Travis Criddle: "I walked with an open mind and heart, and no plans"
Q&A: An American acquaintance from my early backpacking days talks about everything that has taken him to his new home along Italy’s Via Francigena.
Hello, I’m Emily, and this is a newsletter about how we seek and tell stories to make sense of a rapidly changing world & our personal and collective place in it.
I met Travis, an American, briefly more than a decade ago in Central America, and we stayed Facebook acquaintances. Two years ago, he reached out online to tell me about a personal dream he was embarking on along the Via Francigena, a medieval pilgrimage walking route which runs from Canterbury to Rome and spans England, France, and Italy. Now he and his partner Juliane have made a new home in Capranica, a town in Italy’s Lazio region just north of Rome—in a house that they have opened up to walkers on a donations basis, as part of what they call their Road to Rome project.
Connecting again after so much time had passed, we exchanged admittedly scant memories about how our travels had coincided—we’d stayed in the same hostel, had a meal together at this great little Korean restaurant, shared the same Spanish tutor. And in edited parts of our conversation I’m sharing here, we talked about what his Central American travels meant to him and how they have oriented his life, how the death of his father and his experience on Spain’s Camino de Santiago eventually pointed him to Italy, and what his hopes are for the future in his new country. When we first reconnected back in September 2019, he was staying with his mother back in the U.S. while waiting to make his way back to Italy. Battling through Covid travel restrictions, he’s since reunited with Juliane, who is German, in Capranica last year.
“Because I became Juliane’s partner, I didn’t need a special visa to enter Italy, and I was able to get my Permesso di Soggiorno here, which will be valid for five years, after which I will renew it to be permanent. I've gotten signed up for the national health service and can now work and pay taxes in Italy. Basically, this is officially my new home—finally! I haven't had a real home in over three years, so these last few months have been wonderful to finally feel grounded.”
Best of luck with your next adventure, Travis! To everyone else, I hope reading this reminds you of a time when you traveled, too, without expectations, and felt like the world was looking out for you.
As mentioned, this conversation began in September 2019, around the time Travis was expecting a hurricane back home in Louisiana, updated with a couple more exchanges in the following months.
Emily Ding: Hey Travis, how are things? Did you guys get through the hurricane okay?
Travis Criddle: We did, thanks for asking. In the end, not much happened here in Louisiana. The first hurricane just skirted the coastline and didn’t really do any damage. The second hurricane went all the way on the west side of the state and I’m on the east side. We had a couple of stormy days, but that was just like a normal summer storm. There’s one tomorrow coming straight for us, so let’s see.
ED: Where exactly are you in Louisiana?
TC: So, Louisiana is shaped a little bit like a boot, and my house is in the toe of the boot. We live in Franklinton, about sixty miles north of New Orleans in a rural area, just outside the area that is Cajun- and French-influenced. I’m currently living with my mother, who recently underwent heart surgery. I’ve been staying here through the Covid crisis and helping her by doing much of the food shopping, together with my siblings. In this way, she wouldn’t have to risk exposure, since she’s very vulnerable to the virus with her health issues.
ED: And you were born in Franklinton? What do you think the experience of growing up in Franklinton gave you?
TC: I was born in West Virginia, but we moved down here in the early eighties when I was about six weeks old. My dad came to work in the oil industry—there was a big boom during Reagan’s era. The economy in West Virginia was really bad at the time. The only jobs were in the coal mines and those were super dangerous. My father didn’t work in the coal mines, but he occasionally drove trucks for them.
I had a pretty good childhood, all things considered. Franklinton was mostly peaceful, but being part of the Deep South, it had its fair share of racial problems. I didn’t recognize them easily at the time, because that was all I knew. It wasn’t until university, or even after, that I gained the perspective to look back at my earlier life and realize how isolated it was, culturally. Even with that in mind, I feel the town offered a good, safe place to grow, even if it wasn’t able to prepare me for the broader world, or competitive job and school environments.
