A Story of Really Living: Guest Post by Gary Goebel

Today: guest blog from Gary Goebel, master (mostly unaware) of the Art of Really Living. Gary is a great friend and unassumingly inspiring. Here’s a guy who tends to talk about his risk aversion, his periods spent as a lawyer and teacher, and “domesticated life” as a stay at home dad. What comes out around the edges, is that this is the same guy who left the rock star house-on-the-hill (literally in this case - formerly owned by the lead guitarist for the Scorpions) and along with his star-powered attorney wife Monica, abandoned the money-chasing rat race and moved to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin to enjoy the fruits of their labors while still young enough to experience them fully. A 2-year sabbatical followed by a job here and there, and then most recently two other massive adventures - first an 8 month sojourn into the jungles, beaches and teeming cities of Central and South America - with 8 and 10 year old boys in tow going to “the school of life.” And now, unhappy with the local school system dynamics with his elder son, Gary has taken on home-schooling an 11 year old boy with traditional curriculum, unique experiences, and lots of TED talks.

Seriously, when other people only dream of taking the big chances and changing their lives forever, Gary and Monica have proven willing to take the risks to do so repeatedly. Every day as I consider what the Art of Really Living is really about, I think of Gary and Monica, and the strengths, resiliency, and time-expanding adventures they have been on over the last decade. With that, I turn it over to Gary and his adventures in time down in Latin America with the only edit being the addition of Really Living elements:


  1. Unique/Mundane
  2. Beautiful/Ugly
  3. Physically invigorating/exhausting
  4. Emotionally deep (Love/Courage, Hate/Fear)
  5. Flow State


I have known John Coyle for years, not as long as some, but have seen him in a number of personal and professional settings.  I have always admired his gusto, his pursuit of adventure, and, basically, his commitment to “really live.” I assumed he was just the type of person who "lived large." It was who he was, and of course, this was natural for him. But what about the rest of us?  If we didn’t share his DNA, were these adventures just something to dream about?

It was only recently that I learned that his actions are part of a conscientious philosophy, and that others can follow suit. In fact, he pointed out that my wife Monica and I have a history of the kind of risk-taking and creating incredible experiential moments for ourselves and our two young sons, that represents the heart of The Art of Really Living.

One recent time-expanding experience came in the Summer of 2013.  I had just gotten out of a life-draining business (mundane), and Monica was working from home as a one-on-one business development coach for lawyers. Our two sons were ages 8 and 10.  Monica was hit with an epiphany! We had no jobs that forced us to be anywhere in the foreseeable future. It was time for World Travel!  (unique)

It is too trite to say we packed our bags and hit the open road. That sounds so romantic and whimsical. To plan and tackle a trip like this requires a decent amount of suffering: there was a lot of discussion, disagreement, research, preparation, arrangements, etc. to be made before our new dream could become a reality.

Eventually we settled on a Central America as a starting point. Why? We wanted to learn Spanish and enjoy beaches. Panama fit the bill because unlike the Central American countries a bit further north, there is no hurricane season. Also, flights were cheap, health care good, and they accept the US dollar.

Our adventure started almost a month before going abroad. We rented out our house, much earlier than anticipated, because we found an ideal tenant who was interested in a four month lease of our fully furnished house. Suddenly, we became “homeless.”  That was an experience, but a story for another time. Let me just say that in times like that you know who your friends truly are.  It was like a month long going away party!

Leaving all our worldly possessions behind (except backpacks), and giving our two boys the benefit of “the school of life,” we hit the road for a minimum of four months. We purchased one-way tickets to Ciudad Panama as our launch pad, enrolled in a Spanish Language Immersion School, and arranged to live with host families (unique). We started by spending two weeks in the mountain town of Boquete and two weeks more on the Caribbean island Bocas del Toro, with some exploration time between the two destinations.  (beauty)

Beyond that, we did not formulate a plan. Who knew what we would do or where we would go?  We decided to see what felt right after we arrived. I jokingly told people we would be back when A) We ran out of money; B) We got tired of dysentery; or C) We were kicked out of a country with no where else to turn. Honestly, most family and friends could not get their heads wrapped around a non-itinerary such as that. But that was the plan, or non-plan, if you will. “So really, when ARE you coming back?” Part of “really living” as we have learned is not trying to force amazing moments to happen, but instead trying to create the right kind of environments where possibility for serendipity is ripe.

