re-contextualizing travel (with ghosts)
The way we talk about travel drips in grandiosity. We hear the call of the mountains, and we must go. We say take more adventures. We broaden our horizons. It’s all so lofty. If that ambition goes unchecked, the intention to travel gets hijacked by itineraries optimized into oblivion. I have a history of getting swept up into the excitement of exploration, planning my days on the road with the intention to check as many boxes as possible while also trying to leave room for serendipity, as if it’s an afterthought that I’ll get to if I have time. With whatever minutes or seconds are left between, I may have an opportunity to sit still for a moment and appreciate the beauty of wherever I am.
I travel as if my goal is to leave my body so exhausted by the end of each day that I have no choice but to feel accomplished. With feet sore from 14,000 logged steps and shoulders cramped from carrying a backpack stuffed with snacks, I know viscerally that I’ve done something with myself. I know it’s real because I can feel it. The added pressure of soaking in the sweetness of the moment feels like just another obligation, another box to check on the journey. Snap a picture of that landmark. Grab that world-famous fish taco. Take a breath and appreciate the scenery and rich cultural tapestry that surrounds you. Move on to the next.
I finally found a natural counterbalance for all that dogged seeking. It didn’t matter if I was shopping in Scotland or sipping coffee in Savannah, the highlight of every trip was always the same, and somehow perfectly unique each time. Perhaps driven by a subconscious urge to recharge, I learned to ground myself with microdoses of actual human connection.
I traveled to learn, to expand, and to prove to myself that I could be adventurous and “at home in the world.” What I was looking for was real life. When cities began to feel homogenous, I sought novelty and found it in moments of simple conversation. Chatting with strangers, I collected real moments in a world that felt increasingly artificial. Once I recognized that craving for authenticity, I started thinking of travel less as a collection of sites to see and more of an opportunity to understand life from the perspective of people who found interesting ways to live it. I slowed down. I lingered longer, asked casually open-ended questions.
My favorite: “So, is the town different than when you first got here?” That always got them going.
Popping into new places and new strangers’ lives, I loved wandering around and losing hours talking to the guy building cairns at the beach or the lady who runs the sculpture gallery who let me use her bathroom. It seemed like people were waiting for someone to listen. As soon as someone recognized a willing ear, I was drowned in the bittersweetness of their experience. I saw their faces relax as they unwound their stories, they settled in to share how their kids don’t talk to them anymore or how this job was fine but just until they could save up enough to buy an alpaca farm and start knitting socks.
By shooting for the moon of experiences, I landed among the stars of connection.
my plan to pay it forward
I’ve been on the move in some capacity for my whole life. For 3 years between 2017 and 2020, I chose a life of semi-homelessness. Now, I’ve reached something of a cul-de-sac on my big road trip and I think I’ve collected enough perspective from other people. It’s time to cultivate my own so that I can be the local that offers words of wisdom to wide-eyed wanderers. Someday, I might just set up a little table downtown and sit there with a sign that says “Perspective – $1.”
I’ll spend the day at my table, smiling at strangers until they sit down and we get to share a moment. This is how I will repay all the people who helped me feel grounded when I was just a tourist in their lives. And I’ll sell lemon bars, in case the city doesn’t recognize the value of my service, which is to sit across from someone and look them in the eye or nod along to their venting until they feel like their life makes sense. I’ll help them re-contextualize because, after three decades of bouncing around, my ability to flexibly navigate challenging moments with a simple shift in perspective is a superpower.
Actually, I’ll say, it’s nice that it’s raining because it keeps the streets clean and the flowers happy.
Maybe we should be happy when people betray us because they let us know exactly who they are!
Your refusal to settle for anything less than magical is not fickleness, it’s discernment!
And so on.
Come for the things, stay for the stories
I know it will work, because I spent years out there on the road and, everywhere I went, I found people who just wanted to talk for a minute. Sometimes they wanted to show me their highlight reel; like in Santa Fe where I tried on fancy hats while the hat-maker told me about the time a haberdashery machine electrocuted him. His shoulders exploded, he said, and thank God for that, because the electricity needed somewhere to go. I bought a rabbit fur fedora to commemorate what felt like a serendipitous moment of shared humanity.
In Sedona, I escaped the desert sun into the dusty refuge of an antique shop to be instantly enticed by a collection of fur coats hanging under a collection of kitschy road signs. My fingers reveled in their softness and wondered about the shoulders they adorned before they ended up here, in fashion purgatory. Now as huddled glamour refugees, they were imprisoned together on plastic hangers under harsh fluorescent lights, and I felt their collective plight. I considered helping one in particular escape – an elegant fox fur shrug that stood out among the rest. With trepidation, I slowly slid an arm into the satin interior. It was cool at first but my hand sliced against something that sent a fierce electric shock running violently from the tip of my fingers all the way up my arm. I recoiled and checked for injury, but found my skin intact. My mind raced. What just happened? It had felt real. My scalp still coursed with electricity and the hair on my arm stood at attention. I checked inside the sleeve for old tailoring pins or some other earthly reason for the sting but found nothing.
