In one swift movement I pull the heavy fan of hair up off of my neck and spiral the curls into a tight bun on top of my head. Then I slip my feet into two comfortable leather black sandals, and walk out the front door.
That’s how every good story in life begins, doesn’t it? You must first simply open the door, walk across the threshold, and out into the world. But what comes next is a mystery. Pay attention because there is a message in the spaces between knowing — the left turn instead of the right, the rose dangling across your path, the stranger who says “hello”; the pull to go a bit further, or to slow down and listen. I know it all too well. There was a purpose to every fork in the road overseas, just as there is now.
Dusk has pulled a shade across the sky and I can’t quite make out the street signs, but it doesn’t matter. I just want to move. As the soles of my feet settle into the familiar footbeds, perfectly molded by miles of walking, I choose a direction and stroll into the arms of the warm evening air.
A cat rustles through the hedge near my feet as a bicycle whirs past us. I keep walking. I pass someone hunched over a front-yard garden plot in the dark.
“Nice evening to get some yard work done, isn’t it?” I say.
He stands up and laughs, agreeing.
“Enjoy!” he calls after me as I roam on, noticing the rhythm of my stride, and pick up the pace.
I exhale, feeling my muscles stretch and wrap around my bones, lift my legs up and set them down again. I breathe in. The air smells sweet and earthy. If Oregon had a perfume, it would be this night – alive and blooming, yet subtle like a river winding through the fern-lined canyon. The smell is deeply comforting and reminds me of the camping trips I went on as a child.
As I stride up the sidewalk and around the corner, I spot a single glowing ember — a cigarette — it flickers, and gradually, my eyes adjust to make out the dark silhouette of someone sitting on the porch behind it. Across the street, a television set casts an eery blue glow through the window. I look ahead at the charcoal trees and see stars peeking between their limbs like owl’s eyes.
I close my eyes momentarily and when I open them, I’m beneath a bright streetlight, walking along a shoulder-height concrete wall. I move my arms and legs theatrically, giggling at my shadow as it waves back at me.
Suddenly I’m in Poland, walking where my ancestors never walked out of. The memory scares me, so I return to now. And then minutes later, I’m in Italy, strolling along the water’s edge, gazing out at the full belly moon hanging from an invisible thread above the glittering sea. Not long after, just around the bend, I’m in Germany, crossing the wheat field, yellow stalks crunching underfoot.
It’s surprisingly easy to visit these places I’ve been to before; I call the memories my travel ghosts. I feel them so poignantly sometimes that I have to stop what I’m doing and forfeit my full attention to them. It’s then that I feel an overwhelming aliveness, remembering the taste of freedom and recalling the detailed sensation of a place or an experience.
But as I walk past the rosemary bush, and the lights of my home come into view, I remind myself that I’m still free now. After all, just tonight, I put on my traveling shoes and stepped out, no plan or agenda in mind. Traveling really can be that simple. It begins with the desire to experience the world, and then unfolds in the spaces between the knowing and the planned and the organized.
If you want to travel, here’s my advice: Open your door. Step out. Then pay attention.
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” – Henry Miller