“Travel does not exist without home. If we never return to the place we started, we would just be wandering, lost. Home is a reflecting surface, a place to measure our growth and enrich us after being infused with the outside world.” ~ Josh Gates
Few experiences will bring a person to a full knowledge of their senses as traveling alone. Maneuvering a far-away land will heighten your awareness at every level. It’s the thing I’ve learned over time that brings me most alive. It’s not so much the getting away from things as it is the freshness of new, uncharted experience. Traveling alone builds confidence, character, and offers a perspective on the world that is achieved no other way. Comfort zone boundaries are demolished and necessarily overcome when you have no idea what to do next, and no other choice than to figure it out. But there is nothing that stirs the blood as standing at the helm of your destiny.
Solo travel can also have a life-changing effect on how a person thinks about home.
After a walking a million and a half steps across Spain it was comforting and exhilarating thinking about the familiarity of home, but I was petrified of the conversations surely ahead in future social situations.
Somewhere over the ten-hour North Atlantic flight home it occurred to me. People are inevitably going to ask you to talk about this. And most of them are going to say, ‘Well, how was it, and what was it like?’ As surely as the sun rises, people would ask that question just as if it had been a long weekend vacation on the beach. I feared my any given trigger reaction to the empty questions.
All of a sudden there was a keen awareness of an inadequate fragility that goes with returning home after a hallowed and humbling experience that has changed you in ways too early to understand. Never speaking of it again would have been perfectly fine. That’s how it felt at the time, anyway.
Wheels down in Memphis concluded a remarkable seven-week odyssey. As the reverse engines roared I exhaled deeply blowing out what seemed every emotion God ever made.
Stepping out from the aisle seat on Row 10, I reached to the overhead bin and strapped on my backpack a final time. A text from Dana brought a wide smile. I’m here! The Delta captain stood at the cockpit’s entrance as passengers deplaned. I thanked him and shook his hand for the safe trip home.
The C concourse for arriving flights at Memphis International Airport is simple and uncomplicated with the feel of a regional terminal. From the furthest arrival gate it’s no more than a five-minute walk past security to the point where friends and family await weary travelers. At the last left turn there’s a final thoroughfare short enough you can see past the TSA checkpoint and make out faces in the eager crowd. Home always happens when I see my wife’s face there.
Just before the turn my hands went automatically to their familiar spot on the backpack straps and a sequence of images from the last seven weeks raced vividly through my mind. It was incredible what had happened really, and the fragility came full-bore.
Fifty yards down the concourse she was smiling the purest most familiar smile I know. It easily came to mind what a blessing she’d been and how much I loved every single thing about her. Reaching around her neck I began crying unexpectedly and couldn’t let go. It was so hard, I remember choking out and holding her tight. It was just so far, and so hard but I didn’t quit. The embrace must have lasted a minute as travelers walked politely around us. Home can be anywhere for me as long as Dana’s there.
At home, a long hot steamy shower with fresh smelling soap and a soft towel was a momentary rejuvenation from three consecutive days of non-stop travel, but short-lived from a desire for sleep in my own bed. For the next twelve hours things went black.
We avoided people for days and Dana kept me well insulated from the outside world, aware of my desire to stay clear of people and conversation. Eventually visitors came. “We want to hear all about it,” they said. The predictable sweeping nature of the question made me ill.
“You’ll have to ask some more specific questions,” Dana jumped in. “I don’t think he really knows how to answer the big open-ended questions yet.” She saved me.
The truth is that most people ask these questions only for the sake of polite social chit chat. It’s required decorum, and the only thing we know. They really don’t care, and it’s not really their fault because they could never understand. Some have labeled it the Seinfeld Effect. You’re telling a story answering someone’s question about one of the most unique experiences of a lifetime, and in five minutes, they’re staring off into space, completely uninterested, wondering which Seinfeld rerun will air next. This happened countless times and it’s one of several reasons the story of pilgrimage is so personal and private.
In some ways I was completely prepared for what came next. In others, I’m still figuring it out today.