Changemaker Interview Series

In this regular contributing column, we interview online entrepreneurs who begun their life down the  traditional path, but realize that something was missing. They decide to pivot, and strike out on their own, and forge ahead on their own path and never looked back.

This week, we feature Mike Spencer Bown, the “Patron Saint of Backpackers.” Mike has traveled continuously straight for more than twenty five years, he has visited every country in the world, and is often called the “world’s most extensively-traveled man.”

Mike Spencer Bown, the patron saint of backpackers.

In your own words, please tell us about yourself!     

After more than twenty-six years of backpacking, having taken in every country on Earth, and much more, one might expect the onset of a slower travel pace. However, I’m still on the road, concentrating on Eastern Europe and the Balkans, with Pacific islands easing me through winters.

Currently, I’m in Canada doing promotion for my book, “The World’s Most Travelled Man,” which will be distributed in Canada first, with international release in April.

How did you get started on this path you’ve taken? Was there a specific moment when you were young where you saw this future laid out for you?

There was a time in the late 80s and even into the early 90s, where living off the land was my favorite form of backpacking, and run-ins with large predatory animals like bears and mountain lions was a weekly, if not daily, occurrence. These experiences taught me resilience and self-reliance, valuable skills for encountering new cultures and environments; that and an intuition for putting my trust only in trustworthy people, a non-verbal skill something like that possessed by dogs, I suppose.

Thus fortified, I had the courage to dream big. One hot summer day in the bush of British Columbia, overlooking a valley of orange ponderosa pines beaded with a shimmering string of lakes, I wondered: has anyone every explored the whole Earth? Come winter, I decided to skip the snow and never looked back.

You’ve always been a friend and champion of the “others” — those individuals of “colorful characters” who exist outside of the realm of traditional conventional social norms. What is it about convention and structure (and those who follow) that makes you so uncomfortable?

The way I see it, there are over seven billion people and counting, and most of them are doing what is expected of them, trodding the safest paths before them. This is all well and good, and the result is that people have that safe life-way well ‘covered.’ If I had more than one life, maybe doing the done thing would have more appeal, but this is my one life, not a practice life, so I have to follow my heart, which has a fondness for misfits and dreamers, and the people who move between and off the beaten tracks to find their own path.

What, in your mind, have you sacrificed in order to backpack for twenty-six years? Have you ever thought about the other things you’ve had to give up? Have you experienced doubt?

Everything: Home, wife, family, possessions; an infinity that society expected of me. But they must be more than one shape of infinity because I gained a different everything: intimate knowledge of the thoughts and life-ways of strangers in distant lands, and a hankering for rare experiences to be preferred over bulk possessions, which for me consist only of what I can carry.

I don’t experience much doubt. Doubt consists mainly of self doubt, and my time living alone in the bush without speech and in places like the tropical Congo hunting antelope with pigmy tribes, or with the Yakuti reindeer herders of the Russian arctic, has made me skeptical of the primacy of the self.

Interview with Mike Spencer Bown, the patron saint of backpackers.

What were some of the hardest moments? Did you ever feel like giving up?

I’ve lived hundreds of such moments: hitchhiking through Iraq during the Operation Iron Grip phase of the Second Gulf war, riding out a typhoon clinging to the sides of a wooden boat in the disco-blue phosphorescent waves off the coast of Sumbawa, shivering with malaria in the jungles near the ivory coast, crossing Taliban infested mountains on deadly roads through central Afghanistan, avalanches, earthquakes, whistling tank shells near the trenches of Mogadishu, even quicksand.

These adventures, far from making me give up, play their part in keeping up my zest for life – life consists of comfy and harsh, good and evil, both, and for an appreciation of reality, this matters; a broad range of experiences helped broaden my compassion for those who have not been as fortunate as me, in health and prospects.

What are some of the different travel-oriented businesses and projects you’ve started to fund your adventures?

Every few years, when my cash supply was running low, I’d buy and sell silver jewelry, or semi-precious gem stones from remote mines, or take a chance with manufacturing – perhaps reproducing a thousand year old ornate Scottish box, or selling wooden statues of chickens from a master carver in Indonesia, or try my luck with new designs for wrought iron items for the garden or patio.

I’m both an excellent and a terrible businessman, simultaneously. With a few months work every two to four years, I’d make enough money to spend 95% of my time travelling. A proper businessman would settle down and cash in on any successful endeavour. All my endeavours were successful, yet, I cashed out instead, and did something fresh the next time travel funds were wanted.

