Leaving Northwestern to backpack the country
    Production by Alex Duner / North By Northwestern

    At the beginning of 2013, David Sanchez, a SESP freshman at the time, was waiting in line at 5 a.m. to sign up for intramural basketball when he started jotting down places he wanted to go.  One year later, he would be well on his way to backpacking across America.

    “The education one receives through traveling is unlike any other education one can receive,” Sanchez said. “This education endows you with wisdom that you cannot read and understand from a school textbook.”

    Sanchez started his journey in August 2013 and finished it in late January.

    He has visited California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, New York and New Jersey. Sanchez has kept a blog of his journey, and he plans to write a book about his experiences.

    Embarking on the journey

    While planning for his trip, Sanchez mapped out a list of places he wanted to go and things he wanted to bring.

    “I figured the urge to travel was just a bit of cabin fever that would dissipate as soon as the winter quarter was over,” Sanchez said in an email interview.  “I was wrong, and that wish to travel never left. The desire to travel was so strong that it made it nearly impossible for me to focus on my school work. All I could think about was traveling.”

    Sanchez decided during finals week of Spring Quarter that his desire to embark on this journey would never leave. He feared that if he did not make this journey, he would regret it in the future. So, during the middle of that week, he decided not to return to Northwestern that fall.

    Sanchez told his close friends about his plans first, having late night, one-on-one conversations with them and discussing their aspirations. They were supportive.

    “I was shocked because he was already going to live in Sargent next year,” Weinberg sophomore Rob Shiffer said. “We would talk about plans for sophomore year.  One night, he was like, we’re going to Flat Top because it was the last time he could do it in a while.  At first I thought he was crazy for doing it, and it was so last minute, but he thought about what he’s going to get out of it.”

    Many people who heard about his plans reacted differently.

    “As a rule, people under the age of 35 all thought I was doing the coolest thing they ever heard, while people over the age of 35 thought I was either crazy or stupid … but usually both,” Sanchez said.

    Initially, Sanchez’s parents were not as supportive. When Sanchez’s mother, Lori, first heard her son’s plans, she cried because she thought David would never go back to school.

    “When your 19-year-old child goes on a backpacking trip, it’s terrifying to us,” Lori said. “He sat us down for hours and hours to tell us what he’s doing, why he’s doing it and to answer our questions.”

    Sanchez was not surprised by his mother’s disapproval, but he was surprised at his father’s. After his father graduated from college, he himself had backpacked across Europe.  David’s father often told him that the journey was, Sanchez said, “the best education he ever had,” but he initially did not support this.

    “It was hard as a parent because for the two of us, we’re used to the traditional way: go to high school, go to college, follow this path,” Lori said.  “We had to learn that what we think isn’t what David is thinking.”

    Having his parents’ support was important to Sanchez, but he stood his ground and planned on embarking on this journey regardless of what his parents said.

    “As the summer continued on, they realized how determined I was to follow through on my journey and their support grew,” Sanchez said.  “By the time I left for my journey my parents were completely supportive of me chasing my dream.”

    Sanchez’s parents used an app that tracks where Sanchez is. They agreed that if his parents could not find the dot on the app for 48 hours, they could call the police.

    The process of taking a year off at Northwestern was simple, Lori said.


    “When talking to Northwestern, they said it (taking a year off school) was happening more and more,” Lori said. “The process was simple.  The ramifications are what can be huge.  When you’re not in routine, you can get off track.”

    Lori said that although she initially felt scared for her son, she no longer does.

    “People ask me if I’m scared,” Lori said.  “I’ve prayed about it and thought about it, and now I have peace about it.  Now when I look at the phone to track him, I hope he’s having a great time.”

    Making Connections

    Sanchez supports himself on his journey with money he has made from working in the past three years, as well as by living frugally, spending money only on transportation and food.

    As for finding places to stay, Sanchez arranges this by networking and connections.  On his travels, he asks his friends and family if they know anyone in the area he is going.

    Shiffer said that Sanchez once stayed with his parents.

    “It was cool hearing from them,” Shiffer said. “When he sprained his ankle, they told me about that.”

    Sanchez said his hosts were “exceedingly generous,” making him home-cooked meals or treating him when they eat out.

    “The hospitality shown to me has made me want to perform the same acts of kindness to any guest I may have in the future,” Sanchez said.

    Sanchez has stayed with a wide variety of people of different jobs, ages and socioeconomic backgrounds.

    “The amazing thing about traveling via networking is that it has allowed me to grow in my relationships with the people that have been finding me my connections,” Sanchez said. “I am able to see a part of their world that would not otherwise be possible for me to experience.”

    Staying in Touch

    Sanchez kept in touch with his family and friends when he can. His friends and mother said they follow his blog and Facebook updates.

