Posted February 27, 2013 by Steve McDonald in Country

A Dream Deferred: The End of Backpackology?

When I finally penned my response to Men’s Journal (at three in the morning) (over one week late), I was sitting amongst cockroaches on my hotel room floor, stripped down to my underwear, high as a rocket ship on mysterious Chinese amphetamines.

I stared dumbly at the prompt.

QUESTION ONE:How did you muster the courage to up and leave for such a long trip?”

After an hour of voracious pen tapping and teeth grinding, all I managed to doodle was a single thought in the margin. “Chairman Mao was the original hipster.”

I could feel my heart beating in my ears.

QUESTION ONE:How did you muster the courage–”


Two months ago, I would have happily waxed inspirational, but that was before the Dongdaemun incident changed everything. That was before fate put an end to my blogging and I was forced to abandon all of my hopes and aspirations for Backpackology. Since then, I hadn’t been feeling particularly inspirational.

My teeth chattered.


I feel like a coward, a fraud.

I feel like an Alanis Morissette song.

I feel like unless Men’s Journal is taking their publication in a dramatically new direction, a mistake has been made.

I pictured their next issue; flipping past all the athletic workout tips, past the classy cologne ads in black-and-white, then, “Travel Tips from a Guy Strung Out on Amphetamines in a Chinese Hotel Room.”

I feel unhinged.

During the incident, the mugger unwittingly took a bag containing my crazy pills that keep me tethered to earth.

I feel myself unraveling.


I feel like I have so much to explain, to confess, but am utterly incapable of articulating a single word.

Where to begin…


I’ve recently spent a great deal of time indulging the notions of chance, fate, serendipity, and chaos—the possibility that the most profound, irrevocable events of our lives are set into motion by the tiniest, most seemingly insignificant actions. I can trace the chain of events leading up to the Dongdaemun incident all the way back to an Instagram photo of kimchi being posted to Facebook by a relative stranger. I’m convinced that photo changed my life.

“Happy Thanksgiving,” the caption read. The tray of kimchi jjigae in the photo belonged to a girl that I didn’t know at the time named Grace Dietrich, but whom, due to chance/fate/serendipity/chaos, I would soon become good friends with. At that time, Grace had added me on Facebook simply because she enjoyed following my blog.

“Kimchi!! Are you in Korea? I’m in Seoul!” I commented on the stranger’s photo.

It turned out that Grace was in Seoul. She was a teacher there and she already knew about my Korean food tour. After a brief exchange of messages, she invited to take me to a restaurant serving the notorious Jeju Black Pork.

If you’re unfamiliar with Jeju Black Pork, it is one of the rare food traditions that involve raising an animal on an extreme, peculiar diet—similar to how some Japanese cows are raised on nothing but beer and massages. Except these unfortunate Jeju ‘black’ pigs are fed nothing but human shit for their entire lives. In fact, traditional outhouses on Jeju Island used to be built on stilts over the pigpens, so that the pigs could lap up all the tasty feces as they fell. I’m not sure what inspired this custom, but I found it just enchanting.

Sadly, Jeju Black Pork is a dying practice in Korea, only practiced by a handful of twisted individuals in Seoul and Jeju Island. But Grace said she knew a place. I immediately cancelled all my plans to join her for dinner.

The Black Pork was fan-tastic.

Even more fantastic was the company of Grace and her boyfriend Diego, who were both charmingly accommodating, intelligent, and funny. We ended up getting lost in conversation over drinks for several hours.


If I hadn’t seen that photo of kimchi, I wouldn’t have met Grace and Diego for dinner. If I hadn’t met Grace and Diego for dinner, I wouldn’t have drank rice wine for four hours. If I hadn’t drank rice wine, I wouldn’t have gotten lost heading back to my friend’s apartment. If I hadn’t gotten lost

On the night of November 25th, when I wandered into Dongdaemun at around 1:30AM, I should mention that my life was in a markedly different place than it is today.

