“and the charms that she got from travel are starting to wear off…”
Rilo Kiley was the soundtrack to the heady Maryland summer after high school graduation. I devoured their catalogue my senior year and that summer their music would drift, familiar and ignored, from the car speakers, barely audible over the open windows as I drove home from work in my mom’s car. Some nights I would stop at the edge of the middle school soccer field—the only place in that flat suburb with a view—and watch the heat lightning thump lazily across the heavy sky. My own veins electrified, my elbows covered in chocolate ice cream smears I wouldn’t find till the next morning. Only with air still and engine quiet would the lyrics reach me. And even then they were poorly filtered through a brain full of excitement, anticipation and fear. I had made my first independent life decision a few months earlier—I would not be going to college that fall—and was drunk on the feelings of freedom and iconoclasm.
Through all that, through the humidity and my hormones and my partially developed hypothalamus, seeped the lyrics “and the charms that she got from travel are starting to wear off…” Plucked from all context, it became a warning and a tenant that has followed me through the last decade, spurring me on through international travels and unconventional life choices, quieting when in the thick of adventures and heckling with growing urgency in quieter moments.
Do not think you can substitute a passport for a personality, it warns.
Do not, it says, rest on your past experiences. What are you doing right now?
If you stop, you’ll grow stale. If you stop, you’ll be boring.
Don’t become that girl.
The charms of travel: rich textiles, speaking in tongues, stories sharpened by reckless abandoned and peppered with international romances, a seeming worldliness beyond my years. It was hard not to leverage these in college, after Italy and South Africa and Jordan. I won’t pretend I didn’t. In my early twenties I pulled them around my fragile sense of self in a protective shroud, buffering my insecurities with a cushion of experiences that simultaneously shielded me from and elevated me above the fray. Later in my twenties, my travels became wilder, long treks into the wilderness both domestically and abroad, uncultured though no less grand. My mother once commented that I was turning into a shark; stop moving and I would die.
Because I understood those lyrics as a warning to never stop. The charms of travel are fleeting, and so you must go and go and go, add fresh stories and buy new scarves, meet new people and learn new languages, be always covered with dust from the road or gone. I shored up my sense of self with an outsider’s view of an adventurous and unusual young woman, and as the years have passed I have placed more and more of my weight on these rickety, fleeting pieces of my experience.
I am almost thirty now and I find myself gravitating towards different adventures than at eighteen and twenty-two and twenty-five. I’m intrigued by the adventures of community and deep commitment and being a part of something so much bigger than my puny, floating self. I am drawn to the adventure of cause. But as I consider a more settled life, as I am drawn to more conventional life choices, I must admit to myself that the charms of my travels – as I have understood them all these years – are about to wear off. And who am I once they do? Why does this scare me so much? What am I losing?
This time last year I was hiking across New Zealand. I was almost 100 days into a 140-day trek, hiking an average of 15-20 miles a day. This winter I am living in a small town in Colorado, keeping body and soul together through sporadic food service, as I struggle through both physical and emotional therapy sessions that address a few of the injuries of the last year. It’s been a hibernation-like break in my current life chapter of transient dirtbagging. And it has given me time to lay plans for the next one, in which I move to a city? Go back to school? Commit to a relationship? This song lyric has been clanging through my head with an immediacy that will not be placated or ignored.
I cannot wrap this up as if I am living the answer to my fears of conventionality and stagnation–I am not. Yet. It’s going to take time for me to change my entire frame of reference for how I think about myself and move through the world. And some aspects of these fears are so deeply ingrained I don’t know that I’ll ever let them go. I can’t image that I could ever let moss grow, regardless of the shape of the rolling, but the idea that who I am is only reflected in my current state is exhausting and unsustainable. And maybe “that girl” who I feared so much of becoming is more interesting than the song lets on. No doubt the singer wasn’t privy to the complex and colorful inner world that informed her life decisions of moving or standing in intricate ways. I’m coming to realize the value in experimenting with being “that girl.”
So I am trying to extract the traveler from the journey, to grasp the idea of an inherent value beyond what I can accomplish that has never made sense to me. Maybe the person who has dared greatly is still a person with fire inside her, even when she is living a quiet, less story-worthy life. I am working to recognize that the “charms of travel,” that flippant and dismissive description of what it means to step outside of yourself and your norms into a different world, are really the gems of existence: greater empathy, a more open mind, the constantly humbling recognition that I will forever be a student of this world.
Wendell Berry wrote of the journey beyond passports: “…the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our own feet, and learn to be at home.” I believe I am entering the period in my life in which, in order to travel to this place, I must learn to be still. It is time to find the ground at my feet.