Lessons from the Road

It was a deep grey morning in a place between pines. We rolled from bed into the front seats of our van, teeth barely brushed, hair shoved beneath beanies, hands muted in gloves.36159724_473573363089433_8104229707001626624_n

We drove intothe mist, rising off geysers and waterfalls and lakes. We drove above the cloud line and found the sun at 14,000 feet. We drove until the road was blocked by a herd of swaying bison, moving in slow steps along the asphalt, their horns piercing-sharp, fur impenetrably shaggy. In the distance was the rest of the herd, teaching their babies how to cross swift rivers. The adults moved with strength against the current while the babies bounded and flicked their narrow limbs, struggling as the water grew deep, calling out and straining their necks above the grey water.

They all made it.

Like we made it here.

I looked at the hills, snow-capped and momentous. This, I guess, is America. Or, at least, this is what we came to America for.

I had planned to spend more time on our trip writing. And I did write – I wrote poetry and I worked on a larger project I’ve been writing for some time. But I didn’t write on this blog at all. I think it’s for a few reasons. Firstly, I was having so much fun being present and in the moment that I didn’t want to stop for too long to think too hard about what I was experiencing. I just wanted to experience it.

Secondly, we didn’t always have time or wifi or a good place to sit with a laptop and jot, and I didn’t want to change our plans to enable that.

And thirdly, I didn’t quite know what to say.

The best thing about true adventures is that they expose you to yourself. They cause you to wonder who you truly are at your core: when you’re exhausted, when you’re scared, when you’re far beyond your comfort zone.

I know a lot of people who have blogs and manage to travel for a living by telling people where to go, what to do there, how to get there, what it costs. And I thought maybe I could do that too. But I discovered that while those things are very important and good to read, I was far more interested in what I was learning about myself and others. I was far more interested in what travel really means, for myself and for the world.

I don’t have any answers yet. But I want to spend more time finding some.

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Now that we are far from the U.S.A. (well, not that far – we’re in Costa Rica!) I’ve had some time to reflect on what it is that I want to say. I want to share what I have discovered so far on the road. I shared an abridged version of this on my Instagram and it seemed to be something people liked reading, and it’s certainly something I liked writing. So here goes:

1) Adventures Exist at the Intersection Between Dreams and Reality

I don’t know if adventures can really be one or the other. The dream is what you can achieve, what you might see, what is possible. The reality is the strength it takes to get there, the crowds that shared the same dream, the cost and the logistics.

A perfect example is Yosemite National Park. I’ve spent years lusting after this place, mostly after being exposed to it on Instagram. It’s as incredible as it looks in the picture: sheer granite cliffs curving into impossible sculptures; bright green rivers running between extraordinary crevices; russet sunsets against mountains that rise like ancestors. But Yosemite in the summertime is crowded as anything. And to climb those incredible mountains (and… you know… get those Instagram shots) you have to organise permits, sometimes months in advance. The campgrounds are full to capacity. The traffic is worse than rush hour back home.

What we discovered was that the adventure existed slightly outside the dream, and deeper into reality. We ended up in Tuolumne Meadows campground, which doesn’t boast the same other-wordly views as the Yosemite Valley, but can still only be described as magical. On our first night we attended a campfire talk by a brilliant park ranger who recited (and wrote) poetry about the wonder of nature. We hiked to a quiet lake then back to the small shop on site, where we met a group of thru-hikers who were more kind and friendly than almost anyone I’ve met. At night we joined them at their fire, made s’mores and shared travel tales. We walked across the meadow at sunset, watched a deer cross a bridge, saw the sky and the grass turn gold.

It’s not that Tuolumne is undiscovered. It’s that the dream and the reality needed conspire to create the true adventure. The unexpected beauty. The moments that hold onto you, that change you. That you remember forever.

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2) Nature is worthy of love and fear in equal measure.

