I was nineteen the first time. I had ghosts in my head and they wanted tall rocks; they wanted cold water. I applied to be a housekeeper in a hotel from the 1920’s in a national park in Alberta. The closest city, Calgary, was three hours away. Good.
There I met people who also left. I made a friend named Carly with big green eyes and a movie star laugh, a movie star warmth. We would lie in the dock after our shifts and bake our skin in the hot sun, big mountains looming over our bodies, sipping Pilsner from warm silver cans. Carly told me about sand-boarding down black sand in Guatemala. I looked at her face while she spoke. Her face tells me more than her story, I thought.
I met a girl named Tristan from a town of 1,800 people with an angel’s voice. I met a boy named Tayt who left the Mormon church, opting instead to jump off mountains with orange plastic wings. Tayt and I once packed an entire block of brie and crossed the border into Montana to climb Rising Wolf Mountain for two days. We drank hot chocolate in the morning in our tent when the rain came down too hard for us to climb. It felt impossible to be anywhere else.
Halfway up Rising Wolf, 2016
I kept meeting people like me; people who had left. I laughed with them, cried with them, slept with them, jumped into glacial water at 3:00 am with them, screamed at them. I figured if I could hold them close enough I would figure out if it was bravery or cowardice, leaving, and then I would never have to do the same to myself.
My yearning and my luck lead me to Rwanda. I had studied the genocide for two years. I met a professor named Henri, from Burundi, who took a number of students to Kigali every year to volunteer. I would sit on the 4th floor of Weldon library and drink Starbucks coffee and read articles on JSTOR about women who walked for eight hours with children on their backs so their throats would not be slit. This is dissonance, I thought, and then four months later I saw the sun rise over the hills of Kigali for the first time and I suddenly believed in God.
I graduated. I went back to the national park in Alberta and served fried chicken for four months to save money. I saved $4,000. I was young, but I already knew what this money meant, how it was any kind of seed I wanted it to be. I could move to a city and leverage my degree and begin to stay. Learn how to stay. Instead I packed a 45L bag and bought a ticket to Lima, Peru.
I don’t have any fully formed thoughts as to whether or not my penchant for escape has anything to do with my father leaving my sister and I. I think there are different ways to leave. The children of people who chose cruelty are usually architects of lives that relinquish this kind of dependency. From what I know — granted, it’s not much — I saw only kindness in departure. I saw softness in everyone I met: Carla, the girl from Honduras who knocked out her teeth on Death Road in La Paz, the Norwegian boy with a ukulele and oddly right-wing sensibilities, and softness even in the Canadian carpenter I met in Uyuni, Matt, who seemed to spend a great deal of his energy trying to harden.
Whether or not this exists in me is difficult to ascertain.
My youth always felt urgent. I entered into adulthood with my friends and ticked all of the boxes: education, rent payments, inchoate opinions becoming increasingly convoluted by the news cycle. All the while I felt an impending sense of dull fear. By fourth year, the climate was hot, the hydra of fascism had grown new heads over Europe, neoliberalism had women marching in the streets with vagina shaped hats under the guise of progress, and my goals and dreams had mutated into a blur. I consulted an online psychic to speak to my dead friend. “He’s pointing at his watch,” she said, “he’s laughing because you think you’re running out of time.”
Running away can’t absolve ennui, it just changes its body. Loneliness, for instance, has a knack for finding you wherever you go. I once slipped into a long spell of silence in Cusco, Peru. On the fourth day I sat in the Plaza de Armas with a little girl named Daisy who sold llama key-chains for her family. I traded her an amethyst for a key-chain. We sat for the entire afternoon reading from my Kobo (a book that contained the word fuck, which, much to my dismay, Daisy liked the sound of and shouted several times into the square). Occasionally she would sprint off in the direction of a tourist in a surgical mask and return with a handful of soles, gap-toothed smile eating up her entire face. I felt the world had offered me what I needed more than anything that afternoon, a friend, and I needed only to say thank you.
There’s an expression in hiking called trail magic; little instances of supernatural luck offered to people who decide to walk from Mexico to Canada for 6 months. Trail magic is finding a clean stream of water, or a lift from a kind stranger, or a perfectly wrapped chocolate bar in the wilderness. I noticed that when I was leaving — when I oriented my headspace to an adventure — this experience was everywhere. Instead of simply revelling in the moments I would make eye contact with a friend and say “how is this possible,” I would record them to reinforce their consistency and weight. My journal filled with frantic scribbling: I yearned to assemble statistical proof that life was filled with magic.
But the longer I stayed in one place the more the magic waned. The tug of elsewhere, beginning only as a nudge, would eventually wake me up in the night like a frightened child.
I’m writing this from Athens; the sun is setting on a strange city while most of my friends are just waking up. I miss them. I left a really good job, a partner, and two years of trying my best every single day to stay. In October, I walked around a circle in High Park. The inscription on the entrance to the circle recommends asking a question before walking through the maze and the maze will suggest a solution. It was an uncharacteristically hot day in late autumn and the park was ablaze with yellow.
I took three steps into the circle and knew it was time to leave.