We are living through unprecedented times.
Rightfully so, there have been a slew of restrictions put in place that have altered the manner in which we relate to others, as well as with ourselves. This pandemic has imparted a chronic stress in us that has persisted through 2020, and promises to continue to nag at us even after a vaccine and viable treatment have been devised. It’s so pervasive, at least in my life, that I find myself watching media and thinking, “Why are you at a restaurant, you imbeciles! Don’t you know that’s not safe?? …Oh God, why are you shaking hands?!” before I recall that I’m watching a rerun from a 90s sitcom. The rules that are here to keep me safe, in real time, I am applying so strongly and so stressfully across the board that they have sneaked into my subconscious and are affecting my life in a myriad of ways.
That said, I have found myself battling with this “new normal”: social distancing, increased hand washing and sanitizing, stay at home orders, reduced social contacts, online meetings, distanced learning, etc. My battling is not in the sense of not following or protesting guidelines, because I understand their intention is to keep others as well as myself safe; I have been working to process and compartmentalize these restrictions so as to not pervade my life and functioning, causing undue and unneeded stress that does little to keep me safe. My actions keep me safe – I wash my hands, I wear a mask in public, I keep distance, I work remotely, I don’t eat out, I limit social contacts; my fears and stresses and all that other stuff is secondary – a reminder to stay safe, but it’s superfluous because I am already practicing healthy habits.
I have labelled this article as such because I do find it important to combat fear while continuing to practice these safe and healthy recommendations, and one such way I have found that to occur for me personally is by visiting the outdoors. I have noticed a great deal of fear in others around venturing outside of their home since the shelter in place order was enacted in our area in March; easing of restrictions and reopening have done little to allay these fears. While I agree wholeheartedly that a governmental reopening says nothing about the danger of this pandemic, and I acknowledge that the risk of coronavirus is still present (perhaps even more so now as cases have risen dramatically across the country), the idea that one must shelter in place has felt troublesome, as it is not venturing outside that adds to danger, but rather being in close contact with others who may have the virus (yes, the likelihood of which increases as one leaves their home, depending on the space being visited). As the weather has become warmer and more favorable, I have found it personally important to commune with nature in solitary outside spaces; doing so has allowed me to shed some of this stress related to this very human pandemic, and zoom out to examine my own life, my own emotional wellness, and my own path that I am currently walking.
This journal entry is to serve not as a recommendation or suggestion to others, but rather as documentation of my own experiences of “the outside” in our country encased in a framework of managing stress, adapting to new social norms, and continuing to walk the path you were on before the pandemic, with some necessary adaptations.
Before the pandemic, I was closer than I ever had been to a long-held dream of taking time for myself, travelling, and exploring the world with the new eyes I have attained over the last few years – eyes that are hungry for seeing, absorbing, and appreciating. For years I had been stalking the very millennial dream of escaping the rat race and travelling across the country in a modified vehicle with space for living – think r/vandwellers, but then downsize and think about fuel economy… I researched for over a year and finally this spring purchased a 2012 Toyota Prius just before the shelter in place order was enacted. I spent those months sheltering in place working, reading, researching, and centering myself while also feeling very excited about what was to come now that I was on a path of attaining a goal that had previously only felt like a fantasy.
Finally, as the shelter in place order was lifted and our area began to reopen, I had less reasons to continue the inertia of the waiting and planning phase; the research had been done, the car had been fixed, the supplies had been purchased, and I was experienced in social distancing, mask wearing, sanitizing and rigorous hand washing, and quite frankly, spending time with myself. After a few weeks of procrastinating, I realized my wait was less about safety and preparedness, and more about fears of failure — because what can be scarier than doing something you have always wanted to do, right?! On a Tuesday, I decided, “Why am I waiting — you know what, I should just do this.” I packed on Wednesday and left my house that Thursday morning, with no plan more than, “I need to be safe, and I want to see some nature.”
