Women travelers

Skipping Stones

Skipping Stone

Last Thursday night, I had the honor of speaking at Fresh Ground Stories​ here in Seattle. The theme was “Comfort Zone,” and to prepare for the event, I DID NOT PREPARE A DAMN THING. I got up to the mic without knowing what I was going to say, hoping divine inspiration would cut me a break and take pity on my blind willingness to challenge myself as a storyteller. As I gathered my nerves and opened my mouth, I could feel all the stories in my head lining up at my mind’s door, clamoring to be heard. This is the story that shoved its way out:

People have asked me, “What is the most surprising thing about your journey so far?” And, the truth is: I am amazed by the kindness of strangers, and perhaps by my own ability to trust them back, as well. No matter where I’ve stopped along the way, unfailingly, there are always people who are ready and willing to help out in any way that they can.

After I came back from South America in April of this year, I quickly realized Austin was no longer the right place for me — a feeling that totally jolted me. But, I trusted it, and within a few weeks, I sold all my things, and packed up my car and headed west. I made my way across west Texas, following the Rockies up through New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Canada, then over to Seattle, and down the Pacific Coast to San Francisco and Los Angeles, before making my way back up to the Pacific Northwest, which is where I’ve been playing for the past few weeks.

When I reached Glacier National Park in Montana, I came upon a lake as clear and still as glass. As I took in the majesty of the place, I noticed some splashing and ripples on the other end. Curious, I followed the shoreline. A family of four was there: a mom, dad, and their two young daughters. They were skipping stones. I laughed and smiled, and asked if they could teach me. The girls said, “Sure!” and handed me a stone. “It’s all in the wrist,” they said, “And when you pick out a stone, make sure it is light and as smooth as possible. Then, just flick!”

I took a breath, feeling the weight of the stone in my hand and set up my wrist to flick like they instructed. Then, FLICK — *pat*pat* — my stone skipped twice before gliding underneath the surface. INCREDIBLE! I had never skipped a stone in my entire life! I picked up another. AGAIN! Another successful double skip.

Sharing in my delight, the mom asked me about my journey, and I relayed my story. Seemingly impressed, she asked if I had anywhere to stay that night. I told her no. I had been in the practice of just allowing the Universe to take care of me and steer me in whatever direction it felt I should go. “Something will show up,” I shrugged.

After a beat, she said, “Well, we’re staying at the KOA down the road, and we paid for a tent space, but we’re not using it, because we’re in our RV. You’re welcome to pitch your tent there. We’re also having tacos for dinner and a chocolate mousse cake I’ve been letting thaw out all day. You’re welcome to join us!”

I stared in disbelief. In the past, I probably would have declined such a grand invitation, not wanting to impose. But, before I knew it, I heard myself saying, “Yes, I would love that,” the words rolling out of my mouth freed from somewhere deep inside my being.

“Great!” she said, “We’ll be eating around 7:30. But, don’t have too high expectations on the tacos. We’re from Minnesota. ”

I laughed and thanked her, and told them I’d meet them there. I hung back after they headed back down the trail, watching the lake once more turned to glass. I left the park within the hour and made my way to the KOA, thanking my absolute lucky stars.

We ate dinner and played games. Apparently, one of the daughters was usually a quiet gal, but for whatever reason she really opened up around me and told me all about her love of mermaids. She even had a real mermaid tail attached to a slip-on spandex suit, which she promptly put on and demonstrated how to swim in it. I laughed until my belly ached. I hadn’t had that much fun in such a long time. I forgot how much I loved playing games and sharing in that young schoolgirl mindset.

As the night began to wind down, the dad asked me how big my tent was. I told him it was a small two-person tent. “Perfect,” he said. “That should fit just right outside in that gravelly area next to the RV.” I nodded, ready to make my way back to my car to start setting up. “You’re welcome to set it up out there,” he continued, “Or, if you’d like, you can stay inside with us.”

I stared again in disbelief, a smile spreading across my face. I thought of all the yes’s and no’s I had ever uttered in my life that led me to be so lucky in that moment. Where would I have been instead had I not said yes that night? Where would I have been had I not said yes to to Mechi​ and our South American roadtrip earlier this year?

Who knows. It didn’t matter.

“Yes,” I said at last, “I would absolutely love that.”

Photo credit: Amelia Isabel

Amelia holding a skipping stone

The Beauty Crusader

The Beauty Crusader

Life on the road can be isolating as much as it is liberating. As much as I equally want to be a hermit, no longer caring about what I look like, I still want to engage with others and care about what I look like. It’s so easy to hide away under layers of clothes to hide an expanding waistline or put on a hat to cover a gradually-growing untamable mane.

It is a constant exercise in confidence-building and self-esteem. (WHICH I’M SUPER DUPER GOOD AT, BY THE WAY. Not.)

