On Travel Beards

A two-month beard. Taken in Jerusalem, Israel.
A two-month beard. Taken in Jerusalem, Israel.

I DECIDED LONG BEFORE this journey began that I would not shave until this trip is finished. It was a silly and useless oath, but something to hold onto and a barometer of progress beyond simply maintaining this blog and tracking how much money I bleed. Each day I do not cut my facial hair is one more day I can claim to have lived homelessly, joblessly and independently. It is a scraggly badge I wear proudly on my face.

Besides, every other male traveller (and a small percentage of females) has a travel beard. The most obvious justification is that “it’s easy”; why bother spending the time and money? It’s not like you’re seeing anyone you know from Real Life; you’ve no one to impress, except maybe a significant other, and mine actually prefers the scruff.

So beards start tracking your distance and, consequently, your worth as a traveller: a man with only light fuzz has surely not been on the road for very long.

Perhaps a very wizened traveller? Taken in Belgrade, Serbia.
Perhaps a very wizened traveller? Taken in Belgrade, Serbia.

But why hair? No one looks at the length of a traveller’s fingernails and says, “Now there’s a dude whose seen things.” Fingernails mean nothing at all. Out of sheer apathy I’d probably let mine grow hideously long if V did not insist I cut them at least once a month, and I comply because who bothers to make an oath about not trimming one’s fingernails for four months of travel? That shit’s gross.

But hair, that stuff transcends. Directors quit shaving until a movie is finished; hockey players vow the same during playoffs. Walt and Jesse both grew beards during the final episodes of Breaking Bad, and that’s when we knew shit got real.

In short, the very act of beard growth itself, in some way, is an act of movement, representative of a journey—a form of travel.

Self-consciously trying to prove my manliness despite beardlessness.
Self-consciously trying to prove my manliness despite beardlessness after two weeks on the road. Taken at Borobudur, Indonesia.

But let’s say you didn’t know that hockey players grow beards and you’ve never seen Breaking Bad. You see a beard walking down the street with legs and a flannel shirt attached. What’s this guy saying to the world? There are two main interpretations, I think: manliness and openness.

Personally, I tend towards the pretentious and arrogant notion of travel that we associate with the image of a dude with a beard and a backpack and, in the worst extremes, a dirty bandana or ratty shirt. Words like “adventurous” or “wild” or “Bears Grylls” spring to mind, and even though Mr. Grylls is actually quite clean-shaven, he has a beard in our minds, I mean, my God, just his name sounds like “grizzled”, and is there anybody more representative of the manly modern traveller?

Mr. Grylls, who transcends beardom.

V sees things differently. She assumes most bearded travellers are “hippies who like yoga and vegetarians,” which is kind of the exact opposite of the gruff man I envision. Hair is counterculture. The dreadlocked Europeans one sees walking in baggy hemp pants to their living mandala yoga classes, their hands full of organic chai teas and didgeridoos, likely sport scruff as a signifier of how free and open-minded they are.

For my part, I like to think I fall under neither category, though in truth—and this involves hacking away at he stereotypes outlined above—I fall at least partially into both, but neither really explains the beard. Rather, the reason is petty and vain: I just look older with facial hair. I feel more grown-up. I don’t want to look young and fresh when tuk-tuk touts approach me; I don’t want muggers to see a clean-shaven kid with glasses when I walk down the street. It is the most basic form of self-conscious, animalistic mask-wearing there is.

And yet, at the end of the day, I wonder just how many other travellers care about the stereotypes of machismo and yoga, and how many feel the way I do. Maybe I’m misjudging the world harshly, and most guys do, in fact, see themselves as wandering boys a long way from home.

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