Sometimes Life Really Is Kitties and Rainbows

I knew traveling solo would have an expiration date. Knew there’d come a moment when the glamor of this trip would be overshadowed by the uncomfortable reality of vagabondery.

But knowing a season will eventually come to an end is no reason to not embark in the first place. So I left all familiarity and set out. Just me and the open road.

Turns out, my expiration date was seven months, five days, 31 cities, and 38 different beds after the trip began. Approximately.

The expiration started when I was making my way back down Highway 1 a few weekends ago. I stopped in the in a valley to explore a black sand beach with Pacific waves crashing and driftwood scattered. Felt the sun cut through the sharp breezes coming in.

As I walked, barefoot back to my car, a pair of beach-goers smiled at me. A retired couple, leather-skinned and Hawaiian-shirted. Noticing my license plate, they commented, voices raised over the waves, “From Missouri, hey? You’ve come a long way.”

Exchanging small talk has been a skill set I’ve honed to an art form, and I gladly engaged. I take conversation where I can get it these days.

A few pleasantries in, the husband nonsequitured, “So, how come you’re alone?” His wife batted him on the arm, feigning embarrassment, but she cocked her head, curious.

The conversation skipped a beat. “Oh, because I want to be.” My voice came out as a chirp, a bit higher, tinny through the smile I had plastered on my face.

How come you’re alone?

The question echoed after I got back in my car and wound around another bend. A question sounding an awful lot like “What’s wrong with you?”

“Why am I alone?! None of your damn business, that’s why! And wipe that smug smile off your face, mister!” I muttered to my empty car, revising my too-polite answer.

I’d said I wanted to be alone. Was that accurate? Did I want to be traveling alone down Highway 1? What had left me giddy and overwhelmed when I started my trip now seemed lackluster this time around. I kept having the unwanted but persistent hunch that these sweeping views of the California coastline, these quirky towns, and opportunities for adventure would’ve been so much richer if I’d had a friend with me.

How come you’re alone?

“Good question. I’ve been asking myself the same thing.”

I chose this lifestyle. I decided to go on this adventure in pursuit of what makes me feel most alive. But also, this whole thing has been a search for belonging. I know the long stretches of solitude have been an integral part of finding belonging.

So it’s not being alone making me feel lonely. Loneliness is a function of not feeling known, and I’d just spent three weeks jumping from one hostel to another AirBnB, coexisting with strangers in the cheapest accommodations I could scrounge up. Trying to remain present with hostile hosts and awkward hostel dwellers.

After those three weeks, and a few days after the conversation with Hawaiian-Shirt Couple, I arrived with my diminished bravery to the small coastal town I’d be housesitting in for 18 days. In a home tucked in the woods, completely by myself. What would’ve felt like an introvert’s dream come true now felt like solitary confinement.

I contemplated just driving right through the town and turning east. Making a beeline back to my familiar Midwest. But I didn’t. I found the house and brought my suitcases in. My host drove away, entrusting her beloved kitty, Miss Fitty to me. 

I laid in bed that night, and reread the email my friend Kamina had sent the day before. In response to my bleak descriptions of my lonely existence, she had this to say:

“You know what? I’m only a little bit sad that you’re tiring of travelling alone, and mostly glad.  What I mean is, I really feel for you in your current isolation, and it’s unfortunate that you have several more weeks to get through – but how sweet to have sucked everything you can out of the experience of solo travel, and to have a new season coming just when you’ve exhausted this one.”

I supposed she was right. I tried to trust the ironic timing of things. But the next day brought kind of wet coldness that seeps into your bones, mirroring and amplifying my mood. So much for The Sunshine State. I spent the day trying to chase the gloomy mood away, staying close to the space heater and making feeble attempts to be productive.

After dinner, I sat down to my nightly ritual of Netflix and water coloring. Glancing out the window, I happened to see the indigo color of the sky through the trees. While it was still drizzling, the droplets came down as golden beads.

Sunshine and rain. My favorite weather combination. I dropped my paintbrush, threw on my raincoat, and hopped in the car. At a break in the trees, I glimpsed what I’d been hoping for. A big double rainbow, bridging over half of the sky. More vibrant than I’d ever seen.

The road led down to the ocean and the sky was a gallery of glory. Billowing cumulonimbus clouds still releasing precipitation to the north, clear skies revealing a sunset over the ocean. And all of nature had that bright, saturated hue that comes right after the rain.

With the fervor of a storm chaser, I drove, trying to glimpse the best views of ocean and rainbow, sunset and storm. I found a park, and sat on top of a picnic table, trying to soak in as much as I could. I laughed out loud as my reality hit me.

My life quite literally is kitties and rainbows right now.

This paradox of storm and sunshine mirrored my life. I remembered what I’ll probably need to be reminded of for the rest of my life. All of this is part of it! The bad day, the tears, the coming to the end of myself. This is what I signed up for when I decided to live a vibrant life! This too is part of being fully alive! I don’t want to shy away from the hard parts. I want to receive it all.

