The Art of Travel

hiraeth n. A homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was; the nostalgia, yearning, and grief for lost places of your past.

“Mastering the art of travel is not accomplished with practice or talent. No school will give you a Bachelor’s degree in not getting shot while backpacking through eastern Africa. Or in avoiding Montezuma's revenge on your trek through Mexico. It's a way of life. Unknown to the majority, it's almost impossible to convey to your friends back home over the course of a single conversation. It's more of a feeling, it's the excitement I experience the night before a trip. The high that comes with booking a one-way train ticket to a place I've never heard of. It's the little things that so often go unnoticed. I used to think back […] and I wonder, how did I get here? Why me? And then I remember all that I've seen and done, the friends I've made, the countries I've called home, and all the bugs I've eaten by accident.” –The Art of Travel

They say all good things come to an end and while experience has taught me that is equally as true for bad things, this undeniably good thing was at its precipice.  The time had come for me to move on, one last time.  After spending my last night with Sinah watching the very first Pokemon movie, a throwback into our childhoods that seemed like the only appropriate way to summarize the rest of our time together, I woke up early the next morning, anxious for the long day ahead of me.  We ate breakfast as usual and finished packing up my stuff as gave my broken down hiking shoes a funeral and listened to the song “Into the West” from the Lord of the Rings soundtrack which we both love.  If you’ve never heard it, listen to it now, play in the background as you read this post, because nothing really matches the tone of goodbye better.  Sinah walked me to the train station, though it was only right down the street, and as the train pulled in, Sinah gave me a hug and handed me a chocolate bar.  “In case you need it on your travels.”  I thanked him profusely for everything he had done, and told him to stay in touch, something I need to remind myself to do as well.  Considering I kept in contact with my mother and two other friends form back home while I was gone, I’m usually pretty shit at that.  As I got on the train, Sinah said, “There’s something we say here in Obwalden: Keep God in front of your eyes.  I know you’re not really religious and we aren’t either, but it’s a thing we say.”  I smiled and waved through the window as the train pulled away.

At the end of film The Art of Travel from which the aforementioned quote comes, the time comes for a group of travelers to depart, and one of them tells the others, “No goodbyes.  Go fuck yourselves,” which is kind of a perfect, albeit crude, way to summarize a traveler’s attitude on goodbye. The last eight months have been an exercise in goodbyes for me in nothing else.  For as much as I used to hate them, we’ve come to an understanding, a mutual respect that comes from being acquainted just a bit too well.  Granted, I’ve had some shitty ones, one in particular that has stayed with me and took its toll perhaps longer than I ever expected.  But as much pain as all the goodbyes in my life have caused me, I don’t hate the word like I used to.  There is something oddly beautiful in a goodbye, maybe because it’s kind of a mysterious word with veiled meaning.  What does goodbye mean?  Does it mean goodbye forever?  See you tomorrow?  See you in ten years?  We use it as a placeholder for all those things when we don’t know which of them it will be.  In essence, goodbye is nothing more than arbitrary and relative term to bring an interaction to a close for an unknown amount of time.  The world is crazy and unpredictable.  We never know what circumstances might lead us to meet people again.  At my high school graduation, I honestly never thought I’d see Sinah again, and yet there I was.  Some goodbyes that we think are permanent don’t turn out to be and the painful reverse is just as true (trust me, I know those kind all too well).  To me, goodbyes symbolize the unpredictability that governs out lives, no matter how hard we try to put order to chaos. And I think that’s beautiful and sad and hopeful all at the same time.

And this I felt better about saying, “Goodbye, Europe.”  After eight months, I was going home.  Sort of.  One thing I’ve found extraordinarily funny about travel is how arbitrary the word “home” becomes.  While traveling, I would use the word home to describe anything and everything, whether it be Oxford or the hostel I was staying at for one night.   When you travel it can be easy to forget your place because it’s so easy to see yourself as rootless, a feather in the wind.  Mike O’Mary described the phenomenon as such: “You start to think of Earth as your home.”  Even now, what does home mean?  The States as a whole are, in a broad sense, home, and within that, Philadelphia is kind of home, or at least a home away from home.  Then of course, you have Montana, which is and will always be my home in its most intimate and refined sense.  Those are my roots and as grand as it is to wander, it’s also important to bear that in mind.  To have some semblance of the word home as a beacon on the map you can always return to.  Not all travelers have that I found, but for me, it was comforting.  The amazing thing about roots is that they can run remarkably far but they also run very deep.  So I’m not going home to Montana, but I am at least hitting two out of the three possible definitions of the word.