So how long did we stay? As it turns out, 8 months. We traversed the cities, beaches, jungles and cloud forests of Panama for 7 weeks (physically challenging). Then, we traveled by bus over the border to Costa Rica and lived in a cabana in the jungle near the Pacific Ocean for a month. (beauty, uniqueness)

Next, we took a bus from San Jose, Costa Rica to Panama City to meet John Coyle and his family for Thanksgiving in the San Blas Islands.  There, we sailed for days on a catamaran with Captain Jean Charles and a Guna Yala guide named Ronnie.


Sadly we all managed to get sick during this period (physically challenging) but bonded in close quarters along the way (emotionally deep). Next, we were dropped off on a tiny palm fringed island smaller than a city block, with gorgeous white sand beaches and a laid back vibe.  We lived in straw huts and ate meals provided by Franklins -- family who owned the island. (beauty, uniqueness)


After the Caribbean Island time, we flew to Quito Ecuador, and  rented a condo for six weeks. While in Ecuador, we explored the Andes mountain towns, the villages in Amazonia, and the Galapagos Islands.  We traveled by planes, trains, canoes, boats, horses, taxis, vans, flat-bed trucks with benches bolted to the bed, buses, bicycles and foot. (physically arduous, emotionally scary)


When our three month tourist visa expired, we again traveled over an international border into Peru, but this time on foot, not by luxurious plane. There, we discovered yet another form of travel- we called them loco-motos, but they were really just jerry-rigged motorcycles modified to transport more people and things.  The Peruano ingenuity with these transports was nothing short of miraculous! They could move mountains! But if you have visited Machu Picchu, you know that Peruanos have historically moved mountains.


Each time  we left a “safe and secure” spot (OK, at least one where we had developed some level of comfort or that felt somewhat familiar), was incredibly stressful.  At least for me.  Were we going to the proper bus terminal?  Did we buy the right ticket?  Would we be crossing a border at the best or safest time?  How would we change our currency?  Was our gear secure? What forms of transportation, if any, awaited us?  Could this taxi driver be trusted?  Would we be over-charged?  Robbed?  (emotional depth - fear, anxiety) Travel here is not the same as there.  I often railed when people asked about our “vacation.”  There may be many words to describe what we did, but I do not see vacation as one of them.  I tend to reserve that word for going to Disneyland or sitting at a resort by the pool with a Mai Tai.


During our travels, time passed fast and slow, we had periods of quiet contentment, boredom, painfully long journeys, beauty and of course those certain memories that just implant themselves, seemingly of their own accord, and serve to become the “stories of the road” - the experiences that “made a dent” that we will always remember, like:


