The gift of travel: giving voice to fear

Flexible and having fun.

My notebook from Europe is messy. It’s stuffed with admission tickets, postcards, photos, receipts from purchases and passes from various public transportation successes. That’s a bit how my mind feels as well, now that we’ve been home from Europe for 17 days. Those 17 days stretch like a wide gulf, filled with lumpy mud and briefs moments of sunshine, between my life as a traveler and my efforts to re-engage with all the trapings of my pre-trip life.

When I flip through my notebook to try to organize the experience in my mind, those tickets and slips fall out of the book, scattering on the floor. That’s a bit how reconnecting to my life feels – things are slipping through my fingers, time warps and the strong pull of wanting to travel again, right now colors so much of my thinking. These new experiences have more texture than the worn grooves of my daily life.

A bit of research before heading out in Scotland.

Travel was great in those ways you’d expect, like seeing amazing places, meeting great people and living terrific experiences with my husband. But the real gift of travel was its transformative effect on who I am. I left worrying that the Patty Perfect Planner part of me – the part that wants control and assurances and things to go just so – would have a white-knuckled grip on this trip. She’d insist on daily itineraries, holed up in cafes frantically searching for the next thing to do or place to stay, she’d come unglued without a map and lose her shit when things didn’t go according to plan. I’ve lived with Patty for years, and I have to say that I have a healthy fear of her. Once she builds up a head of steam, she’s tough to wrestle back into a corner.

After a few days on the ground Patty faded into the quiet background of my mind. She dropped away. We started in London, where we could get our travel legs where the signs were in English. Then we moved on to Scotland, where the people speak English but I could only understand about 40% of what they said (they’ve quite the accent, if you’ve never heard it). It felt like learning to swim in the shallow end of the pool before heading to the deeper waters of Central Europe. By the time we settled in at our second hostel in Prague, Patty wasn’t on my mind at all.

Now that we’re home and settling back into life, I’m experiencing that part of my personality differently. Traveling helped me learn that planning is only necessary for us to a certain, minimal degree. Neither of us need an itinerary, we’re happy with intentions. Along with quieting Patty down, traveling demonstrated time and again that Vinnie and I can handle things going sideways: we adjust well together, we function as a team, we each have our own strengths and skills.

What that translates into it this: my fear of the unknown diminished. With that lessening of fear, my need to control things lessened as well. I could live in the moment, I could laugh at unexpected turns. I didn’t need to be in control. When we missed our flight home from Prague, I laughed. And in the tiring hours afterward of coming up with our response, we laughed some more as we found options that suited us (which means we ended up camping in the rain – but that’s another story).

Pre-trip planning: we left this map at home.

So I’ve arrived home with this developing understanding that fear = need for control. I’m cataloging what I consider my various ways of trying to control, which include extensive planning (read: spreadsheets), saying no, diving into details without first imagining possibilities, and pushing an activity into the future based on meeting some (generally arbitrary) conditions. I’m keeping an eye out for these responses and when I notice them, I ask myself: what are you afraid of? Fear is a bitch, but it’s one best acknowledged rather than stuffed down. I’m coming to realize that hiding from fear just amplifies it.

When we were in Europe and I was worried (that’s my cop-out word for “holy shit, I’m super scared this isn’t going to work out right now!”), I’d say it out loud. I’d give it a voice. Saying it out loud let it float away. It let Vinnie know why I was getting bunched up, and it helped my gut relax. It’s a practice that I’m trying to keep up now that we’re home because I want Patty to stay in the background so that this new voice of wonder and possibility can speak up.

Travel cracked open my interior life, it let new things into the conversation. It nourished that voice of hope and belief that so often gets drowned out. This is the gift I want to hold on to and to carry forward in these days of sinking back into my life and imagining our next adventure.

Making time for life sized adventures

Up on the plateau at Sacramento Riverbend.

This past weekend I went out for a little life-sized adventure to a place that is becoming a spring ritual for me. Following a community service event, I slung my backpack over my shoulders and headed out for a quick overnight trip. The hike is short – in fact, everyone else day hikes the area, while I tote 20 pounds of gear and food down the trail. I do it because I love to sleep outside and the snow in the mountains won’t melt for another 2 months.

I spent the late afternoon, after 6 hours sitting in lecture halls, hiking through grass and wildflowers in the blue oak savanna of Sacramento Riverbend. This time I took the high route, a longer walk than the riverside trail, full of sweeping views and small water pockets. I settled in for the night in the very same small camp site that I’ve stayed in 8 times in the last 3 years. It’s a place so well known to me that I don’t have to think much to prepare for another visit. The cloudy sky made for a delightful sunset, the crickets sang and on occasion I heard the cackle of wild turkeys. In the morning I made a simple breakfast with coffee, then under cloudy skies, hiked out to the car. It was quiet, simple, soothing and easy. A short little trip that fit just so into my calendar.

When I got home, I spent some time reading Alastair Humphreys, a British adventurer who rode his bike 46,000 miles around the world, walked across India, and was named the National Geographic Adventurer of the Year in 2012. Interestingly, he supports not only Grand Adventures, but also Micro Adventures (the titles of two of his books).

In the introduction to Grand Adventures, he shares that through his blog he asked people what kept them from heading out on the trips they dreamed of. From 2,000 responses he collected a list that includes things I would expect: time, money, having an adventure companion, getting time off work, fear, being lazy, lack of knowledge, putting together the trip kit or logistics. All understandable stuff.

Now here’s the interesting part. He follows up the list with this: “I found it fascinating that no one person mentioned the worry of falling down a crevasse or getting eaten by a tiger. The greatest obstacles to people’s adventures all lie before the journey even begins. In other words, getting to the start line is the hardest part.”

Getting to the start line is the hardest part.

That’s so true, whether I’m considering a big adventure or a short trip. It’s so easy to talk myself into believing that packing for a trip, figuring out a shuttle and having enough time just won’t work. It’s kept me from having adventures that I spent too much time dreaming about and not enough time living.

That’s why I make it a point to take a life-sized adventure as much as I can. I have a list of places that are under an hour’s drive away and a quick packing list so that I don’t have to think when the urge to sleep outside arises. I just pick a place from my list, load a pack and head out the door. This spring, as I wait for the snow in the mountains to melt, I’m looking for places in the lowlands where I can get outside and pitch a tent. As I find new places, I add them to my list, knowing that come next February, I’m going to be itching to sleep outside again.

It doesn’t matter that I’ve been to Riverbend 8 times in the past three years, or that I’ve hiked the trail so frequently that I can find my way to that campsite in the dark. Every night under the sky is fresh and new, each sunset its own creation, every day break its own unique meditation. Each spring, whether I’m under a blue sky or clouds, I enjoy the wildflowers, the mud on the trail, the quiet unfolding of oak trees unfurling their leaves.