Reflections on the Reality of Travel

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This trip has been a lesson in living in the moment. Every long-haul trip ends up having a meaning, but that meaning tends to wait to make itself known until the closing act. Or at least, until that moment when the end of the trip finally comes into focus. Which is where I find myself now, sitting in a cozy apartment in Hailey, Idaho, with two weeks left until I pull back into my driveway in Massachusetts.

I think a certain amount of reflection is normal, during a trip. It’s almost like we can’t help ourselves, like our brains want to be anywhere except in the moment. Basically since the very first morning of the trip, I’ve been caught between looking forwards and back, stretched between my memories and my hopes. But as the end of the trip grows closer, the pull of the memories grows stronger, and more and more, I get caught up in reflection.

Delicate Arch, Arches National Park

When I planned this trip, I was hyper-focused on adventure. Each stop on the trip was planned to optimize my potential to push myself to new heights outdoors. Colorado, Utah, Tahoe, the Olympic Peninsula. Each location selected for it’s adventure potential.

What I didn’t realize, was how much expectation I was including. Unconsciously, I set this trip up in my head to be glorious, motivating, life changing. It’s what I wanted. What I craved. I wanted this trip to erase the year I’d just had. A year of existential dread and mind-numbing anxiety. A year of pandemic stress.

I thought this trip could be that cure-all because that’s what all my other longer trips have been. Backpacking around Southeast Asia was one of the most profound experiences of my life. Walking across Peru is to this day one of my greatest achievements, and of course, riding my bike around Cambodia was the first time I truly came to love my body for what it could do, instead of what it looked like.

Or at least, that’s how I chose to remember them.

But in looking back at those trips, I forgot one very important fact: long term travel is uncomfortable. While I was backpacking around Southeast Asia, for instance, I was incredibly lonely. Suffering with severe and untreated anorexia, I was self-conscious to the point of exhaustion, and pushed myself so hard physically through yoga, hiking, and trekking, that my hips still haven’t fully recovered today.

On that walk across Peru I was at the other end of the eating disorder, binging on food and drowning in self hatred.

And on that transformational bike ride across Cambodia? I was chased from start to finish by self-doubt and insecurities, plagued by the idea that I wasn’t a “real” bike tourist because I was sleeping in hotel rooms instead of a tent. Even though, by staying in those hotel rooms, I got to actually meet and have conversations with Cambodians all across the country, an experience I may not have had if I’d hidden myself away in a tent each night.

So, when I sat down to plan this trip, after over a year and a half of the COVID-19 pandemic, unemployment, and crippling anxiety, I saw it as an escape. An escape from the stress of my new freelance career, from the pressure to figure out a path forward, escape from myself.

Only I forgot, you can’t escape yourself.

I forgot that all the crippling anxiety, that self-doubt, existential dread, and suicidal ideation I’ve been grappling with for years would come along for the drive as well.

And I was held in the suspense of that illusion for a while. Those first few days and weeks of the drive were blissful, in their own way. It’s why we all love short term vacations. It’s where the “honeymoon phase” comes from. When we first enter a brand new experience, we’re charmed by it because it demands all of our attention. It distracts us from ourselves.

Capitol Lake, Colorado

The first two weeks of this road trip were exactly that. Driving across the south, mountain biking in Missouri, hiking and mountain biking in Boulder, I was safely ensconced in my own sense of awe. I was endlessly entertained by the changing environment around me. And of course, I still had the entire trip ahead of me. I still had so much potential. If I felt sad to leave behind the shady oak canopy of the Ozarks, I could at least look forward to the towering peaks of the Rockies. 

That all changed with the first hiccup.

I’d intended to backpack through the Elk Range of the Rockies for four days. It was one of the adventures on this trip that I was most looking forward to. But an unusual monsoon pattern swept in and forced me to cancel those plans. The forecast called for thunderstorms and pouring rain before noon each day. Stubbornly, I refused to accept defeat. 

I drove into the Rockies and picked a car campsite above Aspen. I thought, I’d camp with my car for one day to suss out the real conditions, and start my backpacking trip the day after. It just couldn’t be that bad, right?

By noon that day dark clouds had gathered overhead and rain started to pepper my campsite. Within two hours, the sky was black as night and thunder boomed overhead. Lightning cracked so close I swear I heard the air sizzle. When the deluge came down it took only five minutes for my tent to flood completely. Terrified, I grabbed my sleeping bag and thrust it into the back of my Crosstrek, taking shelter in the metal cage of my car. I slept that night curled in a ball, shivering from fear and humiliation.