I’ve written about tumbleweeds before in the sense that, seeing something new, natural, and real, is meditative for me. It puts me in a mental state of wonder and excitement, and washes the stress of “human stuff” away from me. It allows me an attainable means of zooming out from my everyday life into an almost meditative calm. I was chasing this feeling with this journey that I embarked upon. There was little planning around my trajectory and goals for this trip (this is for personal reasons, as I find planning in this way to be incredibly stressful, both in devising and following a plan for my time), other than a few Google Maps markers around natural landscapes, scenery, parks, and some hiking trails.
I began my journey by driving west across Pennsylvania into Ohio. Western Pennsylvania is absolutely gorgeous; I had travelled to Erie Pennsylvania to Presque Isle state park on two occasions the month prior to embarking on this trip both to test out my vehicle and my ability to drive for long-ish stretches (6+ hours) of time. On this occasion, I planned to visit Brandywine falls, and then watch the sunset over Erie in Cleveland. That first night could have been the hardest part of my trip: it was my first night away from home, and I was moderately horrified at the fact that I had to acknowledge that this trip was going to be a while, if it went as planned. I felt a fear of failure if something occurred that meant I had to turn around and head home. I felt a fear of potential judgements from others. But mostly, I had to come to terms with the fact that I was in the midst of doing something I actually wanted to do.
Which can be horrifying! How often is it that we allow ourselves such a thing, and that we are in a place of privilege to achieve long-held goals? This was certainly new for me. It’s ok and normal to feel stressed out from such a life change, even if it is a positive life change. Doing the things you want to do isn’t always butterflies and sunshine; to expect that from such an experience puts an undue pressure on the experience to be something that it may not be 100% of the time, and that’s OK. I am glad I allowed myself to feel and process that stress even if it felt counterintuitive in the moment — change is stressful, working toward goals is stressful, doing things for yourself is stressful. I meditated on this and allowed myself to feel these feelings, which ultimately did pass.
On the second day of my trip, I had to stop and take my car to the shop, because some friendly Cleveland human had pointed out that, well, there was a piece falling off the bottom of my car. So, nearly a day and several hundred dollars later, I had brand new wheel wells on my car. This began a long affair of repairing my car, which I had to do on several occasions on this trip. While driving on a long rocky Wyoming road I noticed a sound which turned into my exhaust shield falling off my car once I got up to speed on a main road. By the time I got to Idaho and had my car examined, it was determined that I blew a strut which was leaking which then led to a whole front end suspension repair for almost a thousand dollars. I had my oil changed in Seattle which led to an observation that my oil canister was damaged. When driving to Mount Saint Helens in a national forest road, I must have hit a thousand potholes which led to an exhaust leak that was noticed when I was in Oregon. I got some rusty bolts replaced and was told the exhaust damage was so extensive that it would need major costly repairs to manage the rust. In Colorado, I woke up at 2 in the morning to the sound of small footsteps which amounted to a family of mice in my car with me, and in my engine (and later, a large chipmunk).
It’s… been a trip, with regard to vehicle repairs and expenses. I am so grateful to have been safe thus far in my travels, and appreciate having a reliable vehicle to get me from A to B with little pomp and circumstance, despite some hiccups along the way. This aspect of my travels has allowed me to reexamine my privilege with regard to money management, as well as my own anxieties and fears around spending money. Without expanding on this too much, I would like to say that something I have taken away from this experience is the deeply personal knowledge of, I can change. Something that feels so set in stone, like my programmed-in values on saving and spending, can become less arduous on my wellbeing with time and patience. Just a few years ago, spending money on medical expenses elicited a very negative response in me, that would pain me for days. I see it as an important sign of progress that I can spend money on an experience without guilt or self-punishment. Change is possible.
On the next leg of my journey, I travelled northwards in Michigan, eventually landing in the Upper Peninsula. I stopped over at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, and hiked up the 450’ dunes to watch the sunset over lake Michigan. This was a taxing hike and my first of many. It’s no secret that I work in a position that involves sitting and mental labor rather than physical exertion. I try to get outdoors as much as possible but due to my own inactivity my body is a little bit softer and protests a little bit more when I coax it into moving 🙂 This trip was an exercise (pun intended) in working with my body to accomplish the sites I wanted to see and the experiences I wanted to have. When travelling to places, there was at times grueling heat, uphill climbs, obstructing rocks, freezing water, rocky shores (LEGOlike, if that means anything to you), beating sun, you name it. One one occasion I hiked to a hot spring in Idaho that made me take at least ten breaks along the way to not barf.