So, how come I’m alone?

Because this is my story. And it’s a good one.

When Bravery Runs Dry On The Oregon Trail

I woke up to a rooster crowing. An actual rooster, announcing the rising sun greeted me in the sloped roof upstairs bedroom of a geodesic home on the same property as a winery I’d booked on AirBnB.

I’ve been zig-zagging my way through the Pacific Northwest these last few weeks—my own version of the Oregon trail.

The vistas of wide open oceans and curving highways canopied by old-growth forests continued to take my breath away. And the combination of couch surfing, hostel-dwelling, and how-cheap-can-I-go accommodations I’d been subjecting myself to had been full of colorful characters. But it had also left me feeling raw. Exposed. Aching to feel known.

Staring out at the grey light making silhouettes of the Oregon Hills, I thought through my day. My original plans for winery tours and breezy conversations with the winemakers had been stunted by polite aloofness of my host I’d received the night before. With each interaction giving the vague impression that I was unwanted company, I was awkwardly hiding up in my room.

Rather than walking on her free-range organic eggshells, I decided to spend the day in the quirky Shakespeare-loving town of Ashland. A forty-five minute drive, according to my GPS. I plugged in the address for a coffee shop and hopped in my car. When the blue line of Google Maps led me onto a gravel road, I didn’t think much of it. But as the road kept winding up an increasingly steep hill, concern settled in right behind my solar plexus. I came to a three-pronged fork in the road, and the GPS gave no indication as to which way was right.

I picked the road winding east-ish. Iowa roots going deep, I wasn’t deterred by a few potholes. But this level of washout, wheels practically tightrope walking on the sections of road least eroded had me white-knuckled.

Also—in Iowa, the roads are flat. These sharp drop-offs were menacing, inches away from my passenger side tires. Multiple times when I had to stop to heave large rocks and branches out of the way so my little Ford Focus could get through.

I was muttering a constant string of encouragement to my car—willing her to at least make it to a place where there was cell service if she decided to finally give up the ghost.

I latched onto optimism like a life vest, buckling on buoyant thoughts and breathing prayers like incantations. The path towards metaphor as grooved and well worn as the rutted road I was on, my mind started turning this into a blog post, composing my lostness on the Oregon hills into a great story I’d tell people.

As if on cue, just as I made my way around another hairpin turn switchback, my the fuel meter dipped below an eighth of a tank, a rock scraped the underbelly of my car with a sickening scratch and the sun slid behind a grey cloud and my cell phone flashed “no signal.”

My car hit another pothole and I shouted into the empty car “I don’t want this to be a fucking metaphor! Just get me off this road! Give me pavement!”

(This statement is funny…now. But at the time, my sense of humor had dissipated with my bravery…) Out of the corner of my eye, I’d see wide vistas of the Cascade mountains, magnificently blanketed in pine trees. But their beauty registered as an empirical fact. A fleeting distraction from the not-so-slowly rising panic.

The winding roads left any sense of direction far behind. I could see plumes of dust from the gravel roads from other sides of a valley I assume I’d just crossed. Uphill then down, then up again—my route seemed intentionally illogical. After what was probably only 45 minutes, but what felt like a lifetime, I rediscovered familiar landscapes.

With a half-crazed guffaw of relief, I realized I had effectively circled the mountain, and come nowhere closer to my intended destination. It didn’t matter. I was back on solid and relatively flat ground. Roads that Google Maps at least recognized as being in the road system.

I parked my car back in the driveway of my host. I opened my trunk and pulled out an envelope, tucked inside a box I’d been carrying since September. On the outside of the letter I’d written “To Allie: On the day when you need to be reminded why”

A letter I’d written back in July, for the inevitable hard day when my bravery had run dry and I needed encouragement. There, in my familiar cursive, I wrote kind words, befriending my future self with understanding and gentle reminders of why I decided to take this trip. Why this adventure, in all of its glorious struggle and hard beauty, mattered deeply.

I wrote, “This is a process. This process necessitates pain. Choosing to be fully human is a daily, heart-wrenching, beautiful creative act. Keep choosing it, Allie girl.”

In this letter, Optimistic July Allie reminded me to make peace with uncertainty. To focus only on the very next step. To speak up for what I need and to continue to befriend myself in this process. 

I knew that traveling solo would have an expiration date. And that I might hit that longing to be done before my trip was finished. And almost seven months to the date, I finally came to my end. Finally needed to pull that letter out.

I still have a month to go. 32 days before I’ll be back in Iowa, able to hug my family members and be embraced by familiarity. And in these next 32 days, I will continue to choose vibrant living.

I will keep practicing being fully myself in every conversation with the strangers I meet. I’ll keep waking up at sunrise to walk by the ocean and saying yes to whatever adventures come my way. Will keep my eyes open for the metaphors. I want to keep living life as art.  

I may steer clear of gravel roads for awhile though.