It might seem odd that on your five year anniversary of vagabondry, you were feeling down. Detached. The dark shadows of Memory Lane stood out against the sunny patches, bold and persistent. When you walked down the road, you chose only to step through the shady bits.
You thought about your most profound lessons from the road. Of course, you could tell at length about the people you have met, the places, the food, the art, the churches, the farms, the everything physical about travel. These experiences are real, and valuable. But these were not the greatest take-home lessons.
What you remember from travel are your feelings. Some very rough feelings…
“[31 August 2008
In the mountains of the Ardeche, South France]
You’re alone on the top of a mountain in the south of France. As high as you can get. Far from the house. Waning light. Flies around your head—they love to land on your ears. You need to get back. Too tired. Nothing moves you from this fucking rock.
What does it feel like to fall? Does the wind blast you into a starfish, or does it stream by easily? Perhaps the ground plummets to you, rather than you to it.
All day today, you have carried an imposing feeling of dread. Lost your appetite, even. Rare. Visceral discomfort—a heavy weight in your chest. Heart feels like an open, black hole that sucks everything in, but digests nothing. Inside, it feels like a vacuum. That’s it. Like all your feelings are getting vacuumed into nothingness. You feel like any moment you will implode. Draw inside yourself and blink out of existence. There won’t even be smoke to signify your disappearance. Just a punched-out hole that not even black can fill.
Get off this rock and march your ass back to the house. Hopefully you’ll leave some footprints on the road—to remind yourself that you’re still here.”
Yes. You were running when you first left the country. And so much of your time traveling was spent sorting out your head, learning how to cope, and healing. No matter where you travel, you cannot outrun your feelings. No matter what your plans, more feelings are there in the future.
Your five-year travel anniversary was frustrating. You were frustrated. You were anxious. You were bored and bitter. Your trip this time has only lasted eight months, and you were ready to throw in the towel, escape your “vacation,” return to America and start your life.
How much nicer life would be then! You could do something “grown up” like sign a lease. You could have your own space, decorate it, secure it, share it… whatever other people do. You’d grown sick of sampling other people’s lives. You could work and earn money and spend your money the way normal people do—go out to restaurants, see movies, go to concerts, rent a car and disappear for a weekend. Isn’t that what normal people do? Normal people don’t squirrel away every penny they earn and deny themselves the comforts of life for a more distant, even less comfortable life, right?
Why are you traveling? Because you don’t want to work? Is it because you feel like this will be your only opportunity?
Do you travel because it makes you happy?
* * *
Your unhappiness as of late culminated just two days ago: you were sitting on the front stoop of your host’s flat in Tartu, weeping into your cup of water, trying to flush the dregs of a hangover. Your stomach was in a knot, and you rocked to soothe yourself. Your viscera.
Something had to give. You were too afraid to drink coffee, wondering if that crap from concentrate was giving you the jitters. You wondered if you should abstain from alcohol, to give your poor old brain a break. Or perhaps you should drink more, to calm the nerves.
You feared the internet. It felt as though every time you checked your email, you received bad news. Every time you looked too closely at your computer when it was online, you became nervous. You resorted to making Katie check things for you.
Your mind was constantly occupied with thoughts of the future and worst-case-scenarios. Silence in a room drove you to maniacal mental preoccupation with things totally out of your control. Then your hypochondria kicked in—the feeling that you might have an anxiety disorder. But you were too afraid to Google it.
* * *
One year ago, you went on a hike in Mt. Diablo State Park outside of San Francisco with some friends. It was an interesting day, and the hike ended up being something like 15 miles up and down some very steep terrain. You made it back to the car eventually. Your feet were tender from your boots, and your legs trembled weakly.
The car ride home was uneventful, but the moment you stepped onto the pavement outside your apartment, your knee buckled. Pain. A lot of pain. It felt like your knee cap was catching on something, and bearing weight on it was excruciating.