And you know what? I made it.
I made a treatise with my body: we want to see stuff, we need to work to get there. I prepared. I purchased forgiving shoes, I packed sunscreen and bug spray, I hydrated and ate for nutrition. Places on the plan were physical places, not human spaces. I checked the weather, woke up early, and hoofed it.
A few years ago, I had a devastating back injury. I fell down a flight of stairs and flattened my L5-S1 disc, among other stuff. I was in incredible pain and went through physical therapy for years. It affected work, walking, sitting, and my activity level for a long while. I was in pain nearly every day until I found the right combination of treatment, stretching and strengthening, and a medical team to manage my symptoms. It took a mindset shift and a reduction in my fear around the injury and its repercussions to decrease my experiences of pain even further. I can say that after this experience, I am left with a deep appreciation for the things my body can accomplish. I used to be hung up on my appearance, my weight, others’ perceptions of me, and in combination with my injury, it all feels like fear — a static background noise that felt unchanging. I didn’t notice the ringing that had left in my ears until I left that mindset behind.
I was sweaty, I was smelly, I was all wet and hunched over and red and breathing heavy and cursing these physical obstacles (not) under my breath. And, I was looking at something beautiful. And my body accomplished it. Focus on your body’s accomplishments. It may look a certain way, it may protest, it may ask for a break. I took a million breaks over the course of this trip. It’s ok. Go at your own pace. Take life at your own pace. It’s OK. You may look gross, you may be wheezing. It’s OK. Keep climbing that mountain, physical or metaphorical. Recognize your body’ strengths. My body is always healing. It gets me to where I want to go. It is strong.
When I was climbing up to that hot spring, people who were climbing down spoke to my wheezing red ass lying on the side of the path like a piece of bloated roadkill. “You’re so close!” “You’re almost there!” “It’s so worth it when you get to the top!” Little kids with patagonia parents passed me on the path and smiled at me. I smiled back. It’s OK. Take your time. People are most likely judging you positively. Don’t be your own harshest critic if you can help it. I called my friend and howled into the phone. “Maybe you should take a break, drink some water.” Be patient. You’ll get there, in life. I wish I could say this to you a thousand times. When you get there, it’ll be worth it.
“The most beautiful part of your body is where it’s headed.”(Vuong, O. – 2016, “Someday I’ll love Ocean Vuong”, in Night Sky with Exit Wounds)
To the point of perfect strangers talking me up this literal mountain: I noticed on this trip and continue to maintain my belief in the fact that people are generally good. People are helpful, people are caring.
We live in a time where the divisions between people are emphasized and overblown. We are constantly exposed to negative opinions, devastating news, and fear clickbait just seconds away at all times. This is hard on our mental health, and hard on our relationships with others, particularly unknown others. I understand there are measures of personal safety that must be followed in our world, particularly in my experience of travelling alone as a young woman, trust me. At the same time, my experiences with others over the course of this trip have served to remind me of the good in folks.
I recall a time a year ago I was trapped in an airport in Alaska as my flight had been cancelled without my knowing. I was obviously distressed and distraught and a family stopped; a woman hugged me and offered me the snacks they had packed for their own trip. It’s these acts of kindness that encourage my experiences in travelling and make me want to see more of not just the world, but the folks in it.
Travelling while social distancing was difficult. I skipped towns and cities I was interested in seeing, I had to meet folks while missing half of their facial expressions, I had to make hard decisions about being in public spaces and levels of risk that could affect my ability to do basic tasks like eating and showering. Obviously, this hard work was necessary to practice safety for others around me as well as myself. But it was a constant reminder of the changing landscape in human interactions in this year of 2020.
Despite the tumultuousness of this year, I had many positive experiences with folks on this trip: folks enquired about my itinerary and offered welcome suggestions; I learned about local life and the specifics of living in tiny towns and farming communities; people I met respected my boundaries and listened to my stories wholeheartedly; I received hospitality and kindness literally in every locale I visited. I met people who cared for me, cooked for me, invited me into their homes even if it was just to run into their bathroom while wearing a mask to take a quick shower. I sent postcards from Michigan to folks I met in Ohio, met someone in the Upper Peninsula I would again see in Chicago, travelled with someone from Idaho to Montana, compared Prius camping setups with folks in South Dakota and Colorado, visited a Seattleite I had met last year in Montana, and a Portlander who I met online six years ago.