ED: When did you leave Franklinton for the first time?
TC: The first time I left home to live in a new place I moved to Mississippi, just about eighty miles from my parent’s house, and attended university there for three years. It was close enough that I usually drove home for weekends. I did, however, spend my second year of university doing a study abroad program in Swansea, Wales, back in 1999-2000, and that was what set me so strongly on a new path.
ED: So, how old were you when you headed to Central America for the first time? Was it particularly momentous for you?
TC: I was twenty-six at the time. It was pretty life-changing for me. Since Wales, I hadn’t really traveled. Then, Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005 and altered my entire life. I had left my job just before, and after the hurricane landed I worked in debris clean-up on a temporary government contract, which paid quite a lot of money. I took that money and I went back to university for a couple of years. I was enrolled in computer science in Mississippi, but I also took anthropology classes and absolutely loved it. That was what made me decide I wanted to travel. One of my professors had done all her work in El Salvador, and a girl from Southern Mexico also gave a presentation at our university about the Zapatistas and the La Otra Campaña political movement. I was very politically minded at the time and I was pretty far left in my thinking, so it all just got me really interested in the region.
I made a plan to go down there with three friends, from Mexico City all the way to Panama. But all of them backed out and I wound up going alone. It was the first time I really traveled alone. I had traveled alone a couple of days when I did my study abroad in Europe—in the sense that I was traveling with friends, and then I traveled the last few days alone, but I didn’t leave to go on a new journey alone. The first time I did that was in Central America. I spent about five weeks on that trip before I ran out of money, and I didn’t make it anywhere near as far as Panama. I had thought I would spend about a week in each country, but in the end I wanted to spend more time everywhere I went. The next year, when my study abroad in Tibet was canceled—our professor was seen at a protest for Tibetan Freedom and we had our visas canceled—I went back with my girlfriend at the time.
ED: Did those trips to Central America make you think about how travel could play in your life in a more substantial way?
TC: Yeah. Not that I was close-minded before, but it made me rethink things and open my perspective a little bit more. On my study abroad in Wales, my only real travel was one of those whirlwind Euro trips kids do with the Eurail pass. That’s a very different experience from traveling in Guatemala and Mexico. It’s very sheltered. I mean, you see new cultures, but it’s sort of self-contained and is its own separate world. I don’t know if I want to use the word “safe”, but it felt very much within my comfort zone. Whereas going to Central America, there was a lot I didn’t know to expect and I was presented with a lot of situations that were new to me.
Traveling there, I also started to realize what life is like for people living in poorer nations. It challenged a lot of my preconceived notions about them, and I found that really liberating. The best place I went to on that trip was a town in Southern Mexico’s Oaxaca state, called Llano Grande. It’s part of a network of small villages up in a mountain range and the people who live there are mostly indigenous. A lot of the buildings didn’t have electricity, and a lot of them still got water from a hand-pumped well. I stayed there for three days, which made me reevaluate my entire mental relationship with the concept of success and happiness—which I was reasonably open-minded to before. But now, I was presented with the reality that you don’t need all the trappings of success in America. You don’t need the American Dream, essentially. That was a huge moment for me.
ED: Was there something in your life after that trip—a decision you made, a course you changed—that had its beginnings in what you experienced in Central America?
TC: So, I went back to university but ended up not finishing my degree, for reasons I won’t go into. I stayed in Hattiesburg, my university town, for about a year, working part-time jobs and making ends meet. Then I got a job in New Orleans washing barges on the Mississippi River. That was a radical change for me. It was very hard physical labor, but it paid well, gave me lots of time off, and got me in better shape. It’s weird. That’s the job I’ve had that society would view as the lowest, but it’s been my favorite. I liked being able to see my finished work at the end of the day and being part of something big. It gave me a sense of purpose and pride.
