I sit in the eddy, alone. My hands tremble uncontrollably until I wrap them tightly around the shaft of my paddle. Once again, I thank my lucky stars that I’ve chosen a sport that does not require me to stand on two legs as I am certain there’s no way I could do so with the way my knees are knocking against the thigh braces; good thing no one can see that. I try hard to keep my face blank and free of emotion; there’s a good chance that my paddling crew knows my nerves but there’s no need to project them any further by wearing them on my face. Besides, it doesn’t matter at this point because they’ve gone down stream- a perfect metaphor for my place on the water. No matter how many people I surround myself with, I am always alone. I search my way through crashing waves and house rocks knowing that it is my union with the river that brings me downstream safely, not my reliance on others. I embrace this feeling as it is one of solitude and not loneliness; I’ve felt it before.
The river never ceases to surprise me. Each and every experience yields something that I can take with me as I hike my boat from the banks of the river back to into the real world. As new and as naked as I feel almost every time I am left in an eddy alone, I remember the raw, savory moments that have preceded this one- moments full of sound and color and gritted teeth and glistening eyes. I remember this feeling as one that made me feel small but integral, both a keystone and a simple brick. I’ve been here before, I tell myself, as water surges against my boat, playfully telling me I cannot possibly plan my way through this one. And while that may be true, I close my eyes and recall the sound and the speed of train over rail, of water crashing over ancient cliff, and of freedom and vitality.
My experience living and traveling abroad caught my attention; I wrote often and fiercely of moments that made me take notice of nature and humanity and creativity and moments when I felt human. When I reread my journals from the time abroad, I realize that I allowed myself to be transformed by an experience; I pushed myself to extract great things from challenging moments, and I emerged a different person. I stood on the cliffs of the Swedish coast, watching waves pummel rock, and felt ancient. I laughed with perfect strangers, and felt a part of something larger than my young heart could comprehend. I got lost and found myself.
Kayaking does not always have to be so existential, nor should we try to force it to be so. I reference these transformative moments from my experiences traveling because I have them on the river, too, and we are about to have the incredible opportunity to combine our communion with the river with the phenomenal journey into another country… I believe these opportunities are rare and can transform us, if we let them.
I decided to do some solo traveling during the holidays while I lived in Sweden, and I departed from the snowy, frigid train station in Copenhagen just a few days after Christmas. I remember the pit in my stomach so well… I think it is the same that makes an appearance from time to time on the river. I was so afraid I was making a mistake by getting myself into something I could not handle, that I would find myself in the middle of Europe scared and alone and incapacitated. I tossed and turned in bed each night for days before packing my bag, and the morning I set off, I had serious deliberations with myself in an empty kitchen about how easy it would be to stay behind. It would have been so easy to stay in my warm, sunny apartment rather than bundle up in my boots and jacket and throw a little bit of caution to the wind. But I didn’t get on a plane to fly halfway across the globe for a year to have a warm, easy experience. I came to live deep and suck all the marrow out of life, as Walden would say.
My first stop from the overnight train was Amsterdam. It had been a long and uncomfortable journey, and I was still adjusting to what it was like to travel with strangers with nothing but my backpack. I stepped out into the foggy morning light and the weight on my chest lifted. I wrote in my journal, “I am here, just here, and learning to accept each moment and its gifts as they are and as they come.”
Funny… these days, I tell that to myself every time I peel out of an eddy and into the current.
I felt on the verge of something when I left for Sweden, like there was something on the other side of all that time I would spend exploring and learning and getting lost and laughing and crying, and that was true. There was not something else but someone else at the end of all those months, and I would not know her unless I submitted myself to a rich, honest experience that I could gain only by getting really scared and being really vulnerable.
Kerouac said the trail felt like home once he decided to follow it, and Twain challenges that “travel is fatal to prejudice,” amongst other things, and that we “need it sorely” for that reason. I write this because two of the most impactful parts of my recent years are coming together, and I can only imagine the colors and smells and tastes of an adventure such as this one. I find myself transformed by the experiences kayaking affords me, and I have been irrevocably affected by the people I’ve met and the places I’ve seen during my travels. We are so beautifully different and so fantastically similar.
On one of my first days in my town in Sweden, I was wandering around exploring some of the university buildings. I was still undergoing some culture shock mixed with some irritating self doubt about what the hell I was doing on the other side of the world, and for such a long time! I found myself following a spiral staircase down into a basement café of the university library. There, before I turned the corner, was a large sign hanging on the wall. “Do not wait; the time will never be just right.” I remember laughing to myself, thinking of my own timing and how it couldn’t have been more wrong… or more right.
We can leave the river changed beings, transformed and connected to our waters and our world. We can return to our homes adventurers, transformed and connected by our humanity and its citizens.
I will never forget my heart as it pounded in my chest the day I waved goodbye to my parents in Charlotte Douglas airport, or the night I stepped onto the train, alone but determined, to venture to people and places unknown. And as I take the stroke that sends me from order to chaos, my heart pounds the same. We are never more alive than when we allow our heart to race; it is the mark of adventure, the horizon line that splits the difference between who we are now and who we will be when we say yes… and we should say yes, heartily, and often.