People are good, people are kind, people are generous. Of course listen to your gut feelings and trust warning signs — your fight or flight system is honed through millions of years of evolution to provide you with valuable insight and data. And, it is OK to accept the kindness of others. It is OK to ask for help.
Another thing I learned on this trip while interacting with folks: People want to talk about the taboo.
I’m sleeping in a car. I’m hiking in national parks. I smile a bunch. I travel with a backpack covered in pins that say stuff like, “Pleasure heals”, “At least life still wants to fuck me”, and “Menstruation happens, suck it up”, not to mention a bunch of various pride flags. I have a ridiculous New Jersey accent. My hair is silly at best. I wear striking clothing and a bright moonstone around my neck. People want to talk to me about all of it.
I travelled through rural Idaho and ended up in Craters of the Moon National Park, where a young girl hiking with her family took me aside to tell me that she appreciated my shirt with the message, “Why be racist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic when you can just be quiet.” I wondered where else she might be getting that sort of messaging because — let’s just say, some of the messaging in Idaho that I saw was a little different than that. It felt interesting to be in a space I so obviously did not fit into, for a lot of this trip. I offered to wear a mask when getting pulled over, and the police officers declined. I was stared at for wearing a mask, often. I felt “othered” in a bunch of spaces which felt like a valuable experience. But here and there, were folks whom I felt “seen” by, like that girl in the park.
When hiking Arches National Park, I met a Mormon man who commented on my pins and then accompanied me up the trail to delicate arch (panting and many water breaks included, worth it by the way). We spoke of life and the local area, hiking, stress relief, and family before discussing work which eventually led to an avalanche of discussion on current culture and sexuality. He later stated that he was relieved to be able to have a conversation about his relationship and sexuality outside of the context of his religion, which he found to be closed to the idea of diverse sexualities. It felt important to have these conversations. I then visited the park’s visitors center to fill up on water where a girl working there said, “I like your bag — have you read ‘Pleasure Activism’ by Adrienne Maree Brown?”
These experiences mark my trips, it seems. Other therapists certainly also experience this — when conversing with new folks, the question, “What do you do?” is often followed by quite a bit of self-disclosure on the part of the asker, which can be both liberating and taxing, to say the least. When I discuss sexuality as a specialty, I find the most self-disclosure occurs, because people really, really want to talk about sex, and often have no outlet. And I’m often here for it — I got into this line of work for a reason, after all, which is that I love discussing this stuff (within my own personal boundaries of course). It can be a man I met in Michigan talking about his not-often-understood polyamory, to a woman discussing her lack of libido, to a man I took a flight beside two years ago who said, “I really want to see another man fuck my wife… I’ve never told anyone this before” with a sheepish chuckle.
I guess I want to include this as a takeaway from this trip because: yes, sex is taboo in our society. But it’s only as taboo as we make it, it seems.
Folks are scared to talk about this subject. I get it. It’s tough. I’m certainly the one who’s two standard deviations off the normal curve, who talks about it “too much.”
And, at the same time, perhaps the lesson we can take from this is — we can be our own activists. If you desire openness from others, perhaps you can be the change you are looking for. Your own openness and communication around tough topics can encourage folks around you to engage in these necessary and interesting conversations. More likely than not, the folks around you want to have these conversations and, despite any natural fears or reservations you have around the subject, it could be that your own openness around these tough topics can encourage the kind of relating you want from others.
I am humbled by the experience I have had while travelling. I feel that I’ve learned so much about our country and our culture. I have learned so much about the individuals I have met on my journey, which I feel intensely grateful for. I have taken care of myself, appreciated my privileges, respected my body, and treated myself to beautiful natural landscapes, meditation, continuing education, and slowness that I was hungry for. And, I have allowed myself to miss home, work, and faces I have grown fond of seeing on a regular basis.