In one of my earliest memories, I am in Long Beach Island, New Jersey and my father is about shave his mustache. He'd maintained a robust, Selleck-like ‘stache during much of my early childhood, and was the proud owner of a notable beard for years before that. It was one of his defining physical characteristics back then and his decision to shave was therefore a seminal event in the life of me and my siblings. He became a clean-shaven man that afternoon ((He initially shaved only the left half of the mustache and came downstairs asking “Should I keep it like this?” My sister and I objected immediately and marched him back upstairs, I think my little brother thought it was all very silly. I realize now that he was joking with us, of course, but I remember thinking at the time “Half a mustache? What is he thinking?? Geez, Mom and Dad would be so lost if we weren't here.”)) but, before he did so, I remember thinking that one day I’d adopt a similar look. I’d grow out some substantial facial hair – a lumberjack beard, or maybe a pirate goatee – just as soon as I was old enough. Now seems like a good time.
I am not alone in trying out new facial hair options. Indeed, the traveler’s beard is nearly as associated with the road as the pack or the map. However, while beards have long been linked to the wandering, I believe the reasoning behind this vagabond/beard bond has gradually changed over the years.
Part One: Practicality
In the exploring days, the bearded look was borne of circumstance. It simply wasn't feasible for a man to keep clean-shaven during months at sea or in the woods, and there were generally few women around to impress anyway. Life was hard and there were far more critical things to worry about. More importantly, a good beard came with many needed benefits – it kept you warm and your face protected from the harsh elements of the wild. To shave regularly was both extremely inconvenient and simply not a good traveling practice. For the explorer-traveler, a beard made sense on multiple levels.
Part Two: Making a Statement
Those explorers, gleefully sporting big bushy beards in black-and-white pictures at the North Pole or the source of the Nile, mapped the world. Their achievement, along with advances in technology, allowed privileged (mostly Western) masses of curious people to explore it. While each person has their own reasons for long-term travel, a binding thread throughout personal travel philosophies is some kind of rejection of conventional society. People fed up with the status quo of their hometowns left to see how other people lived. A few decades ago, as jet technology truly opened up the world, a large and influential group of these travelers were hippies. The traversed India and Asia and wandered around Europe, learning about the world and “finding themselves”. And though they no longer provided a significant physical benefit (few of the ‘new age’ travelers were exploring extreme terrains), many of the men kept beards. The clean-shaven look was associated with military and corporate structures, long-hair and beards were uniforms of the counter-culture. Thus, the traveler beard transformed from a highly useful physical attribute to a proud identifier of liberalness and “free thinking”.
Part Three: Pure Experimentation
Which brings us to the present. Few among us are trekking enough that a beard is helpful in battling the elements. And travelers, as a whole, remain liberally-orientated but are probably not as politically-motivated as our hippie-traveler forefathers (plus, the beard is hardly the counter-culture icon it was once was.) With electric shavers and comfortable hostel bathrooms almost everywhere, it’s easy to remain clean-shaven if you so choose. And yet the traveler beard remains. The majority of male travelers I meet have some kind of facial hair, many haven’t shaved in months. What continues to keep facial hair in fashion among the wanderers?
For one, there is an element of pure laziness. When all structure and schedule are eliminated from your life, priorities quickly become rearranged. Besides apathy, the ubiquity of the beard is also partially a nod to the past. Every traveler wishes, on some level, that we could be those explorers of old, going someplace exotic that no man has ever been. Many also continue to identify with the hippies and view traveling as a way to conscientiously object to the politics or societal norms of home. So we’re all explorer-hippies in our own way and the beard is a way to partially express that. But I think there’s a new motivating element in keeping the beard – experimentation. Now, many travelers feel, is the time to indulge in the reckless and crazy and unknown. People treat modern backpacking as a kind of alternate reality, as if a defined correlation exists between geographical distance from home and the consequences of any choice. They skydive and get tattoos and drink too much because they feel this is their time to be free. They know they will have no history here. For male travelers, the beard is a small, almost subconscious, extension of that thinking. In essence, it's not about the beard. The same motivations are behind a brunette traveling as a blonde, a straight-laced school teacher dabbling in illegal temptations, even a regularly bearded man finally shaving his beard. It's the difference, the newness, the freedom to try things in an exciting new environment that's constantly changing - a new start is just a bus ride away. It's like we're all playing a massive video game and we all have unlimited lives. Everyone is just mashing all the buttons at once, seeing what happens, emboldened by a total lack of consequence. It’s no longer about the “why”, ((Like it was for the hippie-travelers)) it’s about the “why not?”
We are not men of the wild, instead we spend much of our time in relatively comfortable surroundings. We are not social activists, besides a general dislike of conservatism, we’re not trying to prove a collective point. We’re simply feeling liberated, and are not sure when the next time we’re going to have a few months of total freedom is going to be. When else am I going to be able to grow out this ‘beard’ ((Or a patchy half-goatee, or whatever it is)), no matter how scraggly it may be? A beard may seem an inconsequential thing but, when you see just how prevalent they are among this group, I think it says something relevant about the fraternity of modern travelers. Now is the time to do things you've never done before and may not have a chance to do back home. Growing out a beard is just one more act that fits that simple, essential criteria.
Unfortunately, it seems that I may not have inherited my father’s ability to quickly grow out a manly display of facial hair. ((Close friends still call me ‘Baby Ev’, a nickname leftover from our puberty years, when everyone first started shaving.)) Yet, even though I’m not sure if I’ll ever grow a beard to rival my father or Shackleton or Let-It-Be era McCartney, I do know that now is the time to find out. ((Yes, this post could have also been titled "The Traveler Beard: a Self-Indulgent Over-Investigation Into Why Many Travelers Have Beards"))