A few years before J and I left Pittsburgh to travel indefinitely, I was fired. Despite my employer’s intentions, it was an act of benevolence. I have often believed the universe gives you what you need when you’re ready for it. The day before I was let go, I had come to terms with the fact that I was miserable. It was my day off. I lay alone in a park. I was basking in the warmth of the sun-drenched afternoon, trying to ignore the problem.
Though my boss and I had similar goals, we had conflicting ideas as to how to pursue them. Passion applied unchecked can be tumultuous. His desire to be the best had encouraged behavior both disrespectful and exhausting in its neediness. I had been prepared for the demands of the promotion, but not the immersive volatility. A drastic change was in order. I looked over at my phone, declined his third call, switched the ringer to silent and laid back.
Our talk the next morning upset me. Yet as I handed back my keys and stepped out into a sunny, April afternoon, I was relieved. The position had obligated me to work an event that would cause me to miss attending the wedding of dear friends in California. I realized I could now go. Actually, I could go anywhere.
For most of my adult life, I have passed up opportunities for adventure more than I have taken them. Life didn’t start that way. I grew up about a 100 meters away from the Cleveland Metroparks; deer, possum, and raccoon were constant visitors in our yard, journeying up from the emerald valley below. Red Tailed Hawks, and later, as the population recovered, Peregrine Falcons stalked the sky. Bluejays, Cardinals, Woodpeckers, Robins, and Sparrows flitted through the branches while troops of squirrels cavorted along the tightropes of powerlines. Owls made their lonely appeal as the sun went down. My mother has cultivated a small following of hummingbirds that visit every year, just as my father battles the endless hordes of chipmunks.
As a Boy Scout, my troop went camping once a month; generally on proper trips in tents off in the woods, with a hike in on a Friday night, learning new skills or hiking a five or ten-mile loop on Saturday and a hike back out on Sunday. Summer camp was supplemented by canoe trips in Algonquin Provincial Park. We went to the Boundary Waters one year, and I’ve paddled across the Georgian Bay a few times and down the French River. I hiked 100-mile loops through New Mexico at Philmont Ranch twice, have been white-water rafting a handful of times and ridden a horse or two.
As a young girl, I remember sitting in a dark theater watching Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade. I wanted to be just like Indy. I was captivated by the sight of Petra, a city carved into the mountainside; enchanted by the canals and footbridges of Venice. I wanted to explore ancient catacombs, ride a motorcycle through the countryside. I also hate Nazis (but I’m not afraid of snakes).
The film expanded my idea of the possible. I was now unable to settle for anything less. I grew to make travel a priority. Not just to grand locales, but to anywhere that would have me. I accepted every invitation. I tagged along on day trips, went back with friends visiting hometowns. I slept on buses and floors and beaches. I was easily swayed and could be packed at a moment’s notice. Though my earnings were hardly lucrative, I was determined to take every possible opportunity. I lived frugally, at least frugally for Manhattan.
I have never shied away from pulling up roots, and with each new city, I’ve amassed a few more souls willing to admit to some affinity. New Orleans and New York are particularly transient in nature, and many of the friends I met there have scattered throughout the country over time. Like me, they are largely untethered, rejecting the idea of an ancestral hometown for one that feels more like home.
With some enthusiasm and a ton of luck, I managed to convince these more employable friends to put me up or accompany me on a leg of a poorly planned road trip. I was going to tour America. I didn’t have a driver’s license.
While my childhood was spent in the woods, my twenties were spent in PBR tall boys and endless scribbled poems. Looking back, I can see clearly what was lacking and what had happened. At the time, there was just a dull ache of absence. Ray Bradbury, in the essay collection Zen in the Art of Writing, relays how he shredded and gave up collecting Buck Rogers comic strips after friends made fun of him. In the midst of an abusive relationship in my late 20s, I went camping, hoping that the escape the trip promised would nurture me as it did in my youth. I went with some folks I had grown up with and fell victim to similar jeering. I felt no more welcome in their presence than I did as a kid struggling to complete the walk home from school without verbal and physical assault. Those days in some of the most beautiful landscapes possible would be my last for a long time, the magic tarnished almost beyond recognition. Thankfully, I would eventually unravel the mysteries of everything that I was allowing to happen, putting an end to the cycles of abuse.
