As I write this, I’m sitting on the MegaBus from Chicago to Des Moines. The sense of being on the move again is comforting and reminiscent of the hours-long bus rides in South America, with time and countryside flowing by to the sound of good music blasting out of my earphones and – when I was fortunate enough to have it – good company by my side.
Tomorrow will mark four weeks since my return to Des Moines. After seven hours of subways, taxis, and flights I arrived in Des Moines and was greeted by gray skies and brown grass. During the ride to my apartment, I looked around. Where were the fireworks? Where were the hordes of people greeting my return? Ok, I knew that was wildly unrealistic but it was all so anticlimactic. At the very least, where was the lush Iowa greenery and pretty blue skies I was so looking forward to seeing? And where was my excitement and attitude of easy-going-grace-and-acceptance-of-change I had decided to adopt? I had fantasies of stepping peacefully off the plane and instantly feeling home and connected. All I felt was travel-weary, alien and out of place. Comforting myself with the thought that I was tired, hadn’t eaten a good meal, and things would seem different after a good night’s sleep and some food, I resolved not to take the day too seriously.
But sleep came hard that night. It was too quiet. Deafeningly quiet. There were no cars driving by and honking, no people out on the street yelling or laughing, nobody in the bunk bed next to me snoring and shifting their weight. There was no one in the next room talking, no music thumping from the bar nearby, no drunk travelers attempting and miserably failing to sneak quietly into their beds. The two most cherished items in my bag had been my earplugs and eye mask, yet I’d grown so accustomed to the constant background noise – and the accompanying feeling of never being alone – that it was difficult to sleep without it.
On top of that, any time I am alone in the dark my imagination reverts to that of a six year old. I live in a 140 year old house which has been turned into separate apartments, and things naturally creak and groan. I had forgotten the sound of the house in such silence. My imagination started playing tricks on me and I started to wonder if someone was in my living room. The rational, 31 year old side of me knew I should just get up to investigate and alleviate my fears, but the six year old was too petrified to turn on the light, much less get out of bed and look. After mustering the courage to get out of bed and look, I began to laugh at myself. In four months I hadn’t experienced that much fear; thinking of all of the likelier things I might have been afraid of in that time as opposed to this scenario made me shake my head and go back to bed.
Just a few weeks before in Guatemala, Alex told me he woke up his first morning there and didn’t know where he was in the first few moments. Never once had I woken up and experienced that feeling and didn’t understand how it happened. Strangely, on my first morning in my own bed, I finally understood what that was like and for the first five seconds after waking up, truly had to puzzle out where in the world I was. The feeling of disconnection grew. I tried to shake the feeling off, made myself a cup of coffee, and googled “coming home after traveling.”
Turns out, I am not alone in thinking the hardest part about traveling long term is coming home. I found countless blog entries of other wanderers trying to put into words the strangeness of the return. Disconnection, lost friendships, restlessness, boredom, changed relationships, were all common themes, accompanied by a general feeling of not knowing ones place any longer. Over the next few days I noticed I felt like a thread that once had a place in the local tapestry, with relationships and a role woven with other threads. I had yanked myself out of that tapestry. How do you weave yourself back in? And do you? One writer noted that the most difficult part of returning is the fact that on the inside you have changed, though on the outside you likely look no different. Returning to the place of your former self and trying to build new roles to reflect the changes is difficult when those who knew you before may not see them, want to see them, or understand.
I’ve spent the last few weeks visiting with friends, eating at my favorite places, visiting family in Minnesota, and getting rid of stuff (one of the benefits of traveling with a backpack for four months is the realization that we have so much and need so little of it). It was a joy to drive again – as soon as I was behind the wheel I felt like driving fast, windows down, volume up, wind streaming through my hair, just wandering for hours like I did when I was 16 and gas was cheap.
At some point during my trip I remember noticing that adventure isn’t defined by the big list items like Machu Picchu or Tikal or Pichincha Volcano; adventure can come in the pursuit of a meal, or a change in a route taken on a regular basis, or in an introduction to someone we’ve never met. It was after some small adventure that I resolved to find it in every day, in some way, when I returned. It’s taken me some time to begin to notice where my current adventure lies, given that I had to spend some time grieving – yes, grieving – the end of my trip. Adventure can be found in new ventures. Particularly those you are building from scratch with nothing but the support of friends, entrepreneurial colleagues, and – dare I say it? – balls.