the least.

the mountain

One part says JESUS in giant, baby pink letters and then, underneath, in bright red, FIRE. JESUS FIRE.

How to Move from Dallas to San Diego in 48 Easy Steps

  1. Move.
  2. Drop off empty trailer at U-Haul and marvel at how much lighter and faster your SUV feels.
  3. Giggle and clap while driving to get fish tacos.
  4. Laugh when the sweet kid at the counter apologizes for the bad, rainy weather.
  5. Put phone on vibrate so Jennifer, my new roommate and old friend from high school, doesn’t get annoyed at all the texts.
  6. Love my friends and family for blowing up my phone.
  7. Use the word “weird” as often as possible when describing how it feels to be in California.
  8. Eat fish tacos.
  9. Love fish tacos.
  10. Consider having them for dinner every night.
  11. Put together bed.
  12. Put memory foam mattress topper on bed.
  13. Make bed.
  14. Get really, really excited about bed.
  15. Lay in bed, answer texts and Facebook messages.
  16. Miss everyone. A lot.
  17. Sleep.
  18. Wake up parched with dry mouth.
  19. Drink water.
  20. Fall back asleep.
  21. Wake up.
  22. Unpack.
  23. Feel a bit more at home.
  24. Decide last minute to drive to the coast for the sunset.
  25. Witness beautiful sunset.
  26. Celebrate by driving with the windows down.
  27. Sing along to Kiss the Girl from The Little Mermaid.
  28. Make a u-turn.
  29. Realize I was going the right way.
  30. Turn around.
  31. Consider getting fish tacos for dinner.
  32. Return to apartment.
  33. Go to bed early.
  34. Sleep like the dead.
  35. Wake up feeling like I got hit by a truck.
  36. Unpack.
  37. Decide to buy a map.
  38. Drive to Barnes & Noble, which is five minutes away.
  39. Buy map after long search for the right one.
  40. Continue driving for over an hour.
  41. Get lost in a hilly area full of nice homes.
  42. See three or four hot-air balloons.
  43. Go blind from the sun.
  44. Feel very far away from friends and family.
  45. Return to apartment.
  46. The apartment where I live now.
  47. The apartment in San Diego where I live.
  48. WHOA.

The waves and peaks of San Diego

San Diego is a dry, brown city shoved in the bottom left corner of the United States. It might as well be TijuanDiego.

But hey – at least it’s California!

This just in: I used to be an idiot when it came to anything San Diego. In my defense, it was a former boss’s fault; he told me that the city used to be a desert until all the foliage was brought in, which led me to believe the city was the ugly stepsister to San Francisco. Flat. Dusty. Front lawns full of rocks and sand. Pancake beaches reminiscent of Florida’s coastline.

Even though I fell in love with California when I visited San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, Santa Monica, and Ventura, I just never felt the urge to visit San Diego.

Then my friend Jennifer told me to come visit her. In desperate need of a weekend outside Texas’s border, I booked a cheap flight and found myself on southern California soil late on a Thursday night. I was excited to be there and catch up, but was pretty apathetic about seeing the area.

Jenn picked me up around 11pm. My 48-pound checked bag with 30 bottles of Texas craft beer inside survived the jostling of the trip, and we excitedly chatted as we drove north to her apartment. I saw the beautiful skyline lit against the dark night, and then noticed the city’s lights dotting the scene outside my window.

“Hills! Wait! There are hills?”

Not only is San Diego very much not flat, it’s also lush and beautiful. It’s not brown. Even on the beach (well, one beach), where the sand is brown, there’s mica that makes the beach shimmer as though it’s covered in gold glitter. San Diego isn’t shoved anywhere, and it doesn’t seem like the conjoined twin to Tijuana, Mexico. Just like the pilot said as we were landing, San Diego County is paradise.

(If you want to read the captions or see the photos in their enlarged glory, click.)