  • The dramatic passing of an ancient grandfather in the bedroom next door to the boys on our first night with our first host family; (unique, emotionally deep, beauty too)
  • Taking 36 hours to go from door to door from our tiny cabana in Costa Rica to Park Ridge, Illinois, without cell phone, GPS, my more fluent wife, or any other niceties; (emotionally, physically stressful)
  • Having our cabana burgled while we lounged comfortably on the beach; (fear, anxiety)
  • The intimate connection with the ocean, land and animals in the Galapagos; (beauty, emotional depth)
  • Befriending other traveling American families in one country and meeting up again in another;  (emotional depth, love)
  • Traversing the Sacred Valley of Peru and all that it offered; (beauty, uniqueness)
  • Floating down an Amazonia River on inner tubes; (beauty)
  • White river rafting on the border of Costa Rica and Panama;
  • Working to create a new girls’ home for young mothers in Cuzco, Peru
  • Dancing in the streets at Carnival in Chachapoya, Peru (beauty)
  • The camaraderie of fellow backpackers singing around a fire, kicking back beers in hostels, riding bikes on volcanos, and soaking in natural hot springs in the mountains.  (uniqueness, emotional depth)
  • 24 hour bus trips; (physical challenge)
  • Eating exotic “street meats” and quail eggs from vendors, buying artisan cheeses  from colorfully attired indigenous women… almost any of our culinary experiences; (beauty, uniqueness)
  • Chicken Buses (fear, love, beauty, ugliness, uniqueness)
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We could write a small book on the trip (my musings can be found on our blog at http://ottoowenmonicagary.blogspot.com/ ).  Not a day goes by that I do not think back to one thing another about our 8 month odyssey. Did we really live? Unequivocally! We were not just tourists. We absorbed and experienced an entirely different world than the one we had left.  Did we expand time? Absolutely - those 8 months fill our mental data banks with the equivalent of years of memories had we stayed home, and we continue to relive special moments, reach out to new friends found abroad, and explore future roads we might have otherwise closed if not for the experience. Whatever money, convenience, peace-of-mind, etc we sacrificed, has been recouped ten-fold.

“Wait,” you say, “that all sounds fun, but I  couldn’t do that…” Let me challenge you here. . You couldn’t do that because… of your house, your car, your belongings? What are those things “worth?” vs. experiences?     935611_10202178672043468_1905013855_n



Let me share the story of a certain famous rock star, as related in the book, “What Happy People Know” by Dr. Dan Baker.  In the book, the author relates the story of a famous rock star who had turned to drugs and alcohol because he felt so “trapped” by the establishment - recording deals he HAD to complete, concert tours he HAD to fulfill. Here he was worth a hundred million or more and he was miserable feeling like he had no choices. Easy for us to look in from a afar and say, “wait - you can just walk away, travel the world, live on an island, do whatever you want with all that money… and you still have your talent.”

But how different is that from you and I? Many of us have savings, or could scrape some together if we lived more frugally. We’ve invested in education and careers that make us easily hireable.  Yet .. we can’t take 3 or 6 or 12 months off because... ? Why?  Our THINGS? our JOBS? MONEY?

I challenge you - what are we working for anyway? to die on a stack of money or to “really live?”

Everyone dies, not everyone really lives…  I want to really live!

A Walkabout in Wisconsin... Or, Tour de Franzia

A Walkabout in Wisconsin or… Tour de Franzia For reasons I don’t quite understand there is a significant difference in the psychological value between an out-and-back ride (repetition: same way back), a loop ride (variation: different way back), and a point-to-point ride (progress: destination as a goal from the starting point.)

Out and back rides are generally to be avoided as the fruitlessness of your efforts are obvious and every pedal stroke out has a corresponding pedal stroke back that is completely demotivating unless there is some form of stellar scenery that makes it worthwhile. Wind really matters in an out and back – preference always being for a headwind on the way out. Case-in-point for a worthwhile out-and-back would be a ride along the seaside.

The loop ride is a staple of every cyclist and serves to pretend that ones’ pedaling efforts are not a zero sum game by avoiding the repetition of any portion of the ride. Loop rides are essential and satisfy a number of requirements: 1) they begin and end in a place that has storage for your bike (your house, your car etc.) 2) It provides varied scenery and a sense of progress 3) It requires no coordination with outside forces (transport).

A point-to-point ride entails starting and ending in a different place and is far more challenging to coordinate, usually requiring the agency of outside support to provide transport, creating a dependency typically exactly opposite the freedom riding nominally entails. These are rare, in fact, I suspect there are a number of cyclists who have never experienced one. That is sad because the value is exponential to the traditional ride in ways that can only be understood by doing one.

Yes, there is something irrationally compelling about a point-to-point ride when it can be arranged. It becomes a journey with measurable progress versus the zero sum game of an out-an-back or loop ride. With reasonable distance it transcends the notion of a “ride” to become an “adventure.” Checkpoints and stop-offs all become trade-offs against the final destination, while the clock and the required distance create intensity an arbitrary loop can never hold. For once, you have to ride, make progress, make tradeoffs vs. a timeline.