Basically, always be prepared. We met a lot of freezing cold people in Yellowstone, who didn’t have the right clothes or tents or gear. I used to make fun of Marcus for his love of outdoor gear but it turns out that if you’re going into the wilderness, you really really need the gear for the wilderness.

And yes, people go thru-hiking with nothing and people survive in the woods sometimes but a lot of people die out there too.

We also saw a lot of people wanting to get really close to wildlife. And I get it — I wanted to see the animals too. But watching a young elk twist its neck backwards, trying to find a path through a horde of cars and camera-toting tourists, was distressing. I don’t know if there’s an answer to balancing the National Park Service’s mission – essentially to create access to these incredible places, while preserving them. One ranger we spoke to said that social media has vastly increased the numbers of people visiting national parks, which was both beneficial and worrying.

That’s why I write of love and fear. I suppose fear could mean respect. But fear also drives us  — to be careful, to be wise, to hold space and to be aware. I think the world needs more of this when it comes to the wilderness. I think a big heart, as big as a nowhere-sky, can hold bravery and gumption and fear and love and respect all at once.

3) Home means people

We left our house for this adventure almost three months ago. I love my house. But I don’t miss it. I miss my dog, but not my things. I love my neighbourhood, and I am sure I will be happy to return one day. But home came with me. Home is right here beside me.

His name is Marcus. He is kind and honest and hilarious. He speaks in strange voices with me when we’re alone. He drove the van with minimal fear. He likes to watch sunsets with a beer in hand; to learn; to surf; to eat fries.

We spent our six weeks in the USA living in a van we named Cheyenne, sleeping each night in the folded-down couch, cooking all our meals on a Coleman stove out the back and living our best lives in the smallest home we have ever had. Somehow (though it seems impossible), I fell more in love with him. I started to see things I hadn’t seen before, like his penchant for silliness after a long day, the level of his passion for a fresh cherry or his squished little morning smile that I love more than anything.

We also had the pleasure of visiting his family in Wyoming who were incredibly kind and hospitable. The easy rapport between Marcus and his uncle David was something I hadn’t known about him. I hadn’t witnessed him within the context of a large, close, idiosyncratic and warm family, much like my own.

We all have the capacity to be many selves. With his family, Marcus was home. I felt home with them too. And together, we are home. When we woke in the close quarters of Cheyenne the van and rolled into our morning cuddle, I discovered that you can’t be homesick when you carry home in your heart.

What I do miss is those people that make me my many selves: sister, daughter, niece, cousin, friend. But I realised how important it is to write to people often — as much as you can. I sent something like 30 postcards from the U.S.A and I plan to send many more.

Let people know you love them. Let them know they matter. Tell them often. Tell them over and over. Tell them always.

Write. Call. Be the reason someone doesn’t feel lonely.

Carry them in your heart.

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4) Eat your broccoli. But also, eat a donut.

In the months before departing for this adventure I was preparing for another big adventure – our wedding. I wanted to loose some weight for the wedding, as many brides do, and I did – I even lost 22 kilograms. This was a wonderful thing for my health, my energy and my fitness, and I was so pleased with how I looked in my dress on the day, and how I felt.

Unfortunately it’s hard to loose weight without becoming obsessed, and this is what happened to me. I was eating so few calories that I felt dizzy and exhausted most of the time. More than that, I felt guilty every time I ate, and agonised about my waistline constantly.

I didn’t have an eating disorder as such and I am doing much better now, but that same obsession was still in my mind during our time in America. I did gain weight there as we were driving so much and eating such different food to what we’re used to back home,  but it shouldn’t have driven me so crazy. Sometimes I would want to go hiking, not because I wanted to see the beautiful world, but because I wanted to burn the calories I had eaten for breakfast, like it was an equation, rather than an experience.

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But I’m trying to learn that it doesn’t work that way – the wilderness isn’t looking at your waistline. Your ability to explore has nothing to do with perfect skin or good hair of abs beneath the layers of fleece you need to spot wildlife on Yellowstone mornings.

