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  • Tim Mathis

The GAP Month: How do you make travel life-changing?

Updated: May 10, 2023

Travel is one of the few things capable of actually, properly transforming adult human beings for the better.

It can be a tool to overcome prejudice, learn a new language, decide to follow a different life path, change political beliefs, or break out of the drudgery of life’s stupid, stupid routines.

It’s more fun (and probably cheaper) than therapy or university education.

But it’s also not all created equal. Not all trips lead to dramatic growth.

I’ve put together the concept of a GAP Month as a framework to explain the type of travel that is likely to facilitate real change. Think of it as a checklist for transformational travel - a tool you can use it to plan trips that will shape your own life.

I'll explain later, but GAP stands for Goal-directed Adventure or Pilgrimage. Or just Goals, Adventure, Pilgrimage if that's easier to remember.

I came up with the idea, sort of, but really I just stole a bunch of concepts from people who’ve been doing this stuff for centuries. It’s time tested. There are solid principles. You can use travel to change your life. Call me Goldilocks or a televangelist but it’s true.

To get you there, I’d like to introduce you to the idea of a GAP Month.

When you travel, you realize that it messes you up.

For a bit of background, here’s my travel story, in (very) brief.

I got sucked in by travel in my teens and early 20s for the same reasons that people at that age make most decisions: it was exciting and it made me feel good. Flying across the world without adult supervision - that’s a pure hands-trembling rush in the years after you leave your parents’ nest.

It didn’t take long though to figure out that travel was also a major shock to the system. During my first big, adult trip - a month busing around Australia with Angel (my wife now, fiance at the time) - I had experiences that eventually led to both a change in my religion and a move across the world. At various stages in life, significant trips have helped facilitate career shifts (the Camino and the PCT), another religious transition (Hawaii), and significant changes to my politics, values and prejudices (New Zealand, Guatemala and Mexico).

None of those upheavals were intentional, exactly. Traveling, I’d meet people living lives that I didn’t know were possible: backpackers who spent years drifting around the planet with no money, or people from different religious backgrounds who were better humans than I was. I encountered countries that were much more functional than my own Greatest Country in the World™, and nationalities that were vilified at home who were, it turns out, nice and normal. That sort of thing just chips away at you, and expands your sense of reality.

As I’ve gotten older, I have naturally drifted towards the kinds of travel experiences that give you a real shot at improving your life. Travel isn’t just exciting anymore. (Sometimes it’s not exciting at all.) The goal’s shifted, and for my middle-aged self, travel is very frequently intended “To Shake the Sleeping Self” to quote the title of Jedediah Jenkins’ book about cycle touring.

Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. Across the years, my first trip to Guatemala changed me more than (for instance), my second trip to Mexico. My month in Australia changed me more than three weeks in New Zealand in 2014. The Camino de Santiago had more of an impact on my life than any other trip - until Angel and I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail.

After a couple of decades of this, you start to ask questions. Why do some trips dramatically reshape your life, when others are just vacations?

Some travel is pilgrimage

As with most things, I wasn’t the first person to notice this. People have been traveling in search of transformation for millennia.

The extent to which this was true started dawning on me consciously while I was writing an as yet unpublished guide to the Camino de Santiago, the very popular medieval pilgrimage route across northern Spain. People have been walking the Camino for centuries seeking (and finding) transformation.

While researching for that book, I started looking into other pilgrimages too. It turns out that there are a lot.

Seriously, it’s an almost universal feature of human society today, and it has been for a very long time. 10 million people travel to the Buddhist temple at Nanputuo in Xiamen, China every year. 2000 people a day make the pilgrimage to the Bodhi Tree at Bodh Gaya in India where the Buddha was said to have achieved enlightenment. All Muslims are expected to complete the Hajj to Mecca at some point in life, and more than a million people do so annually. Jews visit the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the Japanese circle the 88 Temples PIlgrimage on Shikoku, and millions of visitors seek blessings from Mary every year at Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico. For a whole lot of people, the idea of using travel for transformation is very familiar.

Pilgrimage wasn’t a new concept for me, and I’m guessing it’s not for you either. But until I started looking into the broad facts, I’d always subconsciously cordoned off pilgrimage from other forms of travel - even after walking the Camino myself.

Specifically, I’d always seen pilgrimage as an experience that was more about religion than travel. As if it were the faith that made it work - not the travel itself.

(To be fair, religious pilgrims frequently make it seem like that’s the case - like you have to hold a specific type of faith in order for pilgrimage to work.)

When you look at the trends broadly though, the thing that becomes obvious is that no one has a monopoly on pilgrimage. Christians communing with St. James’ bones on the Camino are not seeking the same thing as Buddhists looking for enlightenment at the Bodhi Tree in India, but they both go on trips looking for transformation, as do Jews, Muslims, Taoists and more.