In that moment, it seemed my time and effort invested in Backpackology was finally starting to pay off. Earlier that month, the site ranked in’s Top 10 Editor’s Picks. Traffic was climbing. I made the leap to self-hosting and Backpackology was being featured on travel sites, blogs, podcasts, and newspaper print. An Emmy Award-Winning production company based in L.A. even inquired about possibly developing a show. I was humbled, happy, hopeful, and terrified. Chasing my dreams to Asia seemed to be paying off.

And then, at 2AM, I was mugged of nearly every possession I owned.

The mugger took my wallet and my backpack. He took my camera. He took my laptop. He took my software and equipment. He took my medicine. He took my clothes. He took my hard-drives, my notebooks, and months upon months’ worth of photos, articles, and tireless, irrecoverable work.

The police report estimated the loss at $4,500, but the most valuable things that were lost could never have been given a price tag. What kills me is that the most valuable things probably mean nothing to whoever owns them now.

The proceeding days were spent filing police reports, cursing my useless insurance rep “*~*Meghan*~*~”, and eating ice cream between catatonic states of despair.

When I finished venting the story to my friend Amanda, she asked, “So does this mean you’re done writing?”

I fell silent. I didn’t have an answer.

Because I live on less than $20 per day, replacing just the basic equipment needed to run Backpackology would cost several months’ worth of budget.

A handful of readers suggested I apply for a fundraiser with Kickstarter (a program where artists can find financial backing for their projects), but I demurred, afraid that it might come across as tasteless begging as a means of extending a vacation.

From where I stood, the road ahead of me was split in two ways: I could replace the equipment, shave several months off my journey, and sacrifice my dream of traversing Asia. Or I could abandon my hopes for Backpackology and travel writing, thank my readers for being so supportive, and seize this last opportunity to explore the world.

“I need to think about it,” I told Amanda.

Mondays and Wednesdays were always strict writing days. But that Monday morning I went to the 7-11, bought a beer, and began walking west on Jong-ro Street. I didn’t know where the road would take me, but I just walked and walked for hours, past parks, temples, and acrid fish markets, until my feet ached and it was dark. It was almost 9PM when I finally caught a bus back to my friend’s apartment.

That was nearly two months ago.

I haven’t written since.

“Hey Steve. Men’s Journal would love to have a profile of you. Have time to chat in the next week?” stated the e-mail.

When my nervous giggling fit subsided, I wondered —Why now? What prompted this?

For the previous two months, Backpackology had been a dead site—I had been busy gallivanting south across China.

Although ‘gallivanting’ isn’t the appropriate word.

Liberated from the pressure to provide entertainment, my adventures took on a new theme, and I mostly just drank beer in a chair. The scenery and circumstances varied, but me sitting down in a chair with a pint of terrible Chinese beer remained constant for the most part.

One time I drank beer in a chair in an old Shanghai Tea House.  Another time it happened in a bamboo forest. Another time it was in a strange Chinese Midget Theme Park, where employees with dwarfism were paid to live in concrete mushroom houses and sing songs. Not once in sixty days did I ever have an article to finish, a mountain of photos to edit, or an adventure to research.

Frankly, it had been hell.

After months spent breathing my soul into Backpackology—after endless challenges, victories, near-death encounters, and all-nighters spent banging away at the keyboard in squalid hotel rooms—its sudden absence made the passage of weeks feel less meaningful; the days, unimportant. It felt like a breakup. Like the mugger had not only stolen my things, but my lifestyle, my career, and my very ambition. When Men’s Journal sent me the interview questionnaire, what excited me most was the chance to have a creative outlet once again.

This could be it. I couldn’t afford to screw this up. I told my interviewer that I would fill out the questions immediately.

“I’m sure you’ll do a great job,” he assured me, and I thanked him.

… And then I proceeded to procrastinate for an entire week, avoiding his e-mails and the questionnaire like it was an overdue prostate exam.

As if that wasn’t enough, I managed to make the situation infinitely worse yet…

I had convinced myself that I couldn’t write without replacing my stolen Adderall prescription—an illegal substance in most countries, but I figured this was China. Everything’s legal in China.

“Meiyo! Meiyo!” apologized the pharmacist, offering me a consolation bottle of Ritalin.