Sometimes it’s good to remember to slow down a little when you need to, to watch the world go by. And when the hike is over, short as it may need to be that day, it’s okay to just love the view, and eat a donut.

Yes, be healthy. Yes, eat good foods. But I’m trying to learn that someone else’s thinness doesn’t cancel out my abilities, or my own beauty. Life’s too short not to eat a cookie, even if it’ll be shorter if you don’t eat your broccoli too.

5) You will always have reality. But you will always have dreams too. So never stop adventuring.

Before we left, I was worried that we were making the wrong choice. There was the possibility of a great opportunity at work and I though I would be sacrificing my career (what there was of it!) for the journey.

We are lucky enough to be in the position to do this: to travel, to adventure, to take time off work and live our dreams. And I think because we can, we should. Since leaving I have already learned so much about myself, and so much more about who I want to be and what I really want to do with my life. It’s different to what I thought back home.

A friend said to be that there would always be jobs (for privileged people like us, of course), but there wouldn’t always be the opportunity to see the world with the person you love. So take it.

Of course, adventures don’t have to mean zooming around the world. Weekends can be filled with exploration, and evenings can be dedicated to watching sunsets. Adventures might mean a trip to the local park, trying a new restaurant, or building a cubby in your living room and filling it with candles. But whatever the adventure is, I think it’s good to remember that reality will always be waiting. It will never forget to come back to bite you. So adventure when and while and however you can.

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Thanks so much for reading. It’s a joy to be able to share this adventure.

I realised, however, that what I really want to say comes down to three things: Food. Adventures. Love. I am endlessly astounded by the beauty I’m surrounded by. I am lucky enough to be able to experience the outdoors right on my doorstep. I am passionate about all things food, especially when that food is fuel. Delicious, healthy, extraordinary fuel. And I am so grateful to be in love with a person who inspires me to do better, to climb higher, to shock myself with what I am capable of.

Full disclosure: I am miles and miles, light years perhaps, away from being any kind of professional athlete or cook. I am a hiker who, only two years ago, cried on each and every day of a three day hike. It was hard. I had never climbed a mountain with a pack on my back before, and it felt as if it nearly killed me.

Thankfully, I don’t cry on hikes anymore. Now days, I seek out the buzz that I feel as my legs ache and I ascend. But I’m still learning. I’m getting better. I’ve worked through anxiety and a whole lot of loss and now I’m beginning to understand what it truly means to keep going, one foot in front of the other. I want to share the journey.

The actual journey we’re undertaking started in New Zealand, from Wellington to Queenstown, Rangiwahia and then Coromandel. Tonight we’re off to Los Angeles. We’ll pick up a campervan and drive to Wyoming and back, then head down through Central and South America and all the way to the Southernmost tip of Chile. From there we head to Argentina and across the world to Scotland, for Christmas and then home again, for adventures of a more domestic kind.

Thank you for wanting to come with us. If you’re here because you’re our friends and family, then thank you for being part of our lives, even when we’re at a distance. If you’re a stranger on the internet, it’s great to meet you! Thanks for wanting to be a part of one of the best things we’ll ever do.

And if you’re here because you have a mountain, any kind of mountain, you don’t yet know how to climb, then please remember: there will be a time when the pain you held in your body and your heart becomes something you can’t recall. Some people find relief only for moments. Those moments still matter. They matter more than most people will ever know.

Some people are fortunate enough to be able to change their lives for good. Remember that you are someone important and special and wonderful now, just as you will be when everything has changed. I am still the crying, overweight, unfit, frizzy-haired, broken-hearted girl hauling up a hill. She was valid and had an important place in the world. Every iteration of yourself is just as necessary as the next, so be kind to yourself as you embark on the challenge you want to accept, and the person you want to be.

Thank you for sharing this journey with me. Onward, now, to the next adventure.

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