Patellar tendonitis. No big deal. But crippling. It came and went over the months. Your job—the plyometrics classes you taught, the biking up and down steep San Francisco hills, the hundreds of squats and lunges you demonstrated on a weekly basis proved to be too much for poor Righty. You gimped around the gym with an ice pack wrapped around your knee.
Then came the new popping sensation on the outside of your leg. Sometimes you couldn’t sit on your knees. And when you ran, you experienced something like friction–very painful friction that invoked images of cracking glass at around the 40 minute mark. The doctor said it was IT band syndrome. Ironic, for a stretching therapist. You stretched it out and it didn’t go away.
You ignored your imperfection and limited your running to short distances and didn’t think much about it. But after about one month of bed rest while you were donating your eggs, you noticed that Righty had become much noisier, liked to slip in and out of place.
Popping, grinding, snapping. Your knee produced every kind of noise. And you could no longer squat without pain. You searched for new knee angles. You stretched every aspect of your lower leg. Anything that could connect to that fucking knee.
Hence your surprise when you managed to walk the entire Camino with this bum knee and not hear a peep out of it, while the rest of your body went on strike. You were convinced you had a poltergeist: evil energy that inhabited a new part of your body for days at a time until exorcised to another place.
But after the Camino was finished, Righty raged at you with a vengeance. You tried to run, but at the 40 minute mark, you had to stop because the pain was unbearable. Then it was 30 minutes. Then 20. Then 15. And finally, five.
You poured hours into the internet, trying to research your knee problem.
It’s not fucking IT Band Syndrome!
And yes, you cried about it a lot. Your goals, you see, are very simple: you want to travel around and go running. But Righty wouldn’t let you run. So when you had to flee Oslo when Jorge and Evelyn were fighting, you said adieu to your running shoes. What good were they when you couldn’t run?
You went hiking instead. Righty was cooperative under all circumstances except running. You could batter Righty for days on end, through steep fjords, on muddy surfaces, under a 60-lb backpack. No problem.
But god forbid you attempt to run.
* * *
“Anything is possible,” said Katie. She was referring to a quote on your CS host’s profile. “I think you’re really going to like this woman. She’s a triathlete.”
Understatement of the year. You met Margot Tenenbaum and promptly fell in love with her. You suppose you’re being facetious, but you’re not sure. Margot was the first woman you ever laid eyes on who threw you into a dizzying spiral of desire.
Yes, it’s true. And somewhat difficult to explain. Unlike other lesbians, or men for that matter, you do not see women through the lens of desire. You see them through the lens of appreciation. Desire comes later, when you suspect that a woman might desire you. But such was not the case with Margot. You sat in her house, mouth agape, eyes wide, trying to make sense of your very surprising urges.
No description would do her justice. Sure, there are the objective things: mid-thirties, tallish, athletic, with a long, smooth, beautiful back. Some thin, decorative, understated tattoos that serpentined around her arms and shoulders. Such things were secondary to her enigmatic energy. She walked with deliberate slowness and grace; she spoke in a quiet, even, feminine tone of voice, like someone who has never considered shouting. Her face was usually neutral, though now and again the corners of her mouth would curve into a smirk suggestive of a private joke. She smiled rarely, but when she did, the lines around her eyes appeared like sun rays and bathed her face in a youthful glow.
You are in deep shit.
Your desire for this woman was shocking, bewildering—pubescent. You couldn’t take your eyes off of her, and when she was in the room, you squirmed awkwardly in your seat and hoped and feared that she might notice.
Katie found this all pretty amusing. She admitted that she found this woman attractive, but she wasn’t exactly thunderstruck. Margot’s presence in the room didn’t send Katie into a tailspin. But this didn’t prevent Katie from flirting with her; and you experienced authentic feelings of jealousy. Jealous that Katie is bold enough to flirt, whereas you can only ever sit in abject despair over your lack of cojones. Dirty jealousy. Angry jealousy. Katie is more charismatic than you are, and you never once considered the possibility of competing with her for the attention of another woman—because you’re never interested in women.
