“Nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit than a secure future.”
The powerful words of Jon Krakauer, author of Into the Wild, have wound their way into my thoughts with every crossroad I reach in recent years. Krakauer tells the compelling true story of Chris McCandless, a disaffected young graduate seeking to break with the conventions of modern life and escape the strained expectations of his parents. Tired with this existence, he cuts up his credit cards, donates all his money to charity, and sets out for a life on the road. He is never seen by his family again.
The nomadic lifestyle has always been the one I’ve wanted. I meandered towards it as a restless teenager, saving every penny for adventures near and far; now, as a university graduate, I’m hacking my way through thorns and bushes in search of the road less travelled. I’ve financed my own education, juggling three jobs while making sure I had time to explore: short bursts of adventure closer to home, as well as sublime extended trips to Eastern Europe and the Americas. Independence is my greatest asset. But it doesn’t always come easy.
Three months ago I was on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world at 3,812 metres. I watched as the sunrise leaked over the majestic Andes and into the enormous basin of water below, igniting its reflective surface. I thought about how long I’d dreamed of this; how many times I’d envisaged the tranquillity of this experience.
Many people hadn’t wanted me to be here. Parents had worried about the dangers of travelling in formerly unstable countries; concerned friends tried to persuade me that going alone as a young woman was a terrible idea. Some were entirely disinterested in the idea of travelling at all. Thankfully where much else in my life is chaotic, the compulsion to break my routine and discover new places remains steady. It’s not something everybody understands.
Tiny communities of people had already been awake for hours when we arrived on Lake Titicaca’s floating reed islands. We slid over the shiny surface of the deep water in a reed boat while women in bright traditional clothes chopped at the abundant, corn-coloured stalks, babies in slings hugged tightly to their backs.
“Life is tough here, but they fight to keep their autonomy,” the tour guide told us. “They build everything from these reeds – the islands themselves, their huts, their beds. And if they have a disagreement with a neighbour, they cut them adrift – literally.”
That night, a pendulous moon swung across the velvet night. In spite of the regularity of the process, the patterns of shadow and light reflecting off it seemed unfamiliar. As I shivered on my hilltop, I thought about the little islands of people on Lake Titicaca below, floating away from each other under an unforgiving sky. Things look different in the southern hemisphere.
In the end, Chris McCandless learned his most important lesson in the cruellest way possible. He had travelled extensively throughout California, weaving the fabric of his life into a rich tapestry of encounters – but mostly shunning close friendships with other travellers. Dying of starvation, alone after eating a poisonous plant in remote Alaska, a realisation dawned. He used the last of his strength to pen his final message into his journal: “happiness is only real when shared.”
Travel is to seek the answer to a question you didn’t even know you were asking, and often we have to lose ourselves to find it again. McCandless ultimately understood that his rejection of human relationships was only meaningful while he still had time to rectify it: his bold choices meant that all his happiness, as well as his suffering, had to be experienced alone.
Independence is defined just as much by the time you spend with people as without, or it can slide into isolation. A person who doesn’t know how to be alone is not exercising independence, because they still depend on external forces for fulfillment. Independence is knowing how to enjoy the soundtrack of your own thoughts alone on a night bus, but also basking in the warmth of strangers in a Peruvian desert town, feeling like you’ve known them years. It isn’t burning every bridge till you’re stranded on an island – it’s knowing when you need to get away, but also knowing when it’s time to come back.
I came back, but I’ll be gone again in time. And that is what true freedom feels like.
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