Hindsight Revelations at the End of a Journey

It was 2015, and I was in the Chicago airport. On my way to Northern Ireland, the thrilling hum of upcoming adventure hovered just below the surface. It spilled over into conversations with strangers, impatient for them to ask me where I was headed.

Allie Illuminated | airport

A middle-aged lady sat next to me at the charging station, and a question about whether she could plug in her phone led to an easy dialog of conversation. When I mentioned my upcoming international adventure, she lit up, recognizing a kindred spirit. Over the shuffle of passengers and flight announcements, she shared stories of her international travels. Of how she’d spent a majority of her twenties traversing the globe, working odd jobs to fund her wanderlust along the way.

“I think everyone should take some time to travel!” she said, eyes fervent. “I’m so glad I did. It made me who I am today. It made me a better wife, a better mother, a more happy person.”

Her reasons resonated, but I was intrigued. “Tell me more about that. What do you mean?”

She considered for a second, then said “I mean that it shaped the way I see the world in only a way that immersing yourself in somewhere completely different than everything familiar can. I had a longing for adventure, to see the world, and it was important enough to me to honor that longing. So when I did meet my now husband, I was ready to start the adventure of being married to him. I’ve never had to live with the regret of wondering ‘what if’ as I raised my children. The way I live in the world, the way I engage in my community, the choices I make are deeply shaped by that time I took to travel.”

This is why I love talking to strangers. I soaked her words up in that airport terminal, reveling in her story. Acknowledging that her story won’t be mine, but noticing the way my heart was resonating, connecting with the desires she was articulating. 

I thought about her words as I laid in my tent last week, on the last night of my solo trip. Listening to the night sounds of this small town in central Colorado, her words echoed with the hindsight revelation of foreshadowing. My heart felt the truth of her observations as I tried to wrap my mind around the west-coast solo-adventure that was now coming to a close.

Allie Illuminated | tent

I don’t quite know in what ways, but I know I’m returning changed. I’m braver—more comfortable in my own skin. From near constant necessity, I’m more able to step out into the unknown. More willing to be surprised. I have felt an expanding, a blossoming of my soul in openness to others and a gentleness towards myself. I the outer edges of my solitude, I became more fully me.

I could measure it by the 241 days I was gone or the 13,471 miles I drove. But quantifying these last 8 months feels inadequate. Even after a week of being back at my parent’s house, around the now novel familiarity, I get the sense I haven’t even scratched the surface of processing the impacts of this journey. I will be marveling at the weight of this thing that just happened to me for awhile.

Allie Illuminated | Zion

In my tent, alone for one more night, I clicked on my headlamp and looked back at the journal I’d been writing in throughout this trip. I smiled and shook my head at my raw unfiltered thoughts scrawled out in early mornings with a cup of coffee. The scrappy plans and lists of places to see.

A single tear slid down my temple as I reread the mini-epiphanies and articulated tensions, remembering the mystery and the ache and the contented joy that blossomed out there on the Pacific coast.

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.

Traveling Alone Isn’t Weird

“It’s not weird. Traveling alone. Just know that when you walk into a restaurant and sit at the bar by yourself, you feel conspicuous, but no one else is thinking that.”

These reassuring words came to me as a lifeline from a stranger I met in Puerto Rico.

img_3508My traveling companion had gone to bed early, and I decided to check out the bar connected to our hostel. Knowing that, in just a few short months, traveling alone would be my reality, I wanted to start practicing for the bravery of venturing out solo.

I made my way to the bar. After ordering a drink, I feigned interest in the basketball game playing on the television, rotating the cold piña colada glass in my hands and eavesdropping like it was my job.

A little while later (what was probably only five minutes felt quadrupled in my hyper-aware self-consciousness) two girls sat down next to me. They asked for a drink menu, and  I handed it to them, introducing myself. Conversation came easily as we swapped stories about what had brought us to the island and where we had been. When I mentioned that I was planning on taking some time to travel on the west coast this fall on my own, they lit up, sharing their own stories of international solo trips.

Rachel from New York’s words have stuck with me. They’ve been my little shot of bravery, helping me step into this new season on my own.

Because I have moments of feeling like an anomaly. Like I’m some trailblazing pioneer loner, venturing far from the path of what a typical twenty-eight-year-old single woman “should” be doing.

img_3479But I’m not alone in traveling alone. Turns out, there are lots of others doing the same. And there are friendly people everywhere. Generous souls looking to connect.

I armed myself with that mindset as I hopped onto a shuttle at Zion National Park last week. It had been recommended both by social media and friends who travel. It was a crowded Saturday afternoon and I had built in some time to hike there on my way out to California.

The hardest time to be alone is in a crowd of people that are waiting. I stretched my new muscle of bravery and looked around for a friendly face, at the same time submitting to the probability of a solo hike.

As I sat down on the bus, a girl asked if the other seat was open. Small talk quickly gave way to animated conversation about our common love for traveling. Mirroring the conversation I’d had with those girls in Puerto Rico, she lit up as we talked about her experiences in solo-adventuring, full of reassurance and excitement for what lie ahead for me.

As we hopped off the shuttle, Erin invited me to join her in hiking up Angel’s Landing. We spent the afternoon sharing stories and laughing, punctuating our upward climb with frequent stops to catch my breath and take in the breath-taking vistas. 

Here’s the thing. That probably wouldn’t have happened if I’d been traveling with someone else. When there’s no need to reach out, I tend to stay in my comfort zone. Exchanges with strangers don’t extend past pleasantries.

There’s something about traveling, especially on my own, that opens me up to the opportunity to connect with new kindred spirits.

For many people, an immediate red flag shoots up when they hear a woman say the words “travel” and “alone.” There’s been countless furrowed brows and adamant warnings to be careful. Which is absolutely what I must be. There is a sense of vigilance that I must carry with me, along with pepper spray and frequent sharing of my location on my iPhone. While there are certain places I don’t go at night and a careful tuning into my gut, for the most part, it has not been this dangerous escapade that everyone assumes.

img_3440No, it hasn’t been dangerous or isolating. Far from it. Braving this venture on my own has been such a connective and wholesome experience. Not that there aren’t stretches of time of being on my own. Those first few minutes of sitting down at a restaurant alone are excruciating. And I have moments every day where the pang of loneliness hits me right in the solar plexus.

But I’m learning that the true solitude partners well with moments of true connection. And traveling alone really isn’t all that weird.

**Photos by the very talented and lovely Erica Putze.

You Should Buy a Flare Gun… And Other Travel Advice I’ve Received

The bell chimed its friendly greeting as I opened the door to Prospero’s Books. Besides a gathering of older men around the checkout counter, the place was empty. I nodded my head in the general direction of the group and slipped inside.

Bookstores are a safe middle ground for the solo-adventurous.

I’ve been practicing, you see. Traveling alone takes a lot of bravery. So I sometimes go on mini-ventures in my familiar places.

Practice turns bravery into second nature, and striking up conversations with strangers still takes bravery for this shy girl.

Bookstore

I wandered down the musty aisles, checking for all my go-to authors, comforted by the columns of colors and gold-etched words on the spines. Wisps of the men’s banter up at the counter wafted over the bookshelves, commentary about the presidential candidates, punctuated with guffaws and disparaging remarks.  

Winding my way over to the travel section, I happened upon John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. I had heard of this memoir of his journey across America, a friend recommending it to me when I told him about my plan to do the same thing. This edition was beautiful, the kind of book that begs for you to smell the pages.

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Satisfied with my find, I clutched the book and brought it up to the counter. The flock at the counter continued their shooting of the breeze as I slid my book onto the counter.

“That’s a good one,” the man who must have been the owner said, pausing his conversation.

“Well I’m about to take a similar journey, so I thought I should give it a read.”

“Is that so?”

“Yeah, this fall, I’m planning to drive out to the west coast,” I replied, opening up to the inside cover with the map of Steinbeck’s trip. “Well, this half anyway,” I added, fingernail tracing the left side of the map.

The hum of conversation around the counter halted, simultaneous interest peaking in the men.

“My sister did that awhile back.”

“Are you going to drive or fly?”

“What kind of car do you drive?”

“Where are you going to stay? Have you heard of KOA camps?”

The barrage of questions hit me as I became the epicenter of these retired men’s Saturday evening.

They were chiefly concerned about my auto-mechanic smarts and my personal defense plan. Each man put in their two cents worth about how to make the most of my trip.

“You should get a flare gun. That would keep ya safe,” one man advised, looking over his bifocals with one eyebrow raised. “You don’t need a gun permit to have one, and that would knock someone right out if you needed to.”

Murmurs of agreement from the peanut gallery.

Bemused, I asked for other words of wisdom.

 

I finally broke away, making promises to stop by the store before I’d leave town, shaking my head and smiling for the next two blocks.

What I’m finding is that people are excited to share in this adventure with me. There’s something about traveling that leads to moments of connection. A magnetic force that draws people in with a range of curiosity, wistful longing, and excitement.

Even though I haven’t left yet, I’ve already had several encounters of sweet conversation and unexpected generosity.I’m more exposed to the kindness of strangers when I’m out of my element, whether it’s spending a Saturday night by myself, or in a foreign country. Most of the time, the people I meet at the intersections of my openness are eager to help; to share in the moment with me.

I think we are all captivated by stories of people pursuing the things that are life-giving. It conjures up memories of our own bravery or our hunger to do the same. What a relief it is to break past the mundane small talk and delve into the things that ignite our souls!

These conversations have often been sparked as I share my story.  That being said, I find myself wanting to receive advice more than give it these days. I’m intentionally seeking out the stories and wisdom of people that I see pursuing the things that make them feel alive.

Some conversations I initiated, inspired by their bravery in seeking adventures. Other advice came from late night conversations with people who know me well. Others still, like my peanut gallery at Prospero’s Books, have been friendly strangers willing to share their words of wisdom. Some advice is unsolicited, but all is welcome.

Less than two weeks away from embarking on this journey, I’m thinking back to all the myriad discussions I’ve had over the last six months.

The words that have shaped me the most haven’t been about the practical how-tos. Or the hacks of how to copy other people’s journeys. It’s been the statements that lead to the deeper reasons of why we go on adventures. It’s been the pointing out of lies that keep us from embarking.

Looking back, I can see that these statements formed the foundation for which I am now leaping off.

Allie, you can do this.

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(Or: Bravery is a choice.)

The idea of traveling for a longer period of time was sparked by a conversation with a friend who was about to take a year-long trip with her husband around the world. I was bombarding her with questions of how they were making this happen, and she was firing back questions about what I was planning to do after the school year was over.

She must have seen my eyes lighting up because she looked me squarely in the eyes and said “Allie, you could do this. Travel! Do what you want to do! You don’t have to live this cookie-cutter life!”

At first, I dismissed this as a fanciful but wildly impractical pipe dream. I filed it away in the “Someday” drawer in my brain. You know the one–right next to the “when I’m married” box and the “when I have it all together” filing cabinet.

But I couldn’t get her words out of my mind. The more I sat with the idea, the more appealing and intriguing it became. To take a set outside of my expected narrative and delve into the perspective that comes from travel. The risks of this dream were very blatant. But her words helped me overcome this myth that you need some sort of permission or credentials to be able to do what you want to do!

Bravery is not some inherent trait like being left-handed or Irish. Nor is it this grandiose disposition of fearlessness. It’s more like integrity: a daily choosing to align with your desire. Being willing to reckon with the self-doubt and accept help along the way. It means deciding to submit to the mundane minutia of following through with something when it stops being easy.

You’re not just going to be a hippy for six months!

(Or: Your level-headedness will be an asset.)

IMG_1336I’m this weird hybrid of spontaneity and strategy. I’m free-spirited and a planner. I love having a framework of a plan, but I have no qualms with scrapping the plans at the last minute and embracing what the moment is calling for.

Sometimes I feel like I’m too much of a free-spirit, choosing to be a vagrant with no place to call home for several months. I see people’s eyes widen at my vague descriptions of plans, feeling overwhelmed on my behalf.

I also have moments of panic, feeling like there’s no way I can handle this. I don’t know what the heck I’m doing! All the “What-Ifs” creep up, and suddenly my cozy bed at home and some easy comfortable job right here in the Midwest seem pretty appealing. Or at least safer.

Truth is, I am heading into a level of unprecedented unknown territory. This feels daunting when I try to wrap my mind around the whole big picture. But if I remain in this present moment, and do the work that is before me today, it’s fine.

I have done the work to be prepared. (As prepared as a can be.) A friend who has also done some solo-traveling reassured me when she said that both sides of my personality are needed in this adventure. It’s a process of leaping into the unknown while making the best choices with the information that you have.

The worst case scenario isn’t actually that bad.

(Or: Fear doesn’t get the final say.)

Processed with VSCO with c1 presetSometimes optimism can be paralyzing. Trying to drown out the voice of fear with trite hopes that “It’ll all work out just fine” doesn’t hold much weight for long.

This has felt counter-intuitive but has proved to be so mobilizing in actually decided to pursue this dream. Letting my fears have their say; letting all my worst nightmares play out in my imagination is a launching off point for finding a way to move past them.

When I actually exposed my worst fears, I saw them for what they were. They were either inconvenient problems that are solvable (i.e., my car breaks down=get AAA.) Or they are things that I have no way of controlling, and could just as easily happen in a safe and predictable environment.

Which begs the question, what is the cost of not doing this thing I’m longing to do? After my fear had its say, curiosity’s voice came out loud and clear. That is the voice I’m choosing to listen to more.

You should stay with my cousin’s best friend!  You’d love her!

(Or: Wherever you go, connect.)

IMG_7433I haven’t spent much time on the West Coast. I don’t know very many people there. And for this shy girl, it’s daunting to feel like I’m heading to so much newness.

Before I could talk myself out of it, I was met with this outpouring of generosity and hospitality. More people than I can keep track of offered their insider scoops on places to visit and have given me names of people to connect with when I go.

Some bloggers get sponsored by big brand names. I get sponsored by college friends and their relatives. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

And, without a doubt, the best way to travel is through the eyes of a local. There’s such a difference between being a tourist in an unknown city and trying to find your way to interesting places and being guided by someone who shows off their city with the bragging pride of a smitten lover.

It’s humbling to receive other people’s hospitality, let alone people that are friends of friends. But the beauty of this connection, especially in an age of rugged individualism, is well worth it.  

It’s true–I am heading out on my own in a few short weeks. I’m taking this dream of mine out of it’s dusty “Someday Box” and embarking. But I am not alone. I am encompassed in the support of a kind multitude. I can embrace my beginner status, because I know that I will have instructors along the way, helping me with all the advice a girl could ask for.