Denver Bar Association
October 2010
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Lessons from Life on the Road

by Daniel J. Culhane

When we started dreaming about a one-year trip around the world with our two children, all we could see were problems. How will we afford it? What will I do about my law practice? What about school for the kids? And the house? What about the dog? The list seemed endless.

Nevertheless, we held onto our dream and finally made it happen. In June 2009, my family and I left on our one-year trip ready to explore 29 countries on four continents. We each took only one carry-on-sized travel bag for our clothes, plus one carry-on backpack for our books, maps, pens, laptop, games, toys, snacks, and anything else we might need for a year. Along the way, we learned a lot about travel, planning, dreaming, and living life the way we want it.

We never failed to make new friends along the way.

The Challenges: Dreams vs. Decisions
We started thinking about a trip around the world in 2003, when an opportunity to live abroad fell through. Because of our disappointment over the lost opportunity, we decided we needed a new goal — something we could work toward that would accomplish several major goals in our lives: see the world, spend extended and concentrated time with our children, and escape from our established routines. The idea of a trip around the world quickly surfaced and we decided to make this our goal.

We soon learned that there is an enormous difference between a goal — an objective that you seriously work toward — and a daydream (even though sometimes they feel like the same thing). For five years, from 2003 to early 2008, we thought about our plans and put some effort into planning, but we began to grow frustrated. The obstacles seemed so insurmountable. We would talk about how exciting it would be to see the world with the children, and how we needed to plan to go when they were old enough to understand what they were seeing (and carry their own luggage!), but still young enough that they were not completely enmeshed in their own academic and social lives.

We finally had a breakthrough, and discovered the secret to changing a daydream into an actual goal was to make the decision to go on the trip. It turns out that making a decision is the key to making a dream come true. Before we made the decision, we were overwhelmed with doubts, fears, obstacles, and worries. After we made the decision, we just had lists of problems to solve. In other words, we stopped worrying, and began taking action to overcome the obstacles in our way.

Making It Happen: Preparations

Of course, planning a trip around the world was not easy. But once we decided to go, things began to fall into place, little by little.

We had no idea which direction to go, for instance, or what time of the year we should leave. We spoke with one family who had traveled from January to December, but we were worried it would be too difficult for the kids to miss half of two separate school years instead of one entire school year. Also, we decided we wanted to return in May or June, so we would have the summer to re-acclimatize before the kids started school again.

Once again, when we made this decision, everything fell into place. It turns out that if you leave in June from Colorado and travel east, you can plan a trip so that it is summer everywhere you go — Europe in the northern hemisphere’s summer, the tropics for fall and spring, and the southern hemisphere for their summer. Following this idea, we planned to start in London and crisscross Europe through October. Then, to the Middle East for a month, Kenya and Tanzania for a month, Southeast Asia for four months, and ending up in Australia and New Zealand. (After all this we thought we would need a vacation, so we planned a one-week stop in Fiji on our way home.)

Once we solved the problem of the seasons, we could solve the problem of the suitcase. We each packed two T-shirts, two short-sleeved shirts, two long-sleeved shirts, and two pairs of shoes. Theo (son, age 9) and I took two pairs of long pants and two pairs of shorts; Lisa (wife) and Molly (daughter, age 11) each took two skirts, one pair of shorts, Capri pants and long pants. These things, plus a rain jacket, a fleece, a sun hat and a bathing suit would be our wardrobe for the 12 months.

Dealing with the school issue for the kids turned out to be far simpler than we had feared. The kids’ principal shared our belief that our trip would provide an enormous education in itself (not unlike a 365-day field trip), and that both Molly and Theo would be able to catch up on anything they missed. We assumed that the kids would read and write enough that they would not fall behind, especially because we each planned to keep a journal and to work together on a family blog. This left math, which seemed like the one subject that required some kind of formal instruction. With the school’s help, we were able to buy math books to take with us.

The rest of the details fell into place as well. We rented out our house, sent the dog to live with Lisa’s mother, and found homes for our cars. We figured out that medical insurance is far cheaper if you are traveling outside the U.S., and provided much better coverage than we can afford here.

With my firm’s help, we made arrangements to assist my clients while I was gone. I knew there was a possibility that I might need to rebuild my practice from scratch when I returned but this prospect did not daunt me. I found that once we made the decision to take the plunge, I could accept that the future is unpredictable and that if we ended up on a different path than the one we left, we would find a way to navigate it. Making the decision somehow removed the fear of an uncertain future, and replaced it with the resolve to meet whatever challenges might come our way.

Our family and stuff was ready for our one-year adventure. Too bad our dog Sophie had to stay back.
Gaining some perspective: This bridge near Luang Prabang, Laos, is built by hand every year only to be washed away every rainy season.

The Unexpected: Re-Entry

Our trip was everything we hoped for, although not always in the way we expected. Our family shared hundreds of experiences and now we tell a hundred stories of our discoveries of strange and exquisite places (in Portuguese "esquisito" means "strange").

One of the most unexpected elements of our trip has been our return. We have sometimes struggled to regain our footing, and often miss our quiet, simple life on the road. Although my last shirt might have been getting a little smelly, at least I didn’t have to think about what to wear. We miss those kinds of things.

In the end, nothing worth doing comes without a price. We are grateful that we made a big decision, and we are glad that decision enabled us to turn our dream into a reality.

Read about the Culhanes’ world travels at

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