I always knew my friend Christopher Elliott was a traveler. But I didn't know he was a nomad. And I was surprised to learn he had his three kids in tow.
Granted, we're not talking about driving a herd of sheep through mountain passes to higher pastures. No, Elliott and his tribe travel by car, plane or boat and stay in a collection of vacation homes or hotels.
Elliott is one of my go-to sources when I have a tough travel problem. He and I have worked on travel consumer issues for more than a decade, including the TSA, resort fees, travel scams, airline customer service (or lack thereof) and other issues about what's right, what's fair and the definition of a good deal. Along the way, we became friends.
I called him last week in Florida, just to make sure he hadn't been washed away in the storm surge from Hurricane Irma. Surprisingly, he was being tossed about on a tour boat in Resurrection Bay near Seward. The phone connection was pretty bad, but we managed to set a time to visit in Anchorage. Then he told me, "I don't live in Florida anymore. In fact, I don't live anywhere."
We met for breakfast earlier this week. Elliott had taken the kids up to Denali for a few days. After some meetings in Anchorage, the gang is headed to Juneau to catch a cruise. The kids, Erysse, 10, Iden, 12, and Aren, 15, were looking at the menu when Iden asked our server, "How old is the sourdough?" I'm pretty sure it was the first time she had been asked about the sourdough starter, but she recovered quickly and offered to go and check with the chef.
"Iden is our foodie," said Elliott. "He remembers places by the food he discovers." Iden then chimed in about his favorite dish from Portland, Oregon. "There was this food truck in downtown Portland called Taco Yaki that served up a ball of fried octopus with some special sauce," he said. "Delicious!"
This exchange pleased Elliott, who wants his kids to take full advantage of their time on the road. "I just think that going somewhere to see and experience something is better than reading about it," he said.
Elliott didn't stumble upon the travel beat by accident. He grew up in Europe and during high school he attended a new school each year. "I never stayed put," he said. Between then and now he's covered travel issues for National Geographic, for Travel and Leisure and as a syndicated columnist. "I've been flirting with adventure my whole life," he said.
Still, it's one thing to work a regular job and write about travel. It's something else to be a full-time highway vagabond. Add "single dad with three kids" to the mix and it's another thing altogether.
"After 26 years of living in the suburbs, I knew all along that I was a nomadic person. This is just me going back to who I am," he said. Still, he confessed, "the stress of being on the road can be disruptive."
In addition to his work for newspapers and magazines, Elliott maintains a consumer advocacy site with a focus on travel, Elliott.org. And he also has a website devoted to his family's travel adventures: AwayIsHome.com. Since mid-April, the Elliotts have traveled to Gulf Shores, Ala.; New Orleans; San Antonio; Albuquerque; Arizona; San Diego; and Squaw Valley. From there, it was off to San Francisco; Reno; Bend; Lincoln City and Portland (home of the fried octopus), Ore.; Olympia and Whidbey Island in Washington; and up to Alaska.
Although he has traveled internationally and plans to do more in the future, Elliott says about 80 percent of their travel is in the U.S. "With young kids, I wanted to play it safe. It was a little nerve-wracking to be in Kenya during the elections," he confessed.
Iden loved his sourdough pancakes, just as his server promised. As he was getting down to the last bite, I still was shaking my head about the logistics of three kids: their education, their friends and Elliott's ability to work on his own projects while traveling.
"This was not a decision I made on my own," said Elliott. "From their perspective, travel is great. They're being tutored for about three hours a day, in addition to independent reading. They're seeing great places," he said. "They chose full-time travel over life in the suburbs."
"Plus," he added, "since I don't have a home, I'm at home wherever I am. Today, Anchorage is my home."
Because Elliott has worked for years as a consumer advocate for travelers, his full-time roadie status means he sees more travel problems, more often.
"I call this field research," he chuckles. Part of that research is to see how his kids react to a constantly changing environment. "This adventure makes them more tolerant and inquisitive," he said. "It definitely makes them more interesting."
"My kids have not complained about not having friends. When we were in Denali, we were invited to visit with some mushers at a fundraiser. There was a food truck and the kids loved the pizza. And in five minutes they were playing with the new friends they'd made," he said.
I asked if there was an overarching mission for his quest. "Oh, we don't have a motto or mission statement," he said with a laugh. "We'll think of one later." Still, he's drilling down on history, culture and geography with the kids.
"I have my own reasons. This is something I truly enjoy. But remember, I cover consumer travel issues," he said.
What's next for the Elliotts after Alaska? "Well, first we're headed to Arizona to see my folks. Then, it's off to China and Australia. We're just going to keep going until someone tells us we can't anymore," he said.
Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based marketing consultant, serving clients in the transportation, hospitality, media and specialty destination sectors, among others. Contact him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter (@alaskatravelGRM) and alaskatravelgram.com. For more information, visit alaskatravelgram.com/about.