Summer camp and traveling have always been in my blood. At the age of seven, I first left home and headed to Laity Lodge Youth Camp (LLYC) for two unfailingly fantastic weeks. Even now as I type, I can’t wipe the smile off my face because I LIVED FOR SUMMER CAMP. I’m using shouty caps because that’s the best way I know to explain the energy surging through my body as I think about my happy place. For fourteen consecutive summers, the memories I made in the sweltering Texas hill country—sleeping in un-air-conditioned hot boxes each night—remain some of the best experiences of my life.
LLYC was a coed Christian sports camp, and we filled our days there with every team sport imaginable, plus arts and crafts, rappelling, archery, riflery, horseback riding, and mountain biking. At night we watched movies on the tennis courts and caught lightning bugs in the palms of our soft adolescent hands. I’m pretty sure I didn’t end a session without a bona fide camp boyfriend, but we were careful to make sure that when we were slow dancing, there was always enough room between us for Jesus.
When I look at old photos from these summers, tucked away in a metal lunch box in my closet, I see our sun-kissed faces and tan lines and am reminded of melting s’mores, frozen Snicker bars, dancing under the stars, food fights, and swimming in the emerald green water of the river that ran like a snake through the carved out canyon walls. From the moment I arrived at camp until the moment I departed, I wasn’t just happy; it felt as if my heart was so full that whatever liquid joy had been pumped into me was spilling out all over me and around me, coating everything it touched, myself included, in a warm, gooey metallic gold. This pure, unadulterated joy was my default setting at camp. Back then, I didn’t have to try to find it or discover it. It felt as natural as breathing.
As I grew older, I discovered that traveling, especially to unknown places, offered me this same kind of joy. When I was fifteen, I traveled outside of the country for the first time, flying to Costa Rica to live with my brother and his family for the summer. At first, the foreignness intimidated