They have been biking for over a month, and still, every morning when I wake up and look at the clock, I add six hours, and imagine what my daughter and her friend are up to. Are they on a beautiful, winding country road, biking next to sheep grazing on the side of the road? Or are they on a jagged, narrow road where cars are, at best, only nearly missing them? Have they encountered the kindness of strangers? Or have they experienced “near misses”?
When I was in my early 20s, I spent a summer hitchhiking across America. I was with a good friend, Ingrid, who was ready for an adventure, and off we went with our forty-pound backpacks, starting in New York State and landing a few months later in California. Each driver who picked us up presented another set of wonders, as we listened with fascination to stories about their lives, and shared stories from our journey. One driver who picked us up in Kansas told us all about her research on Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, which required that she travel across three states to visit research sites. A young person anxious to find a career, I was blown away with how cool that sounded, but we were nearly blown away when her tire exploded. Luckily – and luck was what you needed when you were hitchhiking – we were just pulling into a gas station. Unluckily, it was July 4th and the mechanics couldn’t fix the tire until the next day. We slept in the car that night inside a stuffy garage, which was offered to us as a safe haven.
When we were moving up the coast of California, a driver picked us up in a mobile home he was hired to transport. When we hopped in, we discovered two other hitchhikers, and soon found that both of them had just been released from a local prison. They had committed minor economic crimes, or so they said. Another ex-convict joined us along the way, and we all slept that night in the van. But something obviously went awry during the night, because we woke up the next morning to our driver speeding down the road and screaming at high volume to one of the women, “I’ve got a bone to pick with you!”.
Ingrid and I never found out what that bone was, but we mousily asked to be let off at the next rest stop because we said that was our destination. As he drove away, we hid behind a bush, waiting for him to leave, and then went back out on the road with our thumbs ready to find our next ride. He knew we were lying and drove around in a circle, finding us back out on the highway. We did not get back into his mobile home, and survived to tell the tale.
Hitchhiking in America was pretty standard fare for a sub-culture of counter-cultural Americans in the 70s. And two young women going on the road “alone” wasn’t considered outrageous, because we were caught in the tide of a rising second wave of the women’s movement where females could do (almost) anything. While we knew we were dancing with danger, we had youth on our side, and the sense that we could handle whatever we encountered. Later I took my travelling skills to a nearly year-long trip in Europe, and continued to welcome adventure along the way. Sometimes I think my sociological imagination was birthed on these trips.
Now I am a mother whose young adult daughter is travelling – not with her thumb – but with a bike and a girlfriend – through Europe. Unlike my travels which happened sans parental approval or even knowledge, I am in the know about this trip, thanks to a very different kind of parental-child relationship in this 21st century, and a smart phone that supports that. I am caught between experiencing vicarious thrills and experiencing terror, because I know that sometimes things can go very right and sometimes they can go very wrong.
Both of my trips were much less structured than my daughter’s. If I ever feared for my life during my hitchhiking trip across the U.S, it vanished the second we moved on to the next ride. Even when one of our drivers had a bayonette on his dashboard, I felt invincible and maintained my faith in the goodness of people. With my trip to Europe, which I had spent one whole year saving up for, I was part of a sub-culture of young travelers like myself, populating hostels, walking the streets with our oversized backpacks, and finding bargain meals to stretch out funds for as long as possible. My daughter and her friend are more like speedy turtles, carrying minimal clothing, a tent and other supplies on their bodies and bikes, as they follow roads through small villages and towns, and bike along the side of lakes and rivers.
When they get a flat on the side of the road, they are only more fully a part of the scenery, and even a conversation piece for the locals. They are couch-surfing, taking advantage of a miraculous network of people who offer their homes to strangers, supported by an on-line forum where people post their availability and travelers contact them. Former couch-surfers can review their experience so that prospective ones can evaluate their options. Couch surfers even evaluate the travelers too. My daughter told me that after they left their first couch surf home, their host posted that she and her friend were “like sisters and made me smile the whole time of their visit”. For the most part, life for them has been pretty darn good, even great.
Unlike with my trip, where I didn’t talk to my parents at all, my daughter and I talk every few days, thanks to Skype, and when there’s a problem, we talk more than once a day. Forty years ago, I didn’t want to talk to my parents, and maybe because it wasn’t an option, I didn’t miss it one iota. Now I can’t imagine being on my parents’ end of things, not knowing where I was or what I was doing for many months at a time. I am relieved that I can check in with my daughter, and that she has a blog page that narrates her travels with glorious pictures! I doubt that I did more than send my parents a few postcards. At the same time, just because I can stay in touch, the challenge is to not hover, because the reality is that if there is a problem, there is very little I can do from thousands of miles away, other than listen and maybe help them solve it themselves.