And it did have a romantic appeal to it. I was proud to be on the river and to see all the machinery in motion. You know, a single barge has like 1,500 tons of cargo and they would bring in twenty to thirty barges in a day. We mostly dealt with food products like grain, corn, and fertilizer, and to see that much material moving along was incredible. It’s a bit like when you see a massive landfill and realize for the first time just how much humans consume and throw away, except this was in a positive way rather than negative. It was a little unbelievable to see how much raw food and goods we move, create, process, etc. on a daily basis. At one time, they were sending supplies to Haiti, which had just had a big earthquake. I was just a worker, it’s not like I was doing charity work or anything noble. But it was really cool to see the scale of those operations at work. I think when I worked on the barges, the desire to travel was pretty far from my mind.
Anyway, I worked at that barge company for a couple of years, and then our shipyard got shut down after it was bought out by another company. Then I got a job working for a fire protection company designing sprinkler systems for buildings. It started pretty great, and I felt really connected to the job for a couple of years. Then I got moved back into the main office doing the lowest, simplest design work, and it was pretty soul-crushing and tedious—mostly paperwork and reading regulations. I was stressed, eating more, sleeping less, and not really exercising. I probably wouldn’t call it depression, but I became much less happy with the general state of my life.
That was in 2014, and then I took three months off to try to find a job in Europe. I didn’t have any great ideas of what I wanted to do, but I saw that labor laws in Europe were much better than what we have in the U.S. Life seemed less about work and more about family and community and quality of life outside work. I just wanted to explore the idea of this.
I started in Norway and I really enjoyed it, but there wasn’t really work available for me. I don’t have a degree and it’s hard to find work for which a company will justify the effort of getting a work visa for you. It also drained my money way too fast, and that’s how I ended up going to walk the Camino de Santiago, as a way to figure out a new plan while doing it very cheaply. I just wanted to have time to clear my mind a little bit and to come up with a new strategy, and walking is obviously free and the hostels on the Camino are very cheap.
So, it wasn’t really a noble idea at the start. I just went out there for a lack of knowing what else to do. I had only planned to walk a week or so until I came up with a new plan, but I loved it so much I stayed and walked the whole thing.
ED: How did the Camino change things for you?
TC: I absolutely loved the Camino. It changed my life a hundred percent, more than my Central America trips even—though it was an extension of the same ideas. It showed me a life without the daily grind, living and working for yourself, and how helping others can mean so much to them when it costs you so little. I wanted to live that way.
But after three months I had to get back to work, and I soon got bogged down in dreariness again. I took a few hiking trips in the U.S., to California and Colorado, but I realized that it wasn’t enough for me to just take two-week trips once a year.
In 2016, my grandmother and one of my uncles died. I had used all my vacation time going to my grandmother's funeral, and then visiting the uncle for a few days while he was sick, so I couldn't attend my uncle’s funeral without losing my job. That was a breaking point for me. I realized there’s a problem with the American system when you have to choose between such things. That’s a choice you shouldn’t have to make. I needed a new life.
So, in 2017, I put in my two weeks’ notice and used my last vacation from work to visit Italian friends I had met on the Camino de Santiago, and that’s when I decided to change everything and try something new.
ED: And why did you pick the Via Francigena in Italy?
TC: My Camino hiking family was mostly a group of three Italians, and they became brothers and sisters to me. I feel incredibly close to them. I came to Italy to visit them in the spring of 2017, and all the old joy of the Camino de Santiago came back to me. I fell in love with Italy as a country. I had been there for a couple of days in 2000 on that Eurail trip, but didn’t really see much. This time, I realized how wonderful it is, and I didn’t understand why there isn’t a similarly popular pilgrimage around Italy as the Camino.