    “I think it’s a unique experience he’s having,” Shiffer said. “I hope he gets as much out of it as possible. He won’t have a second chance to relive it. It seems like he’s been able to do that.”

    In October, Sanchez invited his parents to go with him to the International Hot Air Balloon Festival in Albuquerque.

    “It’s natural to break out in hives and panic,” Lori said. “You have to let them go and trust them and be a resource when they need you.”

    In December, Sanchez visited and stayed with his friends at Northwestern, and he flew home from there for Christmas.

    “He said that for the most part, it’s been fun,” Weinberg sophomore Nicholas Vecchitto said. “He got to know a lot of great people, but it’s also been difficult.”

    On Dec. 30, he flew to New York City to start his journey again on the East Coast because he wanted to be in Times Square for New Year’s Eve.

    New Experiences

    Sanchez has encountered many interesting experiences and people on his journey.  He recounts one his “crazier” experiences in Kansas City.

    On the street, Sanchez met a homeless African-American man named Gary, and they started talking to each other.

    “He asked about my travels, my age, my background, and if I knew I was worrying my momma to death,” Sanchez said. “I learned about how he was divorced, lost his job, and ended up on the street.”

    Gary asked Sanchez for money to buy liquor, and surprised at his honesty, Sanchez gave him $5. After buying cheap vodka, Gary offered Sanchez some, which he declined. Then Gary invited him to meet his friends, two other homeless men.

    “As we sat on the curb and talked, Gary acted very protective and proud of me and later explained that I reminded him of his son,” Gary said.

    Soon, a larger group of homeless men walked toward them, and Gary and the group started yelling at each other.  Sanchez grasped his pocket knife in case he needed it, but then the group walked away.  Gary invited Sanchez to go with him to the homeless shelter.

    At the shelter, Sanchez had to walk through a metal detector. He kept the knife, which he just bought, in his pocket because he feared that if he handed it over, it would be confiscated. The detector went off, and he was interrogated. Gary became protective and started pushing back the security guards.

    “The scene erupted into chaos, with pushing and yelling erupting from other homeless men as well,” Sanchez said.

    Once everything settled down, Sanchez explained himself, and the shelter offered to hold his knives for him that one time.

    Gary shared his breakfast with Sanchez, and later, Sanchez said goodbye to Gary because he needed to catch the bus to Nebraska.

    “I must admit, it was hard to leave him because I knew there was no way that I would ever be able to see or contact him again,” Sanchez said.

    The bus dropped him off in an Arby’s off the interstate “in the middle of nowhere,” so Sanchez spent the night at Arby’s before going to the house where he would spend the night.


    Sanchez has faced challenges in finding transportation, housing and food, but he said those were easy to overcome compared to his internal challenges, especially during his first month of travel.

    “I was constantly doubting myself,” Sanchez said. “I doubted whether or not taking a break from a great school like Northwestern was a good idea. I doubted I could write the book I so desperately wanted to write. I doubted whether or not I could find any adventure in all of this. I doubted people would like me enough to let me stay in their home.”

    Sanchez also faced loneliness, as he had spent entire days without speaking a single word to anybody. He wanted to go back home every night of his first month of traveling.

    “When I did talk to people, they were always strangers who knew nothing about me and I nothing about them,” Sanchez said. “There wasn’t a single familiar face for much of that first month. I had so many doubts and fears in my head and nobody to bounce them off of.”

    Sanchez was determined to continue his journey, and eventually it paid off.

    “It wasn’t until after the first month that I started to enjoy and appreciate my journey,” Sanchez said. “If I had to guess at what brought about the change, I would say that the previous month’s traveling gave me confidence that I was able to do this whole traveling thing.”

    Now, Sanchez’s concerns regard his future, such as what to do before the next school year begins and financial independence. He feels unsure of his future at home and at Northwestern.

    “Though this poses a problem for me, I am not worried,” Sanchez said. “If my travels have taught me anything it is to not worry, but to have faith, perseverance and patience.”

    Lessons Learned

    Sanchez embarked on his journey, hoping to gain an education through traveling, solidify his worldview and beliefs and become stronger intellectually, emotionally and physically.  He believes he has accomplished these.

    “I hope that he feels it’s worthwhile and that he can bring back wisdom he can share because a lot of us stay in the Northwestern bubble,” McGrath said. “He’s defying the norm.”

    Sanchez has learned much about himself through this journey, and he believes he has developed a strong character and confidence.

    “People ask me if this journey was everything I expected it to be,” Sanchez said. “I had no expectations, other than this journey to be life changing in some subtle, yet powerful ways. In that sense, this journey has been a complete success.”

    Read David's blog here


    blog comments powered by Disqus
    Please read our Comment Policy.