By Dave Ongie, News Editor
Back in 1959, an Australian country singer by the name of Geoff Mack wrote a song that would later be reworked into a No. 1 hit in America by Hank Snow. The song is called, “I’ve Been Everywhere.”
But as Johnson City native Haley Woods gazed out across the Sydney Harbour in Mack’s home country on a warm night last December, Mack had nothing on her. Last year alone, Woods visited all seven continents, including Antarctica (twice). That much travel in such a short time isn’t for everyone, but for Woods, it was pure nirvana.
Woods is the founder of a Facebook group called Girls LOVE Travel, which boasts over 730,000 members from every corner of the globe. The thriving online community was born out of Woods’ passion for travel, which has led her to adopt a lifestyle most folks would call nomadic, although Woods bristles at that term.
“I like to use the term location-independent,” Woods said. “It’s better. Not so humdrum.”
Those who knew Woods during her days growing up in Johnson City know “humdrum” isn’t a word that applies to her. With an oversized personality, a creative spirit and the unique talent of contortion, Woods always stood out from the crowd. Her skills as a contortionist landed her on the Late Show with David Letterman, where she managed to cajole a letter of recommendation from the late-night television star when she was in the process of applying to New York University.
Woods was admitted to NYU and enjoyed her time in New York City. She worked at the famed FAO Schwarz toy store, did some work for MTV and started honing her skills in marketing and promotion. But as Woods was closing in on graduation, she was tempted by an opportunity to study abroad. Knowing their daughter’s burning desire to travel, her mother Chris and her father – the late Carl “Buzzy” Woods – put the brakes on her overseas adventure.
“My mom and dad basically said, ‘You know, if you go and study abroad, we don’t think that you’ll come back,’ ” Woods recalled. “So I finished my degree, and then I went to Australia. I was only going to go to Australia for three months, but sure enough, I went to Australia, dropped my return ticket and I stayed for almost a year.”
Woods traces her desire to travel back to a kindergarten classroom at Towne Acres, where she brought her grandmother in for show-and-tell one day. Woods’ grandmother was a missionary nurse, and she brought photos and some musical instruments from a recent trip to Kenya to share with the kids. Woods said hearing her grandmother talk about her travels and being able to play with instruments that children in Africa had played with opened her eyes the possibility of going on her own adventures.
“Being able to see that there was a world beyond Johnson City, that’s such a key,” Woods said.
The same adventurous spirit that propelled Woods to the other side of the world following her college graduation earned her an unplanned trip home. A jump off a rock cliff in New Zealand resulted in a compound fracture of Woods’ back, forcing her to spend a full year in Johnson City confined to her bed as she waited for the bones to fuse.
“It was a definite change of pace because I went from a person that could go and touch the back of my heels as easy as I could touch my toes to having my mom help me put my socks on,” she said.
While bed rest in 2019 might not sound that bad with Netflix, social media and a litany of apps and gadgets to occupy your time, Woods said bed rest back in 2001 was a bit, well, humdrum. She recalls spending her days filling out sweepstakes entries.
“I think out of the hundreds of sweepstakes I entered, I won like one case of chewing gum,” Woods said with a laugh.
But Woods also gained some valuable perspective that year. After spending her childhood wondering why she was blessed with the ability to contort her body, she quickly came to appreciate the gift of flexibility that spared her permanent injury.
“I realized that the reason I had my ability of contortion is so that I’m not talking to you today in a wheelchair,” Woods said. “All the doctors agree that had I not been as strong and flexible in my back, it wouldn’t have been able to (absorb) that injury.”
Once her back was healed, Woods spent some time in Los Angeles, where she did some acting and voice work that earned her a handful of film credits. But she soon got involved in marketing, which led to a far less adventurous type of travel. Woods worked her way from one city to the next with each Holiday Inn Express looking the same as the last. She made an effort to explore the different cities she was in, but found that way of life to be tremendously isolating.
“I would just wake up, go to work, come back to the hotel and that would be my lifestyle,” she said. “I might go to the hotel gym or something, but it was becoming lonely in that I wasn’t seeing anybody.”
Without a home base – Woods says she hasn’t owned a pillow or paid rent since 2011 – she yearned for community, and went to Facebook in search of it. Her passion is travel, but wading through a timeline full of Kardashians, cat pictures and assorted rants finally led her to start her own Facebook group dedicated to travel.
“So I took a chance and started this group with about 40 people that I knew that were interested (in travel) and just would always talk about it,” Woods said.
Woods started Girls LOVE Travel on Dec. 30, 2015, with the goal of connecting women who shared her passion. By March of 2016, the group had attracted 20,000 members, and that number jumped to 200,000 by January of 2017. As of Monday morning, Girls LOVE Travel boasted 733,000 members, and Woods estimates it is growing by an average of 20,000 members per month.
In this age of self-branding, most CEOs and creators feel the need to be the face of whatever endeavor they launch, but Woods is content keeping a low profile in the group she started.
“We have, on average, 800 new members a day, and most of them don’t know me,” Woods said. “It’s more about the community getting to know each other.”
In the end, the community that has sprung up in the confines of Girls LOVE Travel is everything Woods has always longed for. On many occasions, a large contingent of GLTers has joined Woods on a group trip. Such was the case last March when Woods and her mother Chris joined five other mother-daughter pairs on a memorable trip to Egypt.
But with members in over 100 countries, the sense of isolation Woods used to feel when she traveled alone has been washed away. Whether she’s in a restaurant in Japan, a coffee shop in Italy, or even the British post office in Port Lockroy, Antarctica, there is almost always at least one group member there to share a conversation.
“It’s this randomness of not knowing when I’m going to meet up with somebody in my community and knowing that I can post that I’m going to be any place, any time, and most of the time I’ll be able to find somebody that I can talk to,” Woods said. “Anywhere you go, you feel kind of at home because you’ve got people.
“We often say you may travel alone, but you’re never lonely.”