- Associated Press - Saturday, December 20, 2014

BROOKLINE, Mass. (AP) - On a July evening in 2012, Joe Foley stepped off the Amtrak Acela in Washington, D.C., and into pure freedom. He was 16 and on his own. Parents and teachers were hundreds of miles away.

It was his first solo vacation, and he was hooked. Later that summer, he traveled further still from his Newton home, first to Scotland, and then, San Francisco.

“Since then,” he said, “I just haven’t looked back.” Foley has taken eight more unaccompanied trips, including to Iceland, Armenia, South Korea, and Japan - twice.

This fall, National Geographic Traveler named him one of its 10 Travelers of the Year, along with a globe-trotting family of 11, including children with special needs, and a woman who went to Swaziland to make a documentary about rhinos. The magazine described Foley, now 18, as a high schooler “with a serious case of wanderlust.”

In an age when parents feel angst about letting their children walk to school alone, Foley’s parents have allowed their son exceptional freedom. This isn’t lost on his mother, Lucy Berrington, whose first response to her son’s request to travel alone more than two years ago was a more traditional “no.”

The teenager persisted. He argued that technology would keep him safe and as reachable as if he were in the same time zone.

“Today, especially with GPS maps, smartphones, and the Internet making safety information … readily available, a 16-year-old is safer traveling alone than in any other time in history,” he later wrote on his blog.

Berrington admits she’s far from a helicopter parent. She and her former husband are British, so they were accustomed to the idea of teenagers, a bit older than their son was, traversing Europe by train between high school and college, sleeping in youth hostels.

Berrington began to think that travel might be good for him. Foley has Asperger’s syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder that can complicate social interactions. His early years were filled with appointments, social groups, occupational therapy. She was ready to give him a little more autonomy.

Still, she was cautious. She warned Foley to be careful about discussing his strong views on politics or religion. And at first, she required her son to have a contact in each country where he traveled.

“I was asking on Facebook, ‘Does anyone know anyone in Prague or Budapest or Latvia?’?” Berrington said.

Foley chose Scotland as his first international solo trip because he could fly to northern England and spend his first night with his godmother, reassuring his mother. Then he took the train to Edinburgh.

Foley, now a senior at Brookline High School, stands 6 feet tall and carries himself with a seriousness that ages him. He speaks with little inflection, relying on words alone to convey his passion.

“I will never forget the first time I got off the train and tasted sushi in Japan,” he said. Everything about this meal was better: fresher fish, better rice, more choices, cheaper prices. “In Japan, they have conveyor belt sushi restaurants where you order your food on a screen.”

Editors at National Geographic Traveler were impressed by this enthusiasm, and also by how his travels changed his own views. He wrote in April 2013 about how his trips abroad made the world seem smaller: “I look up to the sky. I see the same sun that I saw at home. I see that we are (the) same species of people.”

“We were inspired by Joe’s journeys - for who he is, how he builds his itineraries, what questions he asks when he travels, and what lessons he returns home with,” said George Stone, editor at large of National Geographic Traveler. “And Joe reminded us of something else - the power of travel to break down barriers and enrich people along the way.”

Foley recognizes that he is fortunate to travel. His father, who lives in New York City, pays for his trips. “The fact is that, as much as I hate to say it, in the real world, money matters, and not everyone can afford to travel,” Foley wrote on his blog.

He argues that seeing other countries challenges the ideas he holds about his own, but he isn’t dogmatic: Travel isn’t the only way to enlightenment, he believes; others might find their own paths.

Abroad, Foley finds social freedom. He isn’t expected to know social customs or language. His love of maps, a common characteristic of people with Asperger’s, has helped him maneuver through Tokyo, Riga, and Helsinki.

He strays from well-worn tourist paths through Europe and Asia. He has hiked a volcano in Iceland and explored Estonia. Last summer, he spent a few weeks in South Korea.

“Everyone loves the Parises, the Romes, the Londons,” he said. “But I also love to see off-the-beaten-track.”

Along the way, he has found a cure for jet lag: no naps after his plane lands. “I usually just drink espresso so I don’t fall asleep the first day.” Then his body tends to adapt to the local time zone.

Japan was one of his favorite trips. He studied the language in high school. Now he is applying to college.

“Oh my God, Japan is amazing,” he said. “It’s very clean, very well-organized, great food, lots of things to do. The people are really nice.”

On his blog, he wrote: “The only thing I don’t like is the pollution. Many people wear masks because the air really does make you feel queasy when you breathe.”

Foley has long known he loved to travel. He has visited England, where he was born, with his parents and younger brother. On a 2011 trip to Crete with friends, Berrington remembers her older son often taking off on his own and finding adventures.

“He would come back with these stories,” she said. “‘I found a little tavern in the hills and nobody spoke English, so I had to speak Greek.’”

Berrington saw the benefits of travel for a boy who had sometimes struggled.

“Where he’s an obvious visitor, Aspergerian differences can become just an indistinct piece of the foreignness,” she wrote in an essay for Brain, Child magazine. “He’s navigated an alien culture his whole life: travelling is his escape from the everyday stress of trying to pass.”

His quest for independence, however, is absolute: He declines his mother’s offers to drive him to the subway station, where he takes the Green Line toward Logan.

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