But Margot was utterly irresistible, and your big, stupid heart jerked to and fro with every shift of her hips as you trailed behind her like a puppy with no place to go.
In light of your feelings, you started to feel the moral dilemma. After years of writing about annoying men abusing their CS relationships in order to hit on their guests, after years of declaring to others that, as hosts, they should behave impeccably, you had never once considered the protocol for guests hitting on hosts.
It took you three agonizing days to muster the courage to tell Margot everything. “This has never happened to me before. Ever. And I’m not sure how I am supposed to behave.”
You should probably add that while Margot would excel at being a lesbian, she is not one. Furthermore, as an evolutionary biologist, she has a difficult time explaining atypical sexual behavior. She dismissed your honest advances as a surgeon makes an incision. Cleanly.
And just like that, your bubble of hope burst, and all the mundane comments, looks, gestures, and hints accumulated over the days lost their infusion of meaning. You had interpreted every possibility in your favor, like any horny guy.
The story didn’t end there. You became bolder, no longer afraid of rejection, since it had already happened. You cornered her at a bar to talk about your feelings again. How could you intimate that this was a qualitatively different experience for you? That you were being driven mad? How could you get what you wanted? What did you want?
“Not in my wildest dreams could I imagine myself lucky enough to sleep with you. That’s not what this is about. I just wanted to… tell you, I guess.”
Because telling the truth felt relieving. For a few short hours, your anxiety had melted away, and you could function. You felt at ease.
But these feelings came and went. The anxiety returned with a tidal rhythm, exacerbated by Margot’s stoic game playing, and alleviated by your honesty. She was one hundred percent aware of the attentions paid by her two younger lesbian guests; one bold and flirty, the other awkwardly direct. You won’t accuse her of using her powers for evil. But she had sinister control over you, and it seemed to please her.
You were at her mercy. You would have done anything she asked, anything for her amusement. She needed only to say the word; but she spoke little, in favor of wearing a world-class Estonian poker face, and you never could tell what she was thinking. Her ambiguous “boyfriend” didn’t help matters; he seemed entertained by the entire situation and played along.
You heart broke very slowly over the course of a week, hindered by the crude re-gluing of each broken piece through moments: seeing her in a new dress, being commanded to contort her boyfriend for her viewing pleasure, feeling her consoling touch on your arm or back, being tricked into seeing her topless. You were a train wreck.
What could you do? Drink yourself into a semi-stupor every night to calm your nerves. And run.
* * *
There’s always a silver lining somewhere.
You started to run. You dared to push the limits of your knee. At 20 minutes, Righty was thick, stuffy, congested. Angry. 30 minutes, threatening. 40 minutes came. You lengthened your stride.
Fuck you, Righty!
You broke 60 minutes while accelerating your pace in increments. The pain began to fade until it was nearly gone.
Things fell into place.
The next day, you ran 80 minutes. The day after that, 80. They day after that, 120.
Breakthrough. It took an entire year.
You never did outrun your feelings, but you ran your heart out.
* * *
Does traveling make you happy, or is it because you love running?
People always assume that travelers are running from something—life, breakups, death, failure, indecision. What about the travelers who run towards something? How can you know what lies ahead?
There is a difference between people who go on vacation and people who travel. The former are people who are seeking a supplement to their predefined lives; the latter are people who are in the process of defining their lives. Travelers do not distinguish between permanence and change. Travelers are in a constant state of change; they journey.
You mean this in a very abstract way. You believe a person can travel without physically re-locating. These people invite life to their doorstep. The peel away the layers of experience as one flips the pages of a book. Each experience is a page.
Answer your own question.
You do not travel because it makes you happy. No single thing can make a person happy. A person must choose to be happy.
Yes, you love running in all forms. You run away from your past; you run towards your goals; you run in circles for women.
Do what you love. And choose to be happy.