When I arrived at the airport my backpack was filled to its red cord-tied brim with tank tops, t-shirts, sweatshirts, shorts, hiking attire, no less than four pairs of sandals, and every other “necessity” I would need for fifty days of travel. There was also my duffel bag. At twenty-seven, I was finally going on my long awaited European summer adventure, and I had more than sufficiently overpacked.
Washington Dulles airport is large and has a Ben and Jerry’s. These are the only two things I remember about Washington Dulles Airport because I had something of a complete and blinding meltdown during my time in it. Shortly after tipping myself over to drop the red beast off of my back and onto the checked baggage conveyer belt at Icelandair, I sought out a favorite airport comfort: ice cream. Situated at a metal airport dining table, I listened to two happy couples in their late sixties discussing their three-week vacation. They, too, we’re headed to Iceland and beyond, but this is where our similarities stopped. They had each other. They had wedding bands and children and shared bank accounts, they had decades of experiences together, they had reassurance that if they got lost or mugged or just needed to talk, they could turn to each other.
I had my Ben and Jerry’s.
My brain and body started to race with anxiety and fears. What in the world am I doing, getting on a plane by myself and planning this haphazard tour of ten European countries? Who do I think I am? I’m not eighteen anymore! How much money would I be losing if I just went to Iceland and came back home? I can just kick out my subletter, right? Gone entirely was the gumption my blue-collar family raised me with, and any feelings of capability were replaced by cynical tears salting my cup of Half Baked.
I had been carefully planning my trip for six months, selecting cities, booking hostels and Air BNBs, and savoring the process of finding locals to complete work exchanges with. I was set to work at a medicinal garden in Balaguer, Spain, a farm in rural Hungary, and an older women’s house in Helmond, Netherlands, not far from a day trip to Belgium. I had five days along the Mediterranean in Nice that coincided with the Tour de France, there was a studio in the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona with a desk at an open window just waiting for me, and I had even worked up the nerve to spend one night at a party hostel in Amsterdam before relaxing in a cozy AirBNB along the canals.
In short, I had planned well and there was much to be excited about, but fear got the better of me. Fear is of course congenial, regularly inviting worry and doubt to the party, too. An internal meltdown of disparaging thoughts commenced. Was I too old for this? Was I being reckless by spending my two months off from teaching traveling instead of finding summer work to save money? Would my nephew ever forgive me for missing his first birthday? Would I really be able to manage all of these planes, trains, automobiles, and strangers?
There were no answers. There would never be answers unless I got on the plane. Shaking and doubtful, I huffed my duffel bag thirty rows back into coach and took my aisle seat. There was no wise older woman or seasoned traveler sitting next to me ready to dispense advice or regale me with stories of life-changing travel at my exact age, ala the perfect travel essay or movie. There was just me, sitting with fear.
The fifty days I nearly didn’t experience changed my life, as travel so often does. When I arrived in London, I donated the top layer of clothing from my backpack. Every city I went to, I left something behind. A tank top, a pair of shoes, a bit more fear. On a ninety-five degree day in July at the very top of a mountain in Montgai, a small province in Catalonia, Spain, I stood on rocks with women from Lithuania and Australia I had met two days prior. Before the words could leave my own mouth, one of them turned to say, “I’m so glad we all made it here.”