“No,” I shook my head.

The old man frowned. Then, “Ah-HAH!” He produced another bottle, announcing its name. It looked shady. It definitely was not Adderall.

I stared incomprehensibly.

The old pharmacist repeated the name, then began violently slapping his heart while bulging his eyes open. This charade lasted a few seconds, before he concluded with a big grin and thumbs-up.

I bought two blister packs.

It took several hours of fidgeting, sweating, and dazedly humming “Love You Like A Love Song” over and over again to myself before I could finally wrest control over the drugs (which were likely some form of speed or PMI).

I stood up, abruptly sat back down, scribbled “I want to punch Selena Gomez in the mouth. Right in the mouth,” before something in my head snapped and everything began flowing out of me—two months worth of pent up thoughts and ideas and crazy that could finally find expression. It was like purging. The scratching of the pen was therapy, soothing and liberating.

I don’t know how long I wrote and I only faintly remember stopping. By the time I finished my response, sunlight was starting to creep through the windows and I was in an alternate, cracked-out state of consciousness.

The journalist didn’t respond at first.

A day passed.

Then two days, as my paranoia mounted. I realized my drug-induced opus probably read like the ramblings of a meth addict. I was so satisfied when I finished that I sent it without giving a second thought.

I finally got my response on day three: just three crisp lines.

“I don’t think it needs to be shortened… Looks pretty good. I’m gonna talk to the editor and see what’s what.”

Today will define the next chapter of my life.

I’m on a small island in the Gulf of Thailand. My younger brother is here too; he calls it paradise. I, however, have never been particularly fond of beaches and my porcelain, Geisha skin is no match for the Southeast Asian sun. So while he’s off enjoying the sand and surf, I am drinking beer in a chair.

I’ve also been scribbling away in a notebook. It’s the first time I’ve written anything for my site in over two months. It’s way too long, it’s overdue, it isn’t perfect, but I needed to write it. I needed to write about everything. I just needed to write something.  

I feel invigorated, inspired.

I feel like I’ve fixed something important.

I feel like I’ve just had wall-banging make-up sex.

I don’t know how this story ends yet.

I don’t know if Backpackology will rise from the ashes; I’m still without my equipment and everything seems uncertain. But what I can tell you is that I’m going to try to start writing again. At least for a couple weeks, to see if I can make things work. This is will be my one, final stand.

I’ve just been approved for a fundraiser with Kickstarter, attempting to raise enough funds to replace the stolen equipment needed to resurrect the site and share my adventures with you once again. As an incentive (and to keep things fun and interesting), I am offering a range of prizes and “unique opportunities” to anyone who enjoys the site and would like to contribute, even if it’s only a few bucks.

I figured I have nothing left to lose.

At the end of the day if I don’t reach my goal, at least I’ll be satisfied in knowing that my dream didn’t go down without one last stubborn death rattle.

I feel humbled.

I don’t write as a means to travel.

I feel hopeful.

I travel as a means to write.

I feel like getting out of this chair and having an adventure.

I feel buoyant on the warm, South Pacific breeze. 


Kickstarter has granted me thirty days to raise funds, so if you enjoy the site and would like to see it continue, any donations are greatly appreciated, even if it’s only a couple of bucks. The goal of this fundraiser is to replace the stolen equipment needed to resurrect and revamp the project, so that Backpackology can continue to bring readers like you to the most strange and wonderful corners of the globe. Help save Backpackology! Thanks for the support, and thank you for reading!! Check out Backpackology’s Kickstarter page here.

To hear the genesis of Backpackology, check out “Stepping Off The Edge.”

For tips on how to travel on $20 per day, check out the “Budgetometer.”

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Steve McDonald

Writer and photographer. Adventurer and didactic prick. Guru of globetrotting, sensei of savings. PhD in ADHD. Staunch opponent of the mundane. Avid fan of sunrises, playing with fire, and pretending to know what I’m talking about. Casual existentialist. Bus stop gypsy. Dirty jeans, plastic sunglasses, whimsical death wish. Rudyard Kipling on mushrooms. Smells of goat.