As someone who had never so much as set up a tent, the idea of camping and hiking all over the west coast and southwest for 3 1/2 weeks, as a solo traveling woman, seemed pretty insane. And terrifying. And probably way out of my budget. As it turned out, none of these anxieties could have been further from the truth. In fact, throughout this crazy adventure, I ended up crushing a considerable list of fears, learning a ton about myself in the process, and I had the time of my life doing it. Here's how it all went down:
Background: I had just turned 29, was newly divorced, and living on my own for the first time. It was really important to me to do something empowering to embrace this new chapter in my life. But when I stumbled upon this trip, I immediately thought of dozens of reasons of why I should just forget it. And I almost did. Sound a bit familiar, anyone?
But instead, I decided not to accept that inner dialogue. I took a deep breath, and plunged into the scary unknown. And I came out a stronger, more confident woman because of it. I'm writing this not just to talk about the cool places I went to, like the Grand Tetons or Yellowstone, but hopefully to offer up a bit of encouragement to my rock star, Lady Project soul sisters: to take a chance, look a fear square in the eye, and just go for it.
So how did I plan this trip having such little experience?
I googled “How to do the West Coast on a budget” and discovered a company called the Green Tortoise based out of San Francisco. They specialize in trekking people all across the US and Mexico on adventure hiking expeditions. In total, we covered 7 states, over a dozen parks, and 2 full weeks of camping in some of the most beautiful and remote areas of the country for just around $80 a day, including meals.
The Tortoise travel concept was appealing in that we never had to worry about getting from Point A to Point B. We could take naps, read a book, or even enjoy a beverage with a new friend while they shuttled us from state to state. Drive days were planned thoughtfully, and were welcome breaks after strenuous bouts of hiking in the heat at high altitudes.
Some nights we’d sleep on the bus and travel throughout the night, snuggled up close to the feet of a stranger. We got to be quite accustomed to brushing our teeth at truck stops, grocery stores, and gas stations. But most nights, we roughed it in the wilderness.
And being someone who had never even been camping, I found this to be a great way to comfortably ease into the scene. Our drivers took care of all of the meal planning, grocery shopping, and replenishing the drinking water. They offered valuable insight into destinations off the beaten path, and exposed us to a lot of really unique and remote areas that we likely would have never found on our own.
Travelers were united through the very first meal. We all helped to prepare, cook, and clean some fantastic vegetarian dishes spearheaded by our bus drivers. We’d always start the day with fresh fruit and a hot breakfast, pack our own lunch for hiking, and dinner promised plates piled high with fresh, colorful, five-star camping cuisine: green curry with tofu and rice noodles, fajitas, and falafel pita pockets were some of my favorites!
Food equalled community in every term of the sense. It helped us bond even when language was a barrier. I learned more than I ever could have imagined about the cultures, languages, and customs of people from all over the world - and passengers ranged in age from 7-70. I now have couches to crash on in 9 different countries!
Often times, I can be somewhat shy and reserved, so going so far out of my comfort zone socially really forced me to embrace my curiosity with people. After I got back from the trip, I found I was having a much easier time making meaningful conversation with strangers. I loved that unexpected outcome.
So long, comfort zone!
This concept of fear crushing came to be a real catharsis, especially through physical challenges. I faced my claustrophobia head on by crawling through underground lava tubes, and faced my fear of narrow heights by climbing up Angels Landing in Zion Canyon. At over 8,000 in altitude, the trail drops off on either side, narrowing to the point where you need to hang on to chains for the last half mile to keep from falling.
I made a point to get my hair wet every chance I had - in 14 different bodies of water, even in lakes bordered with snow peaked mountain caps. This concept was introduced to me at last year's Lady Project Summit, by Meredith Walker of Smart Girls in her keynote address, and it resonated with me ever since. It’s is basically a way of saying, when you dunk all the way in, life is way more fun!
I conquered my fear of horses, galloping full speed through the desert in Monument Valley, a Navajo Reservation in Utah. I’m told it’s the only place in the US where they let you run horses at full speed in open land.
And while it wasn’t my original plan, I ended up hiking to the basin of the Grand Canyon and back in the same day (South Kaibab to Bright Angel). I was very well prepared for this with 5L of water, plenty of food, electrolytes, and good health - but attempting this kind of hike in one day, especially alone, has serious potential to be life threatening! It was over 17 miles round trip, with a temperature at the basin of 109 degrees, and a very steep elevation change of nearly 5,000 feet.
All the magnificence aside, this travel concept wasn’t always easy.
Try having a drive night on a bus packed with 34 people after Fajita Night - the entire vehicle erupting in a chorus of snores and farts! People would regularly misplace all sorts of oddities on the bus (probably me, more than anyone else) only to have them recovered days later on "bus tosses". And on bathroom stops, waiting to get off of the vehicle sometimes felt like a LIFETIME, depending on your pee scale (which is something you'll undoubtedly learn about very early on as a Tortoise Traveller... if you're at a "10", it's too late...)
And in the beginning, I was terrified about all this - about being on a bus with so many people. [I quickly adapted!]
Or, what if I hated camping? [LOVED IT to the point that I had physical withdrawals when I got home!]
What if I couldn't sleep? [Ear plugs and Ambien for drive nights!]
What if the food sucked? [It was more than I ever could have hoped for, and I never went hungry!]
What if I got sick? (I'm a bit of a germophobe) [Proper hygiene was scrupulously enforced by our drivers at all times!]
My patience, which has never been my strong suit, was routinely tested, and I'm grateful for that - because it really improved! And I'd do it all over again in a heartbeat. In fact, I've already set my sights on Alaska 2015!
This whole adventure provided me with some incredible lifelong friendships. And on the flip side, it was also when I first really understood how incredibly happy andalive I could feel... in absolute solitude.
That Grand Canyon hike provided over 8 hours of awe-inspiring beauty, and opportunity to move and observe at my own pace. My whole existence, a mere fleck - dissolving into a vast, vibrant, all-encompassing panorama. The only the sounds were the chitters and chirps of canyon creatures; the rhythmic plodding of my hiking boots. My only concern, monitoring my hydration. This humbling trek became a moving mediation. And somewhere along that steep and glorious winding trail, I realized just how happy and at peace I was going it alone. I finally understood what it was like to fully enjoy my own company and need absolutely nothing more.
So, all of these incredible memories and learnings, I ultimately owe to my big brother - because he gave me the nudge of encouragement that I needed to buy that plane ticket and book that trip that I was so afraid to commit to. I’m hoping this post may serve as a similar nudge to someone else who be needing it need it right now, because the life that awaits at the end of your comfort zone is truly worth exploring.
To sum up the whole experience in one sentence, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes, from Nelson Mandela:
“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave [wo]man is not [s]he who does not feel afraid, but [s]he who conquers that fear.”
Adapted from my Providence Pecha Kucha presentation at Machines with Magnets on August 27, 2014. If you're as terrified of public speaking as I am, this is a great way to test the waters in a comfortable and supportive setting - I encourage you to join in and explore presenting as well!
More photos from these and other wilderness adventures on Instagram.