Maybe there is more it than that. Maybe we as a species were designed to wander, to “walkabout.” In Bruce Chatwin’s book, “The Songlines” he suggests the evolutionary notion that constant peripatetic movement is genetically programmed into us from our distant ancestors, and that for some of us, a “walkabout” or point-to-point journey is the only salve for our souls. In this same book Chatwin exposes the reader to the model of music-as-a-map: that ancestral aborigines, absent written language or maps, evolved a lyrical addition to the oral tradition that included music as a cognitive map – the one and only way someone could remember their way though someone else’s memory of places and spaces was through song; a score conducted to notes and lyrics representing a vast geography and topography.

True or not, I love this notion, I love it with all my being: that music was the math and the legend behind ancient travel. Places, spaces, and paces metered out in a rhythm, meter and rhyme through the red sands and lost spaces of the Australian outback. Lose the pace, lose the chorus and your life is forfeit. Sunrises and sunsets assume stanzas for the complex composition while the distance sets the meter. The terrain creates the melody with pastoral scenes setting contrast with the intensity of the obstacles of caverns, jungle, mountains and wind.


It makes sense. If you have ever taken a memory test, you may have discovered that contrary to conventional thinking, the more detail, the more color, the more descriptive details you can add to an arbitrary list of words to remember, the greater propensity one has to remember it. Is the Chatwin précis too farfetched that the aborigines of Australia managed journeys across a giant continent using “songlines” of these descriptions, colors and rhythms?

I personally find this instinctual. Since my very first international trip – to Morocco, when I was 17 years old, I imagined the places I’d be – the cracked alleys, arid heights, the humid valleys, the salty ocean-sides and sand strewn desert abysses. I instinctively created a rhythm for the march ahead by recording customized playlists – at first with cassette tapes, then CD’s and now easily with an iPod playlist.


I explored Middle Eastern music as I explored Casablanca and its environs. In Italy a few years back I had 9-hour playlists that waxed and waned in intensity with the terrain. In Albania 3 years ago, I predicted the incredible suffering of the long climbs in the heat that became burned into my brain by building a musical playlist anchored to Peter Gabriel’s masterpiece, “The Passion” while studying Google maps in preparation. I did not need, nor use, a map on that trip – I “remembered” my way across the country.

In July 2012 my friend Gary Goebel and I cleverly solved the point-to-point paradox by using an Amtrak train as our mule. We saddled up our bikes into boxes aboard a locomotive and traveled from Columbus, Wisconsin, to Winona, Minnesota 250 miles away with the simple plan: ride back over the next 3 days.

I can’t overestimate how much I began to anticipate this trip. From the start, this point-to-point traverse began to take on something larger than its logistics would suggest. As it happens it also began to take on the unpredictability that makes for an adventure.


Our train was late. Hours late. Stranded before our start in central Wisconsin and Gary, as always was chipper and gregarious. In our wait, we explored Columbus. We met people. We talked to them. We found a pub. Jenny was a waitress at a brewpub who was on her way to California to join her boyfriend in San Francisco while taking a job working in the movement building/charitable industry training canvassers.  We were her last customers before her life was to change.


We boarded the train and I dropped off the front wheel I was carrying in luggage bin by the doors. Amtrak, on this route, required bikes to be boxed to go into the hold and I had managed to seal up my bike box and forget to include my front wheel. So, lazily I just decided to carry it onboard. This, as it turned out, was a mistake.


There is something about a shared journey that creates permission for conversation. Amtrak’s Empire builder to Winona that evening found an odd cast and crew in the view car where we settled in at the tables on the second floor deck and the glass ceilings as the sun set lighting up the cornfields.