It makes you think, maybe it’s not the religion that makes it powerful? Maybe it’s the travel process itself?

For me, it’s only recently that it’s all clicked together. I’ve mostly traveled with thoroughly agnostic intentions but I’ve still experienced the transformative elements of travel. Even on the ostensibly religious Camino, I traveled at a time shortly after leaving my faith. In fact, it cemented my irreligion in mostly enjoyable ways.

Duh. it’s possible for travel to be life-changing even if you’re not religious.

Duh, it’s the travel bit of pilgrimage that matters, not the specific set of beliefs.

Take a month off and travel, and it’ll change your life

In the midst of all of my reading about pilgrimage, I was talking with Angel about my problems while we were out on a hike. Specifically, I was whining about the fact that I like to write but sometimes I lack direction.

She’s infinitely more self-directed than I am, so to try to help, she asked, “What could you teach people, specifically? What do you know that’s valuable or practical?”

Then, seemingly off the top of her head, she said, “What about that idea we’ve talked about, where if you want to change your life, you should just take a month off from work and travel? Do you think you could do anything with that?”

Easy, right? You just have to ask the right person.

Things started to click together in my mind.

The building blocks were that I’d found travel transformative myself - some types more than others.

I knew that dozens of different religions have pilgrimage traditions focused on using travel for personal or community transformation.

And I figured that there have be some specific reasons that pilgrimage works.

That’d be useful for people to know, right? The things that I’ve sorted out from experience? The stuff that people have gleaned across centuries about how to make travel transformative?

If you knew that, you could intentionally shape your own trips so they’ll be incredible and life-changing and profound, right?

And you’d be able to sort out when maybe you need to plan a trip when life’s giving you problems? Or when you just need a shake up?

That’s the ticket.

From there, I started getting practical in my reading and writing. I started pulling out the things that people need to know.

What are the consistent themes that pop up in pilgrimage and adventure literature about what’s essential? What are the principles that make travel impactful?

I figured with all of the pilgrimages in the world, someone has to know something about that, right?

And I figured that if you knew that (you personally - not some theoretical collective “you”), then you’d be able to apply the knowledge in your own situation.

The good news is that people do have thoughts about what makes pilgrimage work. There are whole academic disciplines about it.

There’s a lot more out there too. There’s a lot of interesting literature. There’s also a lot of boring literature. There’s also a lot of spiritualized mumbo jumbo.

When you separate the wheat from the chaff, happily enough a formula emerges that is concrete - practical even - and directly applicable for people interested in creating meaningful travel experiences. People like you, I hope.

That’s what I’ve tried to congeal with the GAP Month concept.

GAP Month Definition: Goals, Adventure, Pilgrimage

What exactly is a GAP Month?

It’s a Goal-Directed, Adventure or Pilgrimage Month

It’s the distilled essence of transformative travel, based on principles taken from literature about pilgrimage and adventure, filtered through my own brain, which has been shaped by years of travel myself.

It’s a set of simple principles that are valuable independently but are most powerful when taken as a package.

It’s a simplified checklist to follow if you want a reliable formula for transformative travel.

What is it?

Stated directly after all of that elusiveness, a GAP Month happens when you do the following:

If you do those things, time and history testify that you’ll come away significantly changed in some way or another.

It won't just be a vacation. It'll be a rite of passage or a life transition or a pilgrimage.

That’s easy enough. Where do we go from here?

You’re creative people - just knowing those principles I’m sure that you could have a think and come up with amazing experiences. You don’t need me to define anything for you further.

That’s no fun though.

Instead, watch this space (or even better, subscribe to the mailing list) because from here:

  • I’ll write a series of articles about each of the six principles.

  • I’ll share stories about travel that fit the GAP Month template.

  • I’ll put together a list of ideas for GAP Month destinations and activities.

  • I’ll provide a thorough checklist for how to construct a GAP Month yourself.

  • I’ll keep posts chock full of links to other resources if you’re interested in further reading.

  • I’ll also write other stuff - my brain is hopelessly scattered.

These days it’s easy to get cynical and depressed and prejudiced, and it’s easy to develop bad ideas and get stuck in your ways. Call me grandiose, but I think that the GAP month concept will give you the wisdom of the ancients that you need in order to unleash travel’s power in your own life.

I feel like I should have some kind of inspiring quote to close this out, but I don't. Whatever. Let's get going.

And don't forget to check out my books while you're at it. They tie in well with this sort of thing.

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I won't hassle you with ads on this site, but I will ask you to check out my books. You might like them, and I get a little endorphin hit with every purchase that makes me want to keep writing. Everybody wins.

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