            I couldn’t even conceptualize the concept of going home.  When I started, eight months seemed like such a long time but now looking back, it feels both like I was just getting on the plane in Orlando, FL and like I have been doing this forever.  How can I ever return to normal life?   It’s so funny that after months of navigating uncharted territory and foreign countries, the most mysterious place to me was in fact that place I once called home.  I had no idea what to expect of my homecoming, of my friends, of myself most of all.  But like everything over the last eight months, I would take it as it comes.  This was, after all, just my next big adventure.  Everything is an adventure (or misadventure) if you make it so. 

            Unfortunately, the only thing separating these two adventures was something I had grown to hate: transportation.  Three trains, three flights, four airports to be specific.  Goody.  I could hardly wait.  But as my first train pulled out of Alpnach on its way to Lucerne, I looked down at the candy bar Sinah had given me.  The sticky note on the front read, “Du schaffsch das Amber” which means, “You can do it Amber.”  I smiled, bolstered by Sinah’s belief in me.  I could do this.  I endured so much over the last eight months and I could sure as hell make it through these last 36 hours.  I steeled myself with resolve.  I could do this, and I wasn’t even going to cry this time.

            The trains passed without a hitch.  So far so good, I thought as I walked toward the ticketing counter in Zurich airport.  I had been in the Zurich airport once before, during my freshman year of college when we had a brief layover there on our way to Rome for spring break.  I recall almost missing my plane because I desperately had to use the toilet, due to my own reluctance to disturb the person sitting between the aisle and me.  While I was dreading the long day(s) of travel ahead of me, I was at least fairly certain I could get through Zurich without another incident, first because I had made sure I was arriving with plenty of time, and second because I was no longer so considerate as to cause myself physical pain simply to avoid to slight annoyance of another person.  Maybe travel made me a bit hard, but I prefer to think of it as making me less like a doormat.

            Believe it or not, absolutely nothing bad happened in Zurich.  I checked my bag for free, made it through security without a single part of me or my possessions going off in the sensor, and made it to the gate with plenty of time to spare.  Even the plane to Reykjavik, Iceland was relatively painless, outside the fact that they literally gave no complimentary food.  I mean, come on, even shitty American companies like Delta at least give you peanuts, but Icelandic Air?  Nothing but free coffee, which I took full advantage of.  At least I had a private movie screen and a very random selection of film to distract myself from my rumbling stomach.  I could hold out until the next leg of the flight, the six hour one across the ocean.  They surely had to give me food on that.

            I should have known, though, that the blissful suspended reality of everything going according to plan was too good to be true.  After three and a half hours, I landed in Reykjavik, which from what I could tell was not so much a city but a brown and arid tundra, cut by strips of silver water reflecting the soft pink sky.  When you Google pictures of the city, you’ll see a bunch of cute little bright colored houses that look like Monopoly pieces, but none of this was anywhere in sight.  Either the airport was miles and miles away from the town, or the town was just incredibly small, perhaps both.  In the oddly empty airport, I got out my laptop and connected to the wifi to check in with my mom and any other people that might have contacted me.  I first reached out to my best friend and roommate Maddie, just letting her know where I was and that I would be in Philly in like 24 hours.  She messaged back, “Are you like going home home for a week?”  I stopped dead.  School started the following day, so why would I be going home for a week.  Unless…. I hastily messaged back, “No, I’m going straight into Philly…why?”  She said.  “We don’t move in until Monday?” Well, fuck me.

For the last nine months, I had been under the impression that I was flying into Philadelphia on the morning my classes started and it turns out, I was there a week early.  How could I make such a dumb mistake?  I am nothing if not neurotic about checking and rechecking dates when I book things.  I thought about it. I had booked this flight from Zurich back in December because it was way cheaper to do it then.  That was technically before Arcadia had released its 2015/26 academic calendar but I just assumed classes would be starting on the last Wednesday of August like that had every year since I had begun Arcadia.  Just to spite me, I’m sure, they had decided to push it back this one year and I had never bothered to look at the schedule.

And yet, for someone had two weeks ago sat on a train platform floor crying about almost missing a train to a city one hour away, I was remarkably calm for finding out I could very well be stranded in Philadelphia with no place to stay for six days.  I think a part of me was programed to instantly find comfort in the sheer fact that Philadelphia was at least in America.  I had been navigating foreign countries for two months, Philly I could handle.  Plus I know I had plenty of friends in Philadelphia and in the area surrounding it, so I was fairly confident I could find a place to stay.  Not five minutes later, Maddie messaged me back saying her boyfriend and my friend Ian had already offered to let me stay at his place in Philly until we moved in.  I accepted the offer, apologizing to Maddie profusely for making such a dumb mistake. Madison, with her beautiful patented sarcasm that I love so much said, “We’re all so mad at you that you came home a week early.  Look how furious we are.”  Having secured a place to stay, I laughed about the whole incident.  It was such an appropriate way to wrap up my travels that I could hardly stop giggling as I sat in the airport terminal waiting for my next flight.

