Part II of “Traveling Alone”
Before I left for my trip to England, I made my sister fetch a notebook she always keeps on her person. Within it I wrote my bank account, Social Security number, life insurance, contact information for my boss, and the numbers and emails of 10 people closest to me. It was morbid to ponder, mere moments before departing to a foreign nation by myself, who should be told personally, and not through a Facebook post, in the event of my untimely demise.
While I furiously scribbled, my sister jokingly asked, “What are you doing, writing your last will and testament?” and when I merely raised an eyebrow and nodded, she looked at me as if I were crazy, or our overly cautious mother. But traveling alone, especially along cliffs and deathtrap roads, to a city renowned for its history of turmoil, the day after yet another Malaysian airplane had gone down (and reports were coming in of another plane that had crashed), it seemed the right thing to do. It was, dare I say it, the responsible thing.
After all, I am nothing but responsible. When I landed in London I dutifully sent off this text to my anxious mother and best friend:
“Cheers from London. Arrived safely with no love from Russia.”
Again I was being responsible (if cheeky) and dutifully setting their minds at ease. Being responsible is something I’ve worn as my personal albatross through life, and especially during my foreign travels. For the last two years my sister has been my constant traveling companion. She’s a bright, resourceful, and independent 21-year-old who by no means has needed my constant vigilance. Yet as the older sister, I was never able to shake the fear of how irresponsible it would be to let up for even a moment on my unspoken vow to keep her safe. I’d never consciously realized that I spent those trips in a constant state of worrying—of cleaving to my responsibility to protect her even when there was nothing more dangerous than rabbit holes. It was smothering to her even though most of the time I wasn’t even aware of it, but the constant knot of stress, no matter how much I enjoyed myself, was a testament to the ever-present weight of responsibility holding me back.
This year it was just me in a foreign country without a buddy—no one to talk me out of a funk or man the GPS—with only my own wits to get me to and from where I need to go. And despite that all the responsibility now rested on my shoulders, for the first time I felt that I had nothing to worry about. It was OK if I screwed up because it was only my day that could be ruined—and if I felt like doing nothing, I wasn’t deducting a day from someone else’s vacation. When I couldn’t physically get to the top of the mountain, I wasn’t holding anyone back, nor was I risking my sister’s bad knee to get someplace remote so I could take the perfect picture.
But I found it went even further than not inconveniencing anyone. Despite my inner concern that I’d be a chicken who couldn’t handle this trip on my own I found a freedom from worry and fear. There was this feeling that if I fatally fuck up (to the point that contact list would have to be utilized), well, in the end it was just me. It was only my life I was risking.
Each day I found myself edging closer and closer to the cliff’s edge of Cornwall, standing out on the vertigo-inducing rocks with sudden drops into rocky seas. I’d find soft spots right at the edge and take a nap—doing the exact same thing that had given me heart attacks when my sister had done so the year prior. I found the nastiest, windiest, wicked roads that had blind corners and houses to dodge, and pushed the little Golf GTI to its limit and then some. I walked farther than I could to places more dangerous than I ever would have with my sister in tow. With her I couldn’t afford to get hurt; it would leave her stranded in the middle of nowhere UK with an injured sister, no cell service to dial for help, thus putting an unfair burden upon her. It would be irresponsible to do that to her. The same windy roads I was seeking out this year, used to terrify me before because I could hurt her if I made one wrong twist of the wheel on a blind switchback. She could’ve been hurt climbing and I wouldn’t be able to physically get to her. Everywhere there was fear of being irresponsible and failing her. On my own, there was none.
For 10 glorious days I was responsible only to myself and without fear. I didn’t have a death wish, but for that temporary suspension of reality in which I answered only to myself, it didn’t matter to me if it happened. The risk was worth the thrill to push a little bit farther to feel more alive, and if it resulted in the opposite, well, it was worth it. I was free to be as careless or as careful as I dictated, and for the first time in my life I didn’t hold anyone else’s life in my hands but my own.
I would never willingly put my family through the pain of losing a daughter or sister, but there was something deep inside of me whispering that there would be no better place or way to go if it did have to happen. It’s a morbid kind of freedom, and not one I would ever have found if I weren’t by myself. My ten days in England gave me the ability to look inside myself, find my fear where it hid and let it go. I returned less fearful and perhaps less responsible, but far more willing to live.