I have now been in Australia for more than two months, and yet I still write of things not so long past. Why would I deny anyone the right, born in curiosity, to know of what happens now? I feel that to understand this new adventure you must understand those previous and the lessons learned therein. You see every step, every notion, and every action prior leads to the moments now and my success within them.
What I learned from the Camino and Backpacking is as follows:
Step 1: Put vanity aside.
Vanity is the arch enemy of effectiveness. Over time you will find yourself making small mistakes that can be sourced back to a decision based largely on self-perception. Moments of choice in clothing, gear, as well as conversation, all give you the opportunity to be true to yourself and choose exactly what is right. Up comes the horn of vanity and you select the pants that are too tight because you have been a 25 forever and now just doesn’t seem the time to admit your hips and thighs have grown to womanly fullness. You look at the shoes before you and refuse to even consider the 8s because you can wear the 7.5s and, my oh my, don’t they make your feet look tiny and adorable. You enter a conversation about things you know nothing about using a combination of wit and blarney to blunder out a response so as not to admit to others that there are some things in this world that you do not deem as important as most.
Half-truths, poor decisions, and self-imposed physical discomfort. These are only some of the gifts that poorly placed vanity can provide. So be honest with yourself, remember that you are human and growth is achieved through understanding. Respect that the physical burden you are undertaking will increase your shoe size. Respect that after so many good years of life on this green earth you are healthy and strong and not a slave to the number printed on a label. Respect that it is okay to admit ignorance and take the opportunity to learn something new or don’t, it’s entirely up to you. But do trust me on the shoes.
I spent hours searching for the right hiking shoe. The moment I slipped my feet into them I knew I need look no further. They are an 8.5, for reference I normally wear a 7.5 or 8 dependent on the maker. They are Cascadias, a lightweight trail runner from an outdated series. What they lack in ankle-support they make up for with an obstinately unforgiving color palette. A speckled reptilian green trimmed by a fleshy red that calls to mind the flitting tongues of fly-catchers.
They match nothing. Ever. They are for me and I adore them.
Step 2: Weight distribution is key.
If you are carrying all of your belongings on your back you will learn rather quickly that things have a place and balance depends greatly on these things being in said place. I cannot tell you how I lumbered under the weight of a poorly packed bag, wobbling to and fro as my pack had more force than the being that carried it. After a while you learn, each lesson particular to the item. In my 65L Osprey Ariel, the heavy weight goes on the bottom: tent, sleeping bag, hiking shoes. The main compartment houses clothing and poles or long accessories. The top hatch holds quick need items, which for me generally means lunch or a book. Then smaller accessories get tucked into available exterior pockets. This keeps the bulk of the weight centered on my hips with extra support coming from the shoulders, not vice versa. For others this may not be the best way, but this is my story and it is what it is.
Finding a place for everything within my bag became a ritual for me. I unpacked and repacked. I would dismantle my bag entirely and try distribution anew. As the months wore on I became so familiar with my pack that I could reach in and grab what I needed without struggle or delay. This familiarity landed ease and confidence to my wanderings. It is the small things in life that give us fuel, my friends.
Step 3: Pinch that penny, girl.
Cut costs where you can. If you are traveling and not working, every cent is precious. First, you have to recall that there is such a thing as an exchange rate and it does not always work in your favor. When encountering a stronger monetary denomination, I generally round up. Thus I spent the entire summer on a 2:1 theory where two US Dollars got me one Euro or one Pound. This mental tabulation did more to serve my pocketbook than my actual spending habits.
While Pilgrim meals along the Camino were both affordable and abundantly plated, later meals were not. Even on the Camino we could have cut costs further by sharing the meals, there was more than enough food for two individuals to get their plenty and more besides. It did not take me long to realize that by virtue of being born in a country and a household where one never has to scrimp on portions I had a tendency to be gluttonous. I began eating only half of what I ordered and squirreling the rest away for a later meal. Shortly after that I stopped eating in cafes or restaurants altogether and subsisted on the simple meals I could make for myself. Excepting, of course, rare occasions when I would treat myself to one delicacy or another.
I became and remain a big fan of the packed lunch. When I finally arrived in Scotland I had my Ariel on my back and upfront I carried a 25L day-pack full of groceries. Simple items since I carried no pots, pans. or other cooking supplies. I made sandwiches. A world of sandwiches. Chopped vegetablesand fresh fruits thrown together in a bag with some oil and called salad. It is not glamorous, but it is a way to get things done. Cost cuts don’t just come on the journey, they can occur before as well.
I remember being rather impetuous when I was younger, and still am in some ways. In my excitement, I have many times purchased items not entirely necessary for a journey. Most specifically, in reference to my European adventure, compression sacks. These things are pretty cool in theory. They keep your belongings dry. They take a rather large mass of clothing and supposedly shrink it to a more manageable ball. They look cool and I am told by the Internet that they are a thing explorers have. I am, in my opinion, an explorer. I shall take six. At more than $35 a pop. Completely egregious spending there. Not only did I spend my own money on these things, no, I encouraged my fellow travelers to each purchase these for their storage needs as well.
As the days wore on I realized that the long cylinders were exactly the wrong size for storing clothing. They take your separate clothing items and compress them into tubular ovals which are unwieldy at best. Everything squashed into a terrible mass of wrinkled fabric smashed, layer upon layer, together. So molded together were they that you would have to remove the entire mass to separate the item you wanted. Then you were required to fold it all back and go through the process of deflating air, rolling the top, pulling up the compression cap, and painstakingly pulling the straps to condense it to a size that allows it to fit into the bag with everything else. This was the absolute worst. To this day I have the expensive Sea to Summit bags tossed inside one of my mother’s hand-made sacks with other bags that may or may not, eventually, find use. I could have saved myself a great deal of money and grief. I could have eaten a few more meals. I could have bought myself something beautiful. Instead, I invested in a group of bags that live in a low-tech, more effective version of themselves.