So, I looked into it and found out about the Via Francigena. Earlier on, I had thought about supporting the Camino de Santiago in some way, but I had started to hear negative things from people who had gone there to hike—how it was overcrowded and drawing people who were going there with a party atmosphere in mind, distracting from the original spirit of the journey. It seemed to me that adding to the number of tourists on the Camino would only make the problem worse, whereas the Via Francigena is underdeveloped and there’s still a lot of room to grow before it becomes problematic. The Camino routinely sees 200,000 to 300,000 people per year finishing it. The Via Francigena gets more like 11,000 to 12,000.
ED: And your dream is to set up a few lodgings for hikers along Via Francigena?
TC: Exactly. When we looked at it closely, the trail—in Italy, at least—is fully signposted, fully walkable, but there are very few places to sleep, especially in the pilgrims-only style that is most popular on the Camino de Santiago, and especially in the final hundred kilometers of the trail. By “pilgrims-only”, I mean that they don't usually accept anyone who's not walking or cycling the route, and they have a spirit more like a backpacker's hostel, where you meet people and share space, share experiences, and feel like you're part of a community of walkers.
I didn’t raise enough money in our first round of fundraising to buy the building I wanted in the town that I wanted—Sutri—along the Via Francigena, but I found an apartment in a town called Capranica about five kilometers away that was much cheaper, albeit much smaller. It’s basically self-funded, and it was what I could afford. I’m borrowing money from friends back in the U.S. I’m essentially paying a mortgage to them rather than to a bank because the bank wouldn’t loan to me.
So, we decided to start with that, and we’re actually really happy with it now. It’s a two-bedroom apartment, which is basically also our home, and we have a spare bedroom with several beds for pilgrims, like a hostel. I think we can host about six to seven people now. Essentially, according to Italian regulations, we can host people as long as we are not running as a business, which supports our model as a non-profit registered in the U.S., because we’re not planning on charging people to stay. We’re running it on a donations basis, meaning payment is not mandated. We’re completely comfortable with someone staying for free if they feel like they need to for whatever reason. We don’t want them to feel like it’s about the money at all. It’s about the spirit and experience together. Because honestly, each time we have hosted, we have had wonderful evenings together with our pilgrims.
I had crowdfunded over 2,000 dollars that is essentially still sitting in the virtual account. The only thing we spent out of it was to maintain the website and deal with the paperwork for the project. We hope to crowdfund again in the future to raise more funds to buy another property for a second donations-based hostel. But if, in the end, we’re only able to open one or two hostels, but that works as a foundation to inspire more people and grow the larger trail, then we'll be pretty happy.
ED: Do you remember at which point you committed to this idea?
TC: I think I really did it before I even went to Italy, truthfully. I had already been looking for a way to leave the rat race in the U.S. behind for a couple of years. When I got back from my 2017 Italy trip—to visit my three friends whom I had met on the Camino de Santiago in Spain—I left my job at the sprinkler company and began making plans almost immediately. I started selling off things and pooling all my savings, even some retirement money that had been sitting untouched for almost ten years. I found a tenant to move into my house so that the mortgage wouldn’t weigh me down, and I started looking for a way to volunteer in Italy.
My first three months on my return to Italy were mostly spent volunteering at a hostel outside of Rome, so I could learn the industry a bit, learn the culture, make friends and allies in the area, and make sure it’s something I really wanted to do before I ask anybody to give money to my project. That was a very happy time for me, and it cemented everything. I met my Juliane while there as well. She’s German, but speaks Italian. She was volunteering via Workaway at an organic farm that partners with the hostel I was volunteering at, and we met at one of the shared events.
There were another two pilgrims who came to stay at our hostel as volunteers. They had just finished the route and were looking for a place to stay for a couple of weeks to recuperate from the trail before they travelled again. They were much older than the hostel would normally employ. I was thirty-six at the time and I was already old for the hostel; it’s mostly twenty-something kids. They were probably in their sixties.
