Where Do You Go When You Don’t Know Where To Go?
I pulled over to the side of the road before the stretch of highway leading away from Austin, Texas toward an unknown destination. Putting my grandpa’s car in park, I sat in the driver’s seat and waited. I turned the air conditioning up until a roar of cool air blasted through the car. White clouds drifted across a deep blue sky. Cars and trucks honked before disappearing down the road. Already in the early afternoon, I had to figure out where to go. The only issue was... I didn’t know where to go.
Torn between exploring Enchanted Rock State National Area or driving the short hour and a quarter to San Antonio, I waited in the car. Debilitated. Paralyzed with indecision. I’ve heard the phrase “analysis paralysis” when people are approached with too many choices on a menu, but for me, these were two choices which would have outstanding consequences — or benefits — and would determine the next position on my cross-country road trip.
After fifteen minutes or so of waiting the idea finally came to me: Why not call Enchanted Rock and check on tickets and availability? So, I did. The woman on the phone said that today, Thursday, would be better because the weekend is always more crowded and there’s a chance tickets might sell out.
Done. Decision made. I was going to Enchanted Rock for a hike and would figure out everything after that. (After the hike, I ended up calling a place I found in Fredericksburg for accommodation, which ended up being a blessing because the owner mentioned I should visit the metal bar in town and a speakeasy in San Antonio, and both of those events led to significant stories on my journey.)
In the beginning of my solo travel journey to Iceland in December 2015, I planned everything. I researched extensively what to do and where to eat and where to stay before I even left the country. I made lists and pored over each decision. And then, as my travels progressed, the planning decreased. I released any preconceived ideas of how a trip should go and instead went with the flow.
However, each of those early trips had a specific end point due to work constraints and general obligations with my life back in New York City. I’d sit at my desk and dream about places before and after the journey. I’d bring back Cadbury chocolate bars from the UK, watch British comedy shows like “Would I Lie To You” and “The Thick of It” to pass the time and to reconnect with memories from time spent across the pond. I’d watch French films and Scandinavian movies and television shows to immerse myself in a new place, always wondering what would happen if I pursued traveling long-term.
The day arrived when I was laid off from my job and I decided to pursue travel. This is what I call the “Before” and “After” period. Before, I always had to plan my trip based on the amount of time I had off and then I had to come back at a specific time. After... I didn’t. Not really. But sometimes, I did. For my sister’s baby shower after a month in Europe, or extending my trip to Mexico City for a few days instead of weeks in order to be back in time for a friend’s art show. Other times, like my month-long road trip across the country, I had to be back because my license expired on my 30th birthday. There was a certain amount of flexibility offered in the “After” period which wasn’t available beforehand.
The journey will take you not necessarily where you want to go, but where you need to go. And that’s what matters.
During the trip, how did I know where to go or what to do? More often than not, I’d have a general idea of things to do and places to check out, either from my own research or on behalf of a recommendation of a friend, family member or acquaintance.
And yet, there were moments I felt lost. A complete, utter panic and restlessness rooted deep within my body. Sometimes, I’d walk along and look around at the countless strangers around me, off on their day, oblivious to the plights of the rest of the world like I was oblivious to the deep wishes of my heart as to what to do. Sometimes, I’d wander into a cafe and order a coffee and sit by the window and observe the movement of the city while I remained motionless. Sometimes, I’d walk along the street and by some law of motion I’d slow down and just stand there. One person in a sea of people. Other times, like in London and Glasgow, I’d go for runs and walks in the park. Fresh air. Waving trees. A body of water. All antidotes to listlessness.
I’d wander and have no idea what to do. When I didn’t have a job to return to, the trips became open-ended. As if I were in the middle of the ocean looking for a shore which didn’t exist. A self-imposed end result. I had to be the one to end the journey, but I didn’t know how.
Sometimes, I’d sense the time had come to leave a place. I felt that way leaving Marfa on my road trip, flying back from Denver to New York (also on the road trip), the time I took a weekend trip to York from London and the time I left Edinburgh Fringe Festival (only to revisit Edinburgh a few weeks later). Each of those times I knew I had to leave. I’d completed some internal level within, as if playing a game, and then it was time to go. A soothing comfort and a sense of accomplishment and finality.
But the times when I had no idea what to do? When I was paralyzed? When I had no idea what was going to happen next and the crushing thoughts, the disparaging comments I made to myself about, literally, “What am I doing?” and “What am I doing with my life?” Those were the most disappointing and frustrating moments of all because it felt as if any sense of hope had dissipated and left me all alone with empty emotions.
In those moments, I found that taking the time to be present, to absorb all that was happening around me, was the cure for not knowing what to do. Life will happen whether sitting in the driver’s seat attempting to take action or sitting as a passenger.
And so, I continued moving. A bit of innocent wandering, striking up a conversation with a stranger or bookshop owner. One thing leads to another. Wandering helped me understand that though I may not know, life will always know the answer to the question “What do I do now?” And, even when I’d be so immersed in my own thoughts I’d be unable to observe the outside world, the outside world certainly took the time to notice me.
People have come up to me and invited me to walking tours, bar crawls, Lucha Libre matches, lunches, coffee, concerts, drinks. In those moments, I said yes to life. Something within always knows that something will happen. When an opportunity presents itself, run with it. Run toward the experience of a lifetime.
However, sometimes I needed to take the time to be by myself. Alone. To allow my body to rest, deeply. To restore. To recharge. When I’m finally back and ready to figure it all out, that’s when I realize, nothing is figured out and life will happen because that’s what life does.
Have a plan. Have an idea of what you want and where you want to go. Some things fall into place — like my solo road trip across the states and going to Scotland to celebrate the new year. Sometimes, things fall apart. Trust your instincts and go with your gut. Overall, trust the journey. The journey will take you not necessarily where you want to go, but where you need to go. And that’s what matters.
There’s a great quote from Travels With Charley: in Search of America, a book by American author and Nobel winner John Steinbeck, recounting his road trip across America with his poodle, Charley. This passage struck a chord with me the first time I read it, and maybe that’s the point of travel. Like the setting being a character in a story, the journey is a character in your story, too.
“When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age.In middle age I was assured greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked. Four hoarse blasts of a ships's whistle still raise the hair on my neck and set my feet to tapping. The sound of a jet, an engine warming up, even the clopping of shod hooves on pavement brings on the ancient shudder, the dry mouth and vacant eye, the hot palms and the churn of stomach high up under the rib cage. In other words, once a bum always a bum. I fear this disease incurable. I set this matter down not to instruct others but to inform myself....A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we not take a trip; a trip takes us.”