As our children grow up, I “get” that we need to let go, to allow them to spread their wings and learn from experiences, both good and bad. But it’s a scary world, and sometimes I’m just frightened. I’m not naïve about the potential dangers out there, but at the same time, for two young women to explore the world – especially from the vantage point of a bicycle – it is just incredible. Some friends have told me how cool I am to “let her go” on the trip; others tell me they would never have approved a trip like this. But I did. (Did I really have a choice?) And in good part, I did because my parents didn’t stop me from exploring, even though they had no idea what they should have protected me from.
I imagine that for the next few weeks – the amount of time remaining in this trip – I will calculate the time zone differences and imagine where they are in their journey. I will control the amount of contact I initiate, but will steadily follow their blog and Facebook posts. I know that the life lessons gleaned from this challenge will be more potent without mommy. And I will continue to be caught in this odd place between vicarious pleasure and terror.
Sitting next to the young priest, I am shocked when he confesses to me that he is lonely. He says he has considered giving up the church to be with the woman he loves. They met when he officiated at her husband’s AND her father’s funerals. Through this deeply painful experience, he has fallen head over heels for her and the feelings are reciprocated. Alas, she rejects taking any action on her feelings and he is confused. I do not know this man, but, as I listen, I wonder if this is a common conundrum among priests, if he’s making it all up, or if it’s a rare and tragic dilemma.
I shrink when he asks me what I think, shocked that he is seeking out my advice. We have known each other for no more than 30 minutes, and moreover, who am I, a secular Jew, to advise a priest about something that I imagine is considered blasphemy. I offer my reflections… because we are from very different worlds; because we will never encounter one another again; because there is nothing to lose. When I get back home, I cannot resist googling him, because I have my doubts he is for real. And there he is, exactly as he has portrayed himself, a suburban priest, working in a traditional parish that has a choir and a social action committee, and a successful capital campaign he has described to me.
I get to thinking about the people I’ve met on planes with whom I’ve had intimate conversations. In fact, the reason I started this blog is because of an amazing blogger – Ann Handley – who spent a few hours as my seat-mate from Boston to LA, extolling the benefits of blogging. She is my only plane friend with whom I have maintained contact. (see Ann’s book, co-authored with C.C. Chapman, called Content Rules: How to Create Killer Blogs, Podcasts, Videos, eBooks and Webinars – http://www.contentrulesbook.com/)
What is it about that suspended time spent with a stranger, tens of thousands of feet above the ground? Perhaps it is the anonymity of the relationship. Or maybe these immediate zing-like bonds are inspired by a basic fear of flying, allowing us to use our potential last moment of connection to share the story of our lives. Or perhaps it’s simply to fend off sheer boredom, a way to make time pass quickly, or a way to experience adventure in a closed capsule where nothing can go horribly wrong. I’m not always up for a chat; there are certainly times that I appreciate the solitude of plane time, where it is easier to concentrate on work or a book or knitting without interruption. And I’m certainly not alone there, as tons of travelers dig into their ipads and spread sheets.
But I often welcome these contacts, and occasionally they “pay off” unexpectedly. I once told a woman with whom I was chatting in the back of the plane that I was considering leaving my consulting work and getting a stable job. To this total stranger, I posited that I should probably be “settled” into a “regular” job sooner than later. Why did I divulge this internal dilemma that I hadn’t shared with anyone else? We had known each other for a sum total of 20 minutes. But she listened well, and her advice was pivotal in my thinking. Either she was a quick read or she was very lucky, but whatever she said clicked, and I am forever grateful.
My friendships have extended to the flight attendants. On the way to Minneapolis, one flight attendant sold me a pair of orange-y glass earrings right off her ears that I love – designed and created by her daughter. On the way back from New Orleans, another flight attendant confessed that she hated her job and asked me to keep a look-out for her. And yet another gave me great advice about how to find a deal on his airline. It’s likely that I’ll never see any of these people again, and that is the beauty of it.
I used to hate getting on a plane because of my fear of flying. Many trips later, I now anticipate the opportunity to observe a slice of the universe, trapped together, as we all are, in close quarters.