            I had been looking forward to food on this flight, absolutely starving by this point, only to find out that Icelandic Air doesn’t offer complimentary in-flight meals at all.  Apparently, because the transatlantic flight is sort of split into two back-to-back legs going through Iceland, they don’t believe it necessary to feed you.  The thought of free hot airplane meals and free mini bottles of wine was literally the only thing I had been looking forward to about the journey and they had managed to take even that away from me.  Sinah’s chocolate bar ended up saving me after all, considering it was literally the only I ended up eating in about a 14 hour span of time.

            By the time I landed in Boston, I was hangry beyond belief.  Turning on my cell phone for the first time in eight months, I already hated it, instantly plagued by the stress of its slowness and the fact that I had a mysterious roaming symbol flashing in the top bar.  Great.  Just what I needed in that moment.  I called my mom really quickly as I exited the plane; not quite the grand “your wayward daughter is finally back in her home country” celebratory call that it was meant to be, but rather a stressed out “my phone is doing weird things, will you call Verizon to make sure I’m not racking up massive charges” one.  She called back as I stood in the ridiculously long queue through customs, now equipped with weird photo machines (because nothing boosts self-confidence more than having your photo taken after you’ve gotten off an airplane after twelve hours of travel), to tell me that everything with my phone was fine and I could use it as normal. 

After I finally made it through customs and went to grab Nellie from baggage claim.  Apparently since I had an overnight layover, they wouldn’t transfer it, so I would need to go back out to check it and go back in through security the next morning. 

I made a few phone calls to grandparents that I hadn’t been able to talk to for the last eight months, then finally set off to find food in preparation for my overnight layover.  At nearly 10pm in the Boston airport, there was little to be found.  By little, I mean that I came across seven different Dunkin Donuts but nothing else.  Welcome back to the east coast, where they take “America runs on Dunkin” to a whole new level.  While Dunkin Donuts was definitely not the first thing I was craving about being back, I resigned to eating one of their shitty breakfast sandwiches for dinner before settling down in a remote corner of the airport for the night.  The concrete ground was freezing cold despite the heat outside, and like I had in Stansted airport so many months ago, I pulled out my tent and buried down in the collapsed orange tube.  I rested my head on my pack and, ignoring the people giving me funny looks as they passed by, drifted into a fitful sleep.  If you’ve never tried sleeping on the concrete floor of an airport, I don’t recommend it, but I did at least manage to get about four hours of sleep before giving up.  At that point, it was about 5am, an hour and a half before my flight and thus an appropriate time to head over to the gate.  I rechecked my bag, made it through security, and boarded the short flight to Philadelhpia.  It was so annoying that I had such a ridiculously long layover for such a short flight but c’est la vie.

Finally, at 8am on Wednesday morning, I landed in Philadelphia, running on nothing more than coffee and the promise of pancakes.  I was surprised to find the Philadelphia airport feeling so familiar, almost friendly.  I had been in this airport countless times, and for that reason, it felt safe.  For the past eight months, I’ve had a bit of a hate/hate relationship with airports and so to find myself suddenly feeling fond over the sheer familiarity and relaxed vibe of Philadelphia International was odd.  I picked up my bag from baggage claim, finally breathing a sigh of relief as the fear over the last possible thing that could go wrong was dispelled.  Twenty minutes later, my friend Kelsey pulled up in her car and we drove off into south Philly where I would now be able to relax for the next five days.  I walked in their two-story duplex, set down my pack, and finally allowed myself to recognize the finality of the moment.  My travels were officially over… for now anyway.    And I didn’t even cry.  Airports: 4, Amber 2.

So what’s next for me?  That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it, or in my case, as a writer, I’d be lucky if it was a $100 question.  Next week, I’ll be beginning my senior year of college, which is weird and exciting and scary all at the same time.  It seems like just yesterday that I was standing on stage in my high school gymnasium, gaudy Valedictorian medal hanging around my neck, believing with all my heart that I knew exactly what I was doing with my life. Oh boy was I naïve?  On that day, I implored my fellow classmates to get out and see the world, to not get stuck in high school, as so many who grow up in a small town do.  I’ve done that and I’ve reaffirmed the wonder in my own words, though I didn’t know their true impact at the time.  The amount of learning and self-discovery I have done in the last four years, in the last eight months even, is staggering and it makes anxious to see what else the world can teach me.  Where will I be in another four years?  Who knows.  Four years ago I never thought I’d be returning from a grand European trip, never thought I’d have my heart set on being a travel writer, never thought I’d ever get the chance to go to Oxford, but here I am.  It all goes to show that life is as wild and unpredictable as a raging river and the moment we try to look and see what’s on our own horizons, the river turns and carries us in a new direction.  We must simply ride the current, holding our breath when it drags us under every so often, and relishing in the sweet air in our lungs and the sunshine on our faces when we resurface.