Camping became something I used to do, travel itself an elusive fairy, flitting just past the grey skies of Pittsburgh. Any friend that would poison something so adored is no friend at all, but I made little effort to excise the poison from my passion. Like Bradbury, I had let others control my relationship with something I deeply loved. I slathered a happy face over the circumstances of my life. Celebration blurs into bad habits when you’ve got nothing to truly celebrate, and the act becomes a perfunctory routine. I rarely left Pittsburgh, and when I did, it was almost always for Cleveland, slowly easing those who had wronged me out of my life until my visits were almost entirely to see my family.
Across cultures, the hawk is perceived as a messenger from the spirit world. Its keen vision is meant to impart one with an almost psychic awareness and an ability to understand one’s higher purpose. It is said to arrive at a time when close observation and decisive action are necessary.
Though they live in every existing climate in the United States, I had previously never seen one. My walks, almost exclusively city-based, tended to be limited to wildlife sightings of the rodent variety. Almost instantly upon setting out, I noticed them majestically soaring above the road. Their movements were strong, but serene – graceful, intentional. I felt their continued presence to be a sign I was being guided, figuratively, in the right direction. I would later learn that many birds glide above roadways, taking advantage of thermals created by the heat reflected off the surface. It seems the hawks’ intentions may have been designed more with using these thermals to effortlessly raise themselves higher and less so with indulging an amateur birder with their services as a spirit animal.
Regardless of the hawks’ level of participation, I was not misled. I was overcome by the ferocity of the Pacific’s waves crashing against the looming cliffs of Oregon. Enchanted by the surreal mist swirling through the filtered amber light in the redwood forests. Arizona’s desert sunsets proved flawless, spanning out over the infinite landscape. The singular, adobe-hued palette of Santa Fe’s casitas somehow served to make them all the more striking. Everywhere I went I encountered staggering beauty.
To call the experience life-changing would be reductive. And yet, I would never recommend doing what I did. I was woefully unprepared for what nine weeks of persistent traveling entailed. Whole weeks were unplanned, leaving me scrambling for accommodations or buying travel tickets last minute. I was toting an enormous duffel bag (without wheels) on public transportation. It was anxiety-inducing, exhausting, and will forever be one of the things I am most proud of having done.
At the end of my roaring 20s, I rekindled my love of travel with trips related to my bartending profession, finding a tribe of beautiful individuals across the country, each offering unqualified love, support, and encouragement. It was the support network I had never had. I slowly crawled out of my beercan hermit’s shell. Blinking in the light, I was suddenly keenly aware of all the great adventures and experiences I had allowed to pass me by, while I had been busy kicking rocks down the street waiting for a ship to come in that I had never earned the ticket for. I thought of all the excuses I had given when I turned down adventure after adventure. Pittsburgh was meant to be a stop on a journey, not the end. Somewhere I got defeated and let the moss roll over me like a slow tide. But I was beginning to wake up.
I came back to Pittsburgh changed. Started a new job. But after a few years, I felt the nagging need to move on. J agreed he was ready for an adventure. We deliberated, finally settling on an extended stay in Cuenca, a city perched high in Ecuador’s Andes Mountains. We would sell what we could, put the rest in storage and see what was waiting in South America.
One of the things I would have to sell was a car. Earlier that year my father had gifted me an SUV that was in perpetual need of repairs. Twenty years of service had made the old girl salty and anything could (and would) go at any moment. There were tricks to lowering the windows, procedures to get the stereo to play. Opening the gas tank required finessing. I couldn’t imagine getting much in return.
We were both unemployed. Our timeline was fluid. I asked J how he felt about helping me run a car into the ground.