I’m a bit spiritual and Christian, but I don’t like to say that I’m religious, because I don’t agree with most of the churches and their doctrine. But these people practice Christianity in the same way I do, and they said they had recorded a bunch of information about their journey. They didn’t know why; they didn’t have any plans to open a hostel of their own, but they had a packet of information about all the towns that they had gone through and which towns had cheap hostels, which hotels had places you could stay in for free, and which places were donations-based or Airbnbs. They basically gave me research to see which towns needed help first. I felt like the universe was putting us together to guide me to the right place to start.
ED: I think you told me before that you had been in touch more with your spirituality when your father died?
TC: Yes, my father died about the time I moved back to Louisiana to work on the barges, in 2010, when he was sixty-five. He had been sick for some ten years, with major damage to his lungs from exposure to chemicals throughout his career. He had told somebody not too long before that he felt his time would be up fairly soon, and that his ideal last day would be to ride his motorcycle with his friends and be out in the open air for a few hours and to play pool with his friends—and then to come home and go to sleep and be with his best friend, his wife, and then to die in his sleep. And that’s exactly what happened.
The day before he died, I was working on the barge and they were the most difficult days of the entire job, and I was exhausted. I was a little bit proud of what I was doing, actually, because it was so difficult physically for me, and my dad called me to tell me he was proud of me and just said a lot of nice things. He had the same experience with my brother that same day. My brother at the time had left his job—I think as an engineer for a turbine engine company—to pursue his passion for music as a sound engineer, which my dad had disapproved of for a long time. But that day, he told my brother he finally understood how much it meant to him and that he was great at it; he was proud of him. And later at his wake and his funeral, so many people came to talk to us and every person had a story to relate in the previous weeks about him—he had said something important to them somehow, or reconnected with an old friend, or buried the hatchet with someone.
He died peacefully, and happy. I hadn't seen him truly happy in a long time. To me, it felt like a miracle had taken place, that he had been given some extra time to wrap things up. It was the first time in my life that I felt certain there were spiritual beings looking out for us. It’s a bit vague, but at the time it was extremely powerful to me.
ED: Ultimately, what is it that you want to share with people along the Via Francigena?
TC: I walked the Camino de Santiago with basically no plan, and for me, that was the key magical, beautiful part of it. I was walking with just what was on my back and realized that was the happiest I had ever been. It’s a bit like the feeling you get when you relax in water and float—safe. I just sort of trusted that the world would be okay and I would be okay, and I walked with an open mind and heart, and no plans. And it was, I was.
The amount of kindness and amazing, wonderful coincidences I experienced on the Camino—it’s like the world is a beautiful place if we just let it be; it only becomes chaotic and stressful and bad when we fight it and try to force it to our expectations. That's what I felt there. And that feeling of letting go of everything and feeling that the world was actively taking care of me, that was overwhelming. It's hard to worry much after that.
That's the kind of experience I hope to share here with Road to Rome. To make it so that people can walk the Via Francigena without a plan, and arrive in a town tired, hungry, but spiritually or mentally clearer and happier. They don’t have to make a plan, or a schedule, or worry about how many kilometers to do before sunset and all that. Or if they have a foot pain, for it to be okay to stop earlier than expected. Or if they have a second wind after lunch, to feel happy to go one extra town, and not worry that there won't be a place to stay.
When I checked in last month for a quick update:
ED: So, how long have you and Juliane been staying in your new Capranica home now? How has it been settling in?
TC: We’ve been here for eighteen months now, and we feel very at home in our new town. We’ve started teaching English lessons here, both in a class format and also some private lessons. We’ve also joined a local association that does small works to improve the town and hosts history walks and other small events at times. Our most recent projects are restoring some old shepherd trails and clearing the brush and trees from them, so they will be usable as hiking trails again. They connect to some old Etruscan, Roman, and Medieval era tombs and shelters, so it’s a way to preserve access to Capranica’s cultural and historical heritage.
Views and experiences related in this conversation are the speaker’s own. Guest appearances in this newsletter hope to reflect the variety of life in this world.
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