Step 4: Do your best to listen to your body.
If you need to stop, stop. If your feet ache, pull over and take your shoes off for a time. If it hurts to walk, rest a full day. At the end of our trip, my mother had spent almost two weeks unable to walk as she had lost the use of her feet to blisters of insane magnitude. Haylee had used a walking stick for most of the Way and at one point had a method of throwing her left leg forward with a painful hip thrust that can’t have been pleasant. The sight of which is unforgettable and, I dare say, comical. I had to send my pack ahead as I had developed painful shin splints in my right leg. All of us suffered injuries.
Be cautious but never cowardly. If you are ready and capable, go for it. You can do yourself an injury by being too cautious, and to go full tilt is a great deal more fun. After watching a maniacal French-man leap and yawp with joy as he skipped and jumped from rock to rock down a particularly steep embankment, I gathered my courage. The next steep rocky pass we encountered had me billy-goat-gruff-ing my way to the bottom in record time and with a great deal more joy. It’s okay to do or not to so long as it is your choice, made with honest judgment.
Step 5: Be aware.
While it is always safer to travel in pairs or groups it is certainly more exciting to go alone. Whether it be some misanthropic desire that launches you into this oblivion or just the urge to prove to yourself once and for all that you are in fact capable of the most basic of life’s requirements, survival. Traveling as a woman alone is certainly a terrifying prospect, and I needed to know it was something that I could accomplish. How to look at my own two feet and call them capable without experience. When I left my mother at the airport I wished her well with a flurry of worry in my heart. I am now the only person I know in a country whose language I don’t speak.
I pushed concern to the back of my mind and, as Jorge Sosa would say, decided to Be.
The first time that you are faced with the full weight of your decisions is a wonderful moment. You are left to navigate a map of possibility that balances on your every decision and you haven’t a compass. It’s quite thrilling.
My time in Scotland was the most precious to me for many reasons, not least of which is because I came upon it in a time when I was most sure of myself and subsequently most open to its offerings. I had come through Italy unscathed and fortified my soul with Cinque Terre, where I did not spend enough time. Every day I woke up and was, alone, responsible for the direction of my steps and the filling of my belly and the exploration of a new city. I stayed if I liked it, as I did in Florence and Edinburgh, and left when I did not, as with Rome and London. The best part of this wayward wandering is that you truly begin to learn what it is that you as an individual enjoy. I learned that I prefer craggy cliffs to beaches. I learned that rolling green hills filled with ancient boulders haphazardly protruding touch my heart in a way I can’t quite understand. I learned that each step, if placed carefully, might lead to spectacular views and scents and flavors. There is a Blueberry Risotto in the heart of Edinburgh that I will remember with deep pleasure for the rest of my life. One of the biggest lessons I learned was how to be aware of my surroundings and the people therein.
I only felt unsafe once.
I booked a train from Rome to Florence and, in a terrible mixup, boarded the wrong one. The destination was the same, speed was not. I had misread the boards and hopped a train with unknown arrival time. The only real issue was that my hostel for the night had a limited check-in that I would never make. Hasty negotiations with the attendant left me unsure of whether or not I would have a bed for the night or, at the bare minimum, entry to the lobby. At this point, I had become so softened by stay in hostels or albergues that I didn’t contemplate other options as camping this late in an unfamiliar city meant hours of walking to find a spot. As this problem developed, I had also become aware of the odd, over-attentive friendliness of a passenger. Spider sense tingling, I changed cars. After a few minutes, another man walked down the train to enter my car, sitting close to me despite its emptiness.
I have been known to make a logical leap or two in the wrong direction but I am fairly certain that these two sirs were in each other's company. A feeling of unease took root ad I quickly took stock of the situation. I was on my way to a new city with no traveling companions to greet me. I would be stepping off the train into darkness armed with only the simplest of maps. I was burdened by my pack and would make easy prey should the desire strike. I had made sure to be in contact with someone from home, but there was no guarantee a lack of response from me would set off any signals. I bit down and determined to make it to that hostel door.
As the train passengers disembarked I saw the gentleman from the second car approach the one from the first car and confer. My suspicions crystallized and I rounded a column to be out of sight. I walked straight ahead, sure of purpose and attempting to show no distress. They say things about the first scent of fear and what it does to a hunter. I waited until rounding a street corner some way from the station to look over my shoulder. Low and behold, the man from the station. I quickened my pace and raced for what I hoped was the door. As I approached a few young travelers came tumbling out. I plunged into their midst and shrouded myself in the illusion of travel mates. It took little effort to convince them to let me into the locked entry. I ducked down in an alcove by the desk and set up my bed for the night. Perhaps everything I observed was just coincidence and no harm would have befallen me whether I entered those doors or not. I do not know. I know that I was terrified and weary. After a full day's rest, I rose to tramp every street around me in search of hidden magic.
Be aware, simply this.
Step 6: Be Reasonable.
Make a list of things you might need. Write these down. Then look closer and eliminate half. You are closer to the truth here. Cut it in half again and you will likely realize that you need less than you thought and the lightness has given you more freedom than you imagined. Remember that it is upon your back that these items must reside and you can only bring what you can carry.
Back to the Start
My return to the states was wonderful as it reunited me with my love and terrible because it meant my adventures were at a pause. I girdled myself for the two years of financial prep work that would take place before I could step once more into adventure. Here’s looking at you Australia.