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A Free-Range Life: On the Road with Pam Mandel

This is a traveler case study. (Read others or nominate yourself.)

I met Pam Mandel at an event in Seattle. I was interested in how she’d made travel not just part of her life, but also part of her lifestyle. Here’s her story.

Tell us about yourself.

I’m a free range human.

I’ve done all kinds of things to pay my bills—farm work, selling art supplies, writing photo captions, making sandwiches, stuffing envelopes, designing websites—but I’ve almost always been freelance or temp because I need space for creative things (music, my own writing, art) and travel.

What was one of your recent, memorable trips.

I went to Anchorage, Alaska, to talk about travel stories and why they matter. I love to travel in Alaska. It’s full of edge-of-the-map weirdos (I mean that in the very best possible way) and nature. The landscape is so big and beautiful, it just gets inside my head and opens it up.

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Pam in Alaska

What inspired you to make travel part of your life?

The short answer is when I’m elsewhere, inevitably something happens to me that makes me glad I’m out in the world.

The long answer is I was a free-range teenager, too—meaning problematic. Though I was an unconventional candidate, my French teacher advocated for me to study abroad, and when I came back, I was addicted to being a fish out of water.

I was 16 when I was a foreign exchange student; this year I turned 50 and I am not even a little bit tired of travel.

How do you save the money you need for your trips?

Travel, and my need for it has always defined my personal economy. I live very much within my means (think second-hand thrift store wardrobe, a one car for our household, some nice electronics) so my husband and I have money for traveling.

How many miles and points do you have banked right now?

I have a balance of 100,000 Delta SkyMiles, which I plan to burn up by the end of this year.

The great debate: aisle or window?

Aisle!

Where do you usually stay when on the road?

I’ve traveled so much and become so connected that often, I end up staying with friends all around the world. That’s the best possible thing to have happen. When my husband and I moved into our current home, it was really important to me that we have space for guests. People have opened their homes to me and I wanted to be able to do the same.

As a travel writer, I often get to stay in some very nice hotels. I’ve come to think that a clean, quiet room with a good bed trumps any other features a hotel might have. A bargain room is just as good as any if you sleep well and there’s decent coffee close by.

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Seattle coffee shop

Tell us something that has surprised you while traveling.

People are so universally welcoming. What a great thing. And always, always, I’m surprised by it.

I was surprised how kind the people in Cambodia were in spite of their tragic recent history. I was surprised that the people of Vietnam seemed to have no anger towards Americans. I was surprised when, in Zanzibar (which I’d been told could be tough for Western women), local people treated me like a lost cousin. I was surprised to get the same treatment in New York City, like I’d moved away and come back and where-had-I-been-all-that-time.

Have you met any fun or interesting people on the road?

Some days, I feel like I can’t leave my house without meeting someone who’s got a story they are dying to tell me.

In Hawaii, I met a guy who told me he was a dentist for the Grateful Dead. In Austria, I met an old farmer who was arrested by the Americans during the first days of WWII and spent the entire war in a POW camp in Texas learning to play Johnny Cash songs on a guitar he’d been given by the Red Cross. This last trip to Alaska, I met an effusive young lad, aged 7, outside a tiny Russian Orthodox church. Everyone was inside for services, but he was playing along the fence line, chatting like I was a neighbor he’d known forever.

Best travel tips. Go:

Go to the supermarket.

Breakfast cereal and candy bars and toothpaste—the stuff that daily life is made of is equal parts familiar and weirdly strange in supermarkets around the world. Stopping in for an inspection is always a good time.

Whenever you can, take public transit.

If you can manage the bus, subway or ferries in far away places, not only does it give you a great perspective on a place, it feels like a little triumph when you get from Point A to Point B.

You’re not going to see it all.

It’s so much better to enjoy where you are than worry about where you’re not. Wonders are everywhere, so if you don’t see this one, today, you’ll see another. Promise.

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Ukulele over Waikiki

Tell us something interesting about you that hasn’t been covered already.

As of recently, I’m a musician, having fallen in with a bunch of rogue ukulele players. I played Rocket Man with Commander Hadfield (the Canadian astronaut who charmed the world from the International Space Station) in front of about 400 people.

Where are you headed next?

San Francisco, then camping up in Point Reyes.

Read more about Pam on her blog, Nerds Eye View, or follow her on Twitter @nerdseyeview

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