As for this blog, who can say?  I’ll likely make a couple posts over the next month or so just on how I’m adjusting to being back home, but overall, I think this blog will have to come to a hiatus…Unless you guys are interested in hearing about the daily monotonies and constant stress of completing three senior theses project but I’m not even interested in that and I actually have to do it so I’ll spare you.  But I say hiatus because this isn’t the end of my journey.  It’s a pause, a break, an intermission.  Soon enough, graduation will be upon me (which is actually a terrifying thought) and I’ll be embarking into the world once again, finally leaving the pseudo-adult protective bubble of uni behind.  In the meantime, I have a few writing projects ahead of me, including transforming a lot of these writings into a novel full length published memoir and another memoir about stories growing up with my grandfather.  I’ll keep you guys updates on that.  That aside, I’ll also be starting an internship as soon as I return with my local newspaper back in Bigfork, The Bigfork Eagle, where I will be running my very own weekly travel column for at least four months.  Though I will still not be getting paid for this work, it’s an incredibly exciting opportunity to do exactly what I want to be doing in the field.  Regardless of how fruitful any of these ventures prove to be, I will pursue them because this is what I love to do.  I’m okay with being poor writer (notice I didn’t say starving because food is still very important to me) and spending my money on experience.  Experience, and sharing it, are the only things you can buy to make richer and being a travel writer hit both right on the mark.

            Before I finish this post, I want to say one final thing.  People have been asking me for advice for travelers lately, as if I have become some guru giving out words of wisdom, which is strange considering most of the time I don’t feel very wise.  I’ve come across a lot of people who tell me what I’m doing is so cool, how they’ve always wanted to do something like that, but how they’ve never really been able to figure out how.  Here’s my advice:

Just do it. Take a chance.  If you have the means and the motivation, go for it.  John Muir said, “Wander a whole summer if you can…time will not be taken from the sum of your life.  Instead of shortening, it will definitely lengthen it and make you truly immortal.”  After having done just that, I concur.  If you have a dream, however crazy it may seem, don't simply sigh and say, "One day," because "one day" quickly becomes "never".  Don't let society, parents, educators, whoever, tell you what is the right path for your life to take.  Only you can know that and it's also important to know that it's okay if you don't know.  Another thing we are led to believe is that we must know exactly what we are doing with our lives at a ridiculously early age. Instead of jumping down a path you are sure you want, wander for a while and figure out what you actually do.  It's hard for today's generation to initially deviate from the path essentially paved out in front of us and lined with giant barbed-wire fences, to make the plunge away from society.  We grew up being fed dredges of the American Dream that never existed.  We were told how we were meant to live and that if we studied hard, worked hard, then one day we would be successful and gain everything we want in life. But wait, why should we make ourselves miserable now to one day be happy? Our generation is starting to realize that and we're getting a lot of backlash from older ones who, I think, are simply upset that we saw such a simple flaw in the logic when they failed to do so.  Those of us who choose these unconventional ways of life are often called selfish and childish.  I say, so what? Be selfish and childish.  Life is too short to not indulge in the basic pleasures of its existence.

And there is so much out there in which to indulge. There is no better way to learn about yourself, the world, and the dichotomous beauty and horror of humanity than though travel and boy have I learned. I've learned more in the last eight months of my life than I did in sixteen years of schooling.  I say that not to discredit any of my educators and the institutions I have attended.  On the contrary, I have had the pleasure of being taught by some amazing people who changed my life.  I attend a wonderful, open-minded university, small though it may be, that gave me the opportunity to attend Oxford, the number one school in the world.  In regards to education, I recognize that I am extremely fortunate and thus I do not take it for granted.  I value my education, I really do, but there are simply some things that can’t be taught in a tutorial or a lecture hall. The world as a whole is the best classroom.

Despite how much of that classroom I have sampled in the last year, the biggest thing I have learned is that there is still so much left to try.  The world is massive and small all at the same time, and it is calling.  So go for it, take the road less traveled, put yourself in scary situations, develop a fear of only fear, open your eyes and realize all the world has to offer.  Say the words, "I am alive," see how they taste on your tongue, and for once realize what that phrase really means.  Relish in good days and take the bad in stride, because even adventuring comes with its fair share of low points, points in which small things will make you sob and you'll question why you're doing this at all.  Know that days like that are normal and it's okay to feel that way.  It makes the good days all the more special.  Ultimately, follow your heart and your gut.  Your mind is a wonderful thing to be honed and cultivated constantly, but all too often it stands in the way of the best opportunities to live each day in pursuit of the next adventure.  And tell yourself, "Always the adventure."  That is the true art of travel.