Sarah Brooks: Lonely Planet

Fall '13 TOC


I didn't choose to travel there. I wasn't even given time to plan -- I didn't get to examine maps or research all my options for sight-seeing and lodging and transportation; I didn't even get to buy a Lonely Planet guide from the Boulder Bookstore. I could have at least been allowed to read other travelers' accounts online before I left, but I was not even given time for that. No journey I had ever taken had felt this raw-edged, this disorienting. An abyss, dark, swirling – I could not stop falling.

It's not that I hadn't traveled before. I wasn't one of those sheltered American tourists who are shocked by the fact that Walgreen's and Wells Fargo and Wendy's are not positioned every few blocks for their convenience. I was relatively young when I made this trip – thirty-four – but by then I had already traveled to Jamaica, Mexico, Ethiopia, and Spain and I had lived in England, Guatemala, and Alaska. I had navigated foreign languages, found my way on confusing subway lines, befriended locals. Always, I stayed cognizant of the fact that I was a visitor; I tried to stay quiet and listen, to discover the way real people lived in each place. It's true that certain aspects of travel overwhelmed me entirely: heat (humidity in the lowlands of Panama, scorching sun in the Spanish Alpujarras), chaotic cities (Tegucigalpa, Kingston, Addis Ababa, London), unexpectedly closed hostels or restaurants or train stations. I had always pretended to be braver than I actually was, but I had never given up; I had never allowed a strange place to defeat me.

Until this trip.

I'm ashamed to admit it. It wasn't just that I wasn't prepared, although that was part of it. It was that I had never wanted to go there. It was the only place I had never wanted to visit. True, I didn't want to endure the pollution of Bangkok or the chaos of Rio de Janeiro or the ice of Antarctica, but I had considered what it would be like to visit those places; I had talked to friends who had traveled there. But this other place – this place I went – it was never on my radar. I never considered it. Vaguely, I knew people who had been there -- my gram, my neighbor Becca, my dad – but I never wondered if I would have to travel there someday, too.

The most disorienting piece of all of this: I didn't think I would ever travel again without her. We assumed we would be old together; we joked about helping each other hobble down airport runways in our 80s (eight years older than I was, she laughed that she'd probably be in a wheelchair by then). In our eight years together, we travelled to Tulum, Banff, San Francisco, the Yukon – and in the photos from every trip, we are laughing. Weren't we happiest when we traveled? I planned, underlining the best places in the Lonely Planet; she interviewed locals, and her finds were always better. Once, we rented a motor-bike and she drove it too fast along the coast of Cozumel while I clung to her waist. She believed she would die in a plane crash, but it was her mind and her heart that crashed, with no black box for the coroner to find.

So although I'd traveled alone before, I couldn't love that sweet solitude this time -- not when the person I loved most on this lonely planet was no longer on it, or was now in it, of it – dust on a mountain ridge in the Yukon. Which is why, of course, I found myself in this place, a traveller transported lonely, all the constellations askew in the dark sky.

My memory is hazy about so much of it, but I remember how my stomach felt cold and that I could never move my feet quickly because they dragged, heavy. I believe my eyes were open, and yet I only remember black and grey, and sometimes a white haze. I could not construct thoughts. When I raised my hand to a doorknob or when I folded my body into a chair, it was another hand, another body that I watched. Sometimes, my daughter's voice echoed in my ears; I imagined her small hand pulling on mine. Once, I felt her brush the tears away from my cheeks, wiping at the rivulets I could not stop. I remember how my stomach muscles contracted again and again, like I was vomiting and not weeping.

I do not remember eating. No restaurants in that place, though I did prepare food for my child. I must have. Poor little girl. Five years old and barely even aware we had traveled to a different place. She had to come with me, was too young to stay back. Though of course, if I had traveled further, she could not have followed, and then who would care for her? At the time, that was the only reason I did not go.

Headings from Lonely Planet guides: What to Bring   Women Travelers What to Eat and When   Orientation   Dangers & Annoyances   Sights & Activities    Sleeping & Eating   Getting There & Away

None of those. It was dark, I was alone. A woman traveler, not sleeping or eating, disoriented, there and away.

I don't want to tell you what I did there. More accurately: what I thought there. Those thoughts that whispered I could escape, just end, just become nothing, just a cliff a railroad track a pill. I screamed, then, loudly, and anyone listening must have woken up, even if they didn't speak my language.

Sometimes, I'd find a partial way back. "Partial" because I would reach a turn in the road and glimpse my little house in Colorado, and then whoosh the sadness would slam into me, push me, pummel me, until I was lost there again, and I could never remember the right path to take. My child cried in the night, or screamed she saw snakes in her bed, and I thought it would be better to be in a terrifying place than an empty one.

I'd been terrified before, travelling. Once, a weathered Spanish farmer with a toothless sneer grabbed my arm and called me mi amor, tried to pull me into his hut until I kicked him hard in the shins. Once, I had to run down a mountain trail in El Salvador while a gang of men jeered puta! at me. But in this place, I felt no terror. Only yawning emptiness. It was more like the time I got lost in a blizzard on Ben Lomond in Scotland, when I gave up and collapsed onto an icy rock, numb.

I sat slumped in the dark nothingness, heavy, leaden.

I didn't choose to travel there, and I didn't choose to leave, either. My departure was no plane ticket in my hand in San Jose, no ferry ticket in my pocket in Juneau.   One evening, I fell asleep exhausted by the stillness of that place and of my stone paralysis – and when I woke in the morning, I sat up and felt surprised I had even wanted to rise. My body felt stiff, unused, my hands ached from being clenched so long, but I managed to stand – and I was home again, in my own bedroom with the bright yellow sheets and the red quilt, and when my daughter ran into the room I gathered her into my arms and held her close.

What's strange – what I can't explain at all – is that I miss the place. Don't misunderstand: I do not want to return. I remember enough to realize I'm lucky I survived. But now, when I think of her and what happened to us, I wonder how I have begun to begin a regular life here in Colorado. In that place to which I traveled (for nearly a year!), I never had to remind myself to re-live certain memories, to recall certain aspects of her face, her voice, her touch – I lived it all, I carried it all in my heavy bones. But now, when I walk down a sidewalk in sunshine beside my daughter, I sometimes forget to be sad. My body lightens; I float a moment in the blue air.



Not Enough Night
Not Enough Night
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