When I woke this morning after quickly putting on some pants and a hat to cover up my bed (er, car) head, and the new flannel men’s shirt I got from Goodwill yesterday, I made my way to the restroom area of the RV park. As I rounded the corner, a young boy about 10 or 11 emerged, his blonde hair freshly tussled, donning reddish-pink goggles with his towel cooly slung over his shoulder. I quickly crossed my arms over my chest, because I wasn’t wearing a bra (I’m liberated, remember? 😉 ), and I offered him a small smile before looking past him to find the bathroom.

“Good morning!” he proclaimed, surprising me with his bright and cheerful tone. I replied, matching his cheeriness — my uneasiness instantly erased.

As we passed each other, he turned around and said to me, “You know, you’re looking really beautiful this morning.” My spirit soared. I brightened even more. “Thank you!” I beamed back.

OMG WHO IS THIS KID AND WHERE CAN I THANK HIS PARENTS?! 😀

It is moments like this morning when I reminded of what it means to be really beautiful. It’s not about what you wear, (ahem: AMELIA), and it’s not about what you look like, or even how you sometimes feel, remember? Beauty exists, because YOU exist. And of course, it helps when others see it, too.

As I sat and made my breakfast, I kept on the lookout for him. Soon, I spotted him riding his mountain bike through the RV park, red goggles in place — a masked crusader of light and beauty streaming through the forest of campers. I shouted to him, “Hello!” He turned to find me and shouted back, “Hello!” And after a beat and without pausing to slow his steed, he said, “My parents need soda!” I smiled. “Ok!” I said. Then he was gone, off to sweeten and save the world one more time.

Thank you, masked crusader. Saluting you from campsite #33.

Amelia

Got Oxygen?

Got Oxygen? bracelet

I ALMOST DIED LAST WEEK.

Wish I could joke. It’s taken almost a week for the shock to wear off before I could write about it. But, I really almost could not be sitting here today sharing the story with all of you. Though, I can muster a little laugh about it now…

Many of you have told me how strong, brave, and courageous I am to have packed up my life and embarked on this solo journey. I have appreciated every bit of encouragement. Though, for me, I never felt like I was being brave or courageous. On the contrary, I just felt normal. Like it’s no-big-deal that I have set off on my own again. It is in my DNA, I realize. My grandmother Amelia was also just like me. My father recently revealed that she, like me, often traveled alone. At eighteen, she left Texas and hopped on a train to Mexico City BY HERSELF – and this was 1928! She, like me, also spent the majority of her twenties single and without children.

I never realized how independent she was. I never met her, but this trip has made me feel closer to her and understand her more as a person – understand ME more as a person, as well.

I feel most comfortable in constant change. In always on the move. In big open spaces. And alone with my thoughts and writing.

I also have a great respect for Mother Nature and a great respect for my human body. And I respect the limits of both (though, I do push them 😉 – what sort of adventurer would I be, if I didn’t?)

Yet, never have I ever have I come close to Death in all my travels in quite the way I did last Thursday.
I crossed into Colorado from New Mexico last Tuesday afternoon, spent the day in Pagosa Springs, drove through Salida, and made my way to Colorado Springs. Along the way, I decided to climb Pike’s Peak, one of the tallest mountains in the U.S., towering at a mere 14,110 ft. (4,302 m) above sea level. I had heard of altitude sickness, and a friend of mine, who recently visited Colorado, asked me if I had ever experienced it before. I told her no. After all, I’ve flown so many times! I’ve lived in the mountains of Costa Rica! Stood atop volcanoes and continental divides. How bad could Colorado be?

She told me her story and how scary sick she had gotten. And I remember bookmarking her words in my mind.

They say when visiting Colorado for the first time, lowlanders should spend a few days in Denver first to acclimate before moving up into the mountains. And most importantly, to always stay hydrated.

But, I had already been on the road for so long, the idea of altitude sickness wasn’t even on my mind. I had forgotten my friend’s story. And I never once paused to think that climbing Pike’s Peak would be a problem.

I hadn’t eaten lunch yet, and as I approached the entrance, my hunger was replaced with feelings of excitement and happiness. I should have recognized this as a tiny red flag, but I did not. After all, I was planning to eat at the top! Surely, it was normal that my hunger subsided to make room for the awe and wonder of the moment?

I paid the entrance fee. Happy to talk to the ranger and have him explain how to use my lower gears to drive up the highway. I thanked him and began my ascent. Slowly, I began to feel blissful and euphoric. The world was taking on an alien beauty. The trees began to play colors like fingering different keys on a piano or like the glimmering facets of a colored wind chime. I felt like I was entering another planet. The sky a shade of cerulean I never felt before. The sun so crisp and cool, layering me in an airy picnic blanket. I could taste colors and feel their texture. Synesthesia, I realize now.

Never once did I pause to think something was wrong. I was in euphoria! Nothing can be wrong in euphoria.

It also just happens to be an early symptom of altitude sickness.