“That fox coat shock you?” The store owner appeared behind the glass jewelry cases, wearing a Sturgis t-shirt and a half-smile. I nodded. “Yep,” she said, knowingly, “That’s Betty. She’s not ready to give it up quite yet.”
This long-gone broad was using her afterlife to haunt her own fine fashion! The more sensitive among us can attest to how strongly objects can hold a history – that’s why it’s hard to let go of things that remind us of people we’ve loved, and why cozy memories make our favorite blankets softer. Things can be as haunted as places. So in a place like this vintage shop, packed to the rafters with pieces of history, memories hang denser than the dust in the sunbeams. And you can feel it.
In Betty’s case, she seemed to cling to her fur and the life she lived in it. Maybe she was simply refusing to allow her complex history to be reduced to my game of dress-up on a weekday afternoon. Maybe she thought her fox fur deserved better than my dusty arm and thusly rebuffed me with a shock that felt like a cold gin martini to the face. I couldn’t help but respect her commitment to the drama, even from beyond the grave. Her rejection said stick to flannel, yet she was just like me. We were both trying to change our realities by slipping in and out of clothes, places, dimensions. So I understood why Betty might defend her prized fur from a playacting pretender, but I ached a little for her, too. She clung to a life that had moved on without her. Her fur, stunning as it was, was just a thing, hanging under a Route 66 sign next to a thousand poly-blend party shirts and studded vests.
Even as an elegant vestige of her existence, that fur did not hold the vastness of her life. I wanted her to know that she was more infinite than the lovely shrug that had hugged her against the icy winter wind. She was more than just her coat, even if the coat was clearly something to her. I wondered what memories this thing in particular held for her. Had she ever cried in this coat, or felt the weight of love consume her as someone special slipped it over her shoulders?
Okay, Betty, I thought, and put her back with the others, remembering that things that we do or own do not define us, though the paths that lead us to those things might shed light on who we are. The people we hope to be by aligning ourselves with things, and experiences, are a clue to our deeply held desires. We were both trying to escape something when my hand slammed against hers in the sleeve of her coat. We butted up against one another as we attempted to be somewhere / something else. I wanted to slide into part of her life, and she wanted part of mine.
The change that we try to make when we roll into a new town or slip on a leather biker vest with BITCH ON WHEELS embroidered on the back isn’t really real. Wherever we go, whatever we wear, there we are. And it’s fun to pretend. That’s what I was doing out there on the road, trying on new coats and new lives, seeing what fit and what was just another shock to my system.
I turned my attention to the jewelry case, hoping the spirits living in the rings were friendlier than Betty was. I fingered tarnished silver with trepidation, bracing for another jolt from a spirit realm intent on punishing my presumptions. Holding the gems up to the light that filtered through the greasy window, I let the pieces tell their stories and wove them into mine. I was out in the world, searching for something, and finding antique jewelry and offbeat conversations. At the end of all this, I wanted to have something to show for it.
The owner unlocked the glass cases one by one, surfacing new trays of jewels, pointing out her favorites, sharing the stories of pieces if she knew them. “Joanne died last year. Her daughter brought these in. Didn’t see much point in hanging on to them.” Good for Joanne.
I saw her touch one ring in the corner of a tray a few times gently, meaningfully. Her posture slumped and she looked up at me through silver bangs that hung limply around her eyes.
“This one always reminds me of my old wedding ring. I wish someone would buy it so I wouldn’t have to see it every day. But then I’d hate to let it go.” She stared out the window and touched the silver, her mind elsewhere.
“He died in his sleep six months ago.” Her wistfulness turned resolute, as though she had processed this story in her mind a thousand times, chewed on it like a toothpick that was reduced to splinters in her mouth. “He was drinking a lot there towards the end. Can you believe the energy company laid him off after thirty years? It was just three years before he was set to retire. Of course, he took it badly.” After several long moments of silence, I touched her turquoise-heavy hand. She blinked and returned to where we stood in the cluttered strip mall storefront. A bird called from the double doors and we both turned to look as it hopped inside from the sidewalk.
“That’s him,” she said casually, wiping a tear. “He still checks on me.” My skin prickled and I watched the crow tap dance on the threshold under the neon OPEN sign that blinked half-heartedly in the window.
I bought a pendant in the shape of a buffalo as a token to remind me of Betty and that bird who both refused to move on. I thanked the shop owner for her stories and perspective and walked out, sidestepping her winged husband that remained, pitch black and resolute, on the entry rug.
Outside in the heat of the day teenagers puffed cigarettes outside of a donut shop and I could smell the smoke and sugar. I considered how the world could seem so sweet and sort of toxic like a glazed cruller or a lemon bar, but how it’s better when we savor it, and sweeter when we share.