What do you love the most about your life?

That I’ve had no significant downtime. It’s been meaningful journeys and learning experiences, one after another for my entire adult life. This is according to plan, and as necessary. I can’t stand places of self-inflicted boredom, or rolling in ruts, no matter how safe these spaces may seem. And travel way off the beaten path works like a sieve, filtering and concentrating the crowd to extract the most interesting people for me to befriend and learn from.

To travel for the sake of the fantastic places nets a bonus, the most fascinating people. These people are found in the mundane places too, but, when travelling, they are easier to detect then in the madding crowds of day-to-day living.

Do you feel like you’ve had some type of purpose or mission to keep you going through it all? Do you feel as though you have some greater destiny?

Only to live my one life in a way that shows how much I appreciate how lucky I am to be alive and healthy on such an amazing world.

“I think this is a general principle for living life: life should be lived for the stories, as the rest fades from memory as if it never happened.”

How about daily practices or rituals? Do you follow a spiritual practice?

Years of living alone in various wildernesses has, perhaps permanently, altered my mind. It is said a third of people think in words, a third in pictures, a third in a mix of both. But I think in intuition alone with neither words nor pictures to clutter my mind. Any yet, I get my fair share of thinking done, all unconsciously.

While this mind-set forces makes it impossible for me to take any dogma seriously, (and rituals mean nothing to me; I’ve forgotten even my own birthday many times) it does offer a puzzling intuition: there is much wisdom in Mythology for the able-minded to absorb, truths that are not facts, but something more useful than facts for us humans trying to make our way.

Interview with Mike Spencer Bown the backpacker.

What’s your best — or most motivational — piece of advice that you wish to impart to others?

A month ago, I was in Amsterdam, and found myself looking through the Rieks museum for the fourth time in thirty years. It was interesting to note that a statue or painting was either memorable and I recognized it like an old friend, or wasn’t and it never would be. All the memorable pieces invoked stories from my life or imagination.

I think this is a general principle for living life: life should be lived for the stories, as the rest fades from memory as if it never happened. This can be seen as a warning to those who go through life checking boxes and collecting mere passport stamps without the adventures.

Your mind will dump those details as you age, and you’ll risk failing to check a box that matters, that of meaningful experiences.

What are your future goals for your life in the next few years?

On New Year’s 2000, it was just me and the crew on a 747, flying out to Asia from Vancouver. The flight was practically free, partly because many people were afraid to fly, thinking the Y2K bug would curse the jet to tumble out of the sky. They were misinformed. And now, having already been to each country, often multiple times, I look for travel destinations where the prices are far lower than they ought to be, because the public is similarly misinformed.

Ukraine is a fine example. At first I went there to witness the Maidan revolution. The risks are far lower than many people imagine, and the local currency is unjustifiably discounted. So I was over there again for a couple months this summer just passed, swimming against the stream of conventional opinion, enjoying bargain-priced white beaches on the riverbanks, beers, cabbage dumplings and birch juice.

So, I suppose my goal is, now that I have enjoyed a friendly look around our planet, to go where the best deals are to be found, and hang out with my many friends well-met on the way.

What else could you see yourself doing if you weren’t backpacking fulltime?

Travel generally, is such a thrill for me, that I can’t imagine doing anything else. And it has to be backpacking, since only in this way will I mix with locals and learn how things truly stand. Jet-setting is boring. I remain unconvinced that someone with a heap of money can travel at all; it seems to me they end up only going places.

What’s one random fact about you that few people know?   

I’ve never been to a hospital or had a medical check-up; perfect health except for a couple of the falciparum malarias in West Africa, one possible zika in Micronesia and some giardia, here and there. I’ve never even had a headache or a broken bone or anything that caused me much inconvenience.

All of these but the zika could be cured through popping a few pills, and the zika went away as mysteriously as it arose.

Now that you’ve seen and done it all — do you feel burnt out? Does your life still have a purpose and meaning and what is the next journey or challenge for you?

No burn out at all. I’ve noticed the blogger and travel promotion people tend to burn out after about seven years, and I think it is because they have lit the candle at both ends: they travel as a lifestyle, and make a living from their focus on travel.

For me, travel was my life, and my money for a shoe-string budget came from spotting business opportunities, unrelated to travel, and putting in a few weeks of work on them every year. My travel memoire, “the world’s most travelled man” is the exception that proves the rule in that it might bring me some income as well as allow people to read about adventures and advanced backpacking skills.

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