There were 8 of us congregated in two tables: John and Gary, cyclists preparing for the ride across Wisconsin. Nate a tattoed 19 year old & recovering meth addict heading to Minot, North Dakota to take a job in the power company that would keep him from temptation. Billy a 52 year old self acknowledged “black red-neck” with a twang matching his missing front teeth enroute to Seattle. Terry a lanky and suave 21 year old Irishman exploring the states w/ a thick Irish brogue that oddly seemed to come and go with plain old American English. Hank a 46 year old transient with a beard resplendent of a civil war lieutenant complete w/ the hat and the accent, and then Natalie, a chubby 26 year drama teacher in a pink pantsuit that accentuated her extraordinarily round and cherubic figure almost like a balloon animal. Natalie was from Portland taking a 3 month sabbatical to explore the country via train. Finally there was the “quiet dude” who said nothing, but smiled a lot.

After the 3 hour train journey where box wine flowed and tongues were loosened, we were in good spirits when we disembarked in the dark in Winona to claim our bikes by the side of the quay. We opened our boxes and assembled our bikes as the train sped off into the distance. Suddenly, giddiness quickly turned to gloom. Somewhere out in the dark, carefully balanced in the luggage compartment of the Amtrack Empire Builder was my front wheel, fading with the noise of the train enroute to Seattle. Damn!

Gary rode slowly beside me without judgment in the gloom of midnight as I wheeled and wheelied my preying mantis of a bike the two miles to our motel. Time to improvise.

Friday we awoke to mild temperatures and optimism: perhaps I could “borrow” a wheel from the local shop and then send it back to them after the trip. Sure enough, Brian Williams at Adventure Cycle was able to hook me up with a Bontrager wheel upon opening at 10am for a nominal fee and the purchase of a tire and tube. We were on our way by 10:15, only an hour off schedule for what became a very long day.

We wended our way through foothills and along the Great River Path to LaCrosse for lunch, Irish pub fare on a sunny street corner before taking a quick nap by the river and heading out for a series of climbs enroute to Viroqua.

I’ve written before about the agony and ecstasy of long climbs, how a rhythm develops that overrides the initial suffering and how happiness and a sense of progress emerges as elevation gains provide views and perspective of the land below.

Over the next 7 hours we did 4 of these large climbs up from the Mississippi and for the first 3 I was on my game, thriving in the heat and rhythm, pedaling while watching the patterns of the leaves, the shiny coins of the flattened stones on the well worn road in the reflection of the sunlight, a caterpillar crawling in the damp of the shade. However time passed, and hours and miles later during the 4th climb happenstance found me bonking – it was 7:30pm , 90 miles in, and over 7 hours on the bike. I crawled like a hopeless insect up that final climb, topping out at 3 and 4 miles per hour as Gary waited patiently. I recovered a bit for the final 25 miles into Viroqua, but we arrived well after dark at 9pm covering over 115 miles, the longest ride of my life.

We ordered Pizza Hut pizza – a foregone luxury from our youth and burned the roofs of our mouths shoveling it in before heading out for a brief visit to the town nightlife in the form of the local VFW Post which was an odd mix of bikers, travelers, and greying ex-military.

The next day fed our peripatetic souls as we descended a grand and graceful valley of ever narrowing bluffs and farmland until the first of several steep climbs. We were thwarted by a sudden transition to dirt roads on a steep downhill but eventually made our way through softening terrain to the Dells, Wisconsin where we heralded a cultural experience that an Aussie would only describe as a passel of Bogans. A dozen or so bachelor or bachelorette parties made for interesting people watching, but our check-in to the hotel was also worthy of note.

(Grizzled cheap motel owner). “Nice day for a ride – Viroqua is a long one though. “OK, your room is on the ground floor around the corner.” Great, we say, we won’t have to carry our bikes up. (Note we are both wearing spandex, shaved legs etc.).

“Oh no, we have a special parking lot for your bikes - safe and secure.”

“Um, well we rode bicycles and we want to put them in the room.”

“What?! You rode bicycles all the way from Viroqua?”

Our final day we had an easy 55 miles to Columbus and despite being very tired, I found myself depressed that the expedition was over – I was wishing we had followed my wheel to Seattle and were making our way across the country, without a map, navigating by sight, sound and song, like the ancients did.