Many people also experience depression, hallucinations, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, headaches, black outs, and can even experience permanent or fatal consequences if not brought to a lower elevation immediately.

Sure enough, the higher I climbed, the more beautiful my mental poetry became – and the more I realized I was no longer in control of my motor functions. My mind and my body were splinched from each other. My body in control of the car. My spirit lifting away as if I were being silently ejected in some menacing magician’s trick.

I began to feel sleepy and began to dream and drift away from the present moment. I lost concept of time and thought I was living fifteen minutes to an hour in the past – and at the same time, in an indiscernible amount of time in the future.

Suddenly, fear took over, and I was losing control of the car and my mind. Somehow something within me finally screamed: STOP THE CAR. FIND A SPOT AND STOP THE CAR. The road to the top was two-laned and windy and full of switchbacks. Where would I possibly stop? How could I possibly stop? And if I could stop, could I even turn myself around?

I was terrified.

Finally, I found a turn-out spot and parked, hallucinating that I was rolling back down the mountain, that I hadn’t parked the car at all. I forced myself to look at the dashboard and comprehend that yes, the car was turned off and, yes, that the emergency brake was on. The world spun around me. All I wanted to do was sleep. To let it pass. If I just sat there, I thought, I would start to feel better. Wrong. The only cure for altitude sickness is to get down IMMEDIATELY. It only gets worse if you stay.

Like I said, I was losing control of my motor skills. I knew I had to flag someone down and ask them to help me, but I was paralyzed. I watched people drive by, a few even looking my way, and I could not summon the strength to reach my arm out of the car to stop anyone.

My hallucinations grew stronger. I felt that I was actually opening the door to run out and jump off the side. But I wasn’t. Remember: I was losing concept of time – and with that logic and reason. It felt like an alternate reality was being folded on top of mine, drowning me in a nightmare bowl of cake batter. It really felt like I had gotten out of the car to run and plunge to my death.

I was petrified, and I grabbed my seat.

No, I was still in the car. The door was still closed. I reached for the keys in the ignition and threw them across the car. I was terrified I would try to turn it on and attempt to drive again.

I sat with myself, unable to take deep breaths; feeling like my circulatory system had become a roller coaster scraping over my bones and inside flesh.

I need to stop someone, I repeated.

Finally, my mind stopped swimming enough for me to spot two men on motorcycles riding down the mountain. I willed myself to stretch my arm out of the window and started moving it up and down like one of those tollbooth wooden arm things. One of the men slowed to a stop and asked if everything was ok. I had no idea what I was saying. I felt like I had a stroke and lost the ability to speak. I could hear myself say, “help,” “mountain,” “my car,” “down,” “someone,” “drive,” “please.” He seemed to understand and told me he would be back. They left. I have no idea how long they were gone before they returned on a single motorcycle. The man who had stopped was named Bruce, and he was a pilot. He helped me out of the car and around to the other side. I began belligerently apologizing for the mess inside, explaining my journey. He just listened and told me everything was ok. He closed the door for me and went around to the driver side and squeezed himself in. I was growing dizzier and less coherent, but a wave of relief and safety wash over me, grateful that this stranger had stopped to help me and was actually driving me and my car back down the mountain!

There was no way I would have made it out on my own.

As we were driving down, I marveled at how much I had driven, barely recognizing my surroundings. He explained to me that I had “hypoxia,” a.k.a. altitude sickness, and as a pilot, they are trained to recognize their symptoms as they ascend in elevation. Everyone can experience it differently – some may feel only euphoria before they pass out. Which is extremely dangerous as a pilot or anyone operating any kind of machinery.

He told me his wife was also a pilot, and they both can withstand up to 25,000 feet before they feel any symptoms. I couldn’t help but marvel at the Universe and the fact that out of everyone I could have flagged down – my rescuer was a pilot.

He shared with me that the other man was his cousin (or brother or brother-in-law, I can’t remember), and they drove in from Cañon City to check out the Peak. I made a small joke and said I was glad I caught him coming down. I would have hated to ruin his trip. He just laughed. He told me that I had climbed within 15-16 miles of the 19-mile trek to the top, and it was good that I asked for help when I did. With a lot of water and recovering at lower elevation, I would be just fine.

I can’t believe I drove that far. I still don’t know how I did it.

Bruce bought me the “Got Oxygen?” bracelet in the picture (which also features Pike’s Peak in the lower right). He gave it to me as a memento and wished me well on the rest of my journey. I am ever so grateful to him, the rangers at the bottom, and everyone else I reached out to for help. My grandmother and the Universe were certainly smiling upon me that day.

I’m not going to lie; I certainly do not feel any more brave or courageous. But, I can recognize the strength it takes to continue this journey and not give up – albeit with a healthy dose of stupidity thrown in. 😉

Thank you for reading and for loving and supporting me. Never underestimate a new environment, you guys. And never underestimate the power of human kindness.

Amelia