I had to admit, I did not have the skill to backpack in this kind of weather. I didn’t know the Rockies well enough. I did not know how to survive.

But even after I made the decision to find a beautiful car campsite and spend the week taking day hikes and mountain bike rides, I was still hounded by shame. Was I a quitter? Was I weak? Was I not outdoorsy enough? 

And there was the disappointment. I’d been so looking forward to this backpacking trip, and now it was cancelled. Was my whole trip a wash? My brain flung itself into the extremes. I was a quitter, and this trip was a disaster.

To make up for my perceived failure, I pushed myself each day to make the most of my time in the Rockies, hiking three days straight, higher and higher, all the way up to a pass at 12,000 feet. On the fourth day, I drove to Crested Butte to ride the storied 401 Trail, one of the most beautiful mountain biking trails in the world.

By the time I got to Moab, Utah, my next stop on the trip, I was exhausted.

But no worries, I told myself, tomorrow was a rest day and then I could get onto the next adventure: mountain biking Moab.

For those who aren’t part of the mountain biking culture, Moab is our Mecca. It is held up as one of the most challenging, fun, interesting, and exciting places to mountain bike. With miles and miles of purpose built trails across terrain you can’t find anywhere else in the world, there is no where like Moab. 

I was so fucking excited to ride my bike there.

Except.

Except I’d exhausted myself in Colorado. Except I couldn’t accept my own exhaustion. I hiked in Canyonlands, climbing 1.5k feet under the hot desert sun, then hiked in Arches the next day. Even though I knew I was making a mistake, I could not stop myself. I had to keep going, keep pushing. To rest was to waste precious time. And besides, I told myself that I should be strong enough for this. That I shouldn’t need rest.

Nevada

So when I took my bike to Slickrock, one of the most famous trails in Moab, my legs were too tired to even ride 3 miles. Once more, I twisted into a tailspin. Too exhausted to take on the adventure I had planned. I was furious with myself. Furious that my legs weren’t stronger. That I wasn’t better. I sat down on the trail with legs that felt like they were on fire from exhaustion, and cried. Self hatred washed over me. Why wasn’t I strong enough for this?

Giving myself time to rest and heal? I didn’t even consider it.

The next stop after Moab was Tahoe, where I’d hoped to take on some extreme mountain biking loops with over 3k feet of climbing. But of course, after pushing myself through exhaustion in Moab, by the time I got to Tahoe I could barely walk. It was all I could do to ride my bike the two miles over to my friend’s house to hang out on the lake.

Now, with the gift of hindsight, I can zoom out and see how incredibly lucky I was to even be present in Colorado, Moab, and Tahoe, even if I couldn’t take on the grand adventures I had planned. But in the moment, I was too lost in my own anxiety to see clearly. I was too consumed by thoughts that I’m not strong enough, smart enough, fit enough, good enough.

Canyonlands National Park

This has plagued me across the entire journey. At no point have I had an escape from it. Driving north through the Redwoods of California, my anxiety convinced me I had planned my trip all wrong. Across Oregon, my anxiety convinced me I never should have left California. In Washington, my anxiety convinced me I wasn’t really seeing the Olympic Peninsula. That I should have been backpacking. I was so consumed by these thoughts that I almost didn’t stop to appreciate the beautiful morning I spent on a cold misty beach at the very western edge of the continental United States, or the four mile walk I took through one of the world’s only temperate rainforests.

Now, sitting in my beautiful AirBnB in Idaho, with the end of the trip only two weeks away, I can look back and see how foolish I was. I can see how my mental struggles, my intense anxiety, got in the way of what was really happening.

But I can also see that I was (and still am) being too hard on myself. There have been moments of true beauty on this trip. When I look back, I know that my memories of this experience won’t focus on the crippling anxiety that left me in tears. What I will remember are the days I felt pure, intense joy. The day I mountain biked in Nederland, Colorado and then sat outside at a brewery in my flannel and trucker cap feeling like the very best version of myself.

Or the day I SUP’ed down the Colorado River in Moab and managed to stay standing through a Class II rapid.

Or the morning I spent wandering through the coastal Redwoods in Humboldt County and felt completely at peace with the world around me.

The trip isn’t over yet, so it’s not time for me to fully understand everything I’ve learned on this journey. But a meaning is starting to take shape. And I think it has something to do with staying present in the moment, appreciating the little things, and remembering that even the worst anxiety, even the worst suicidal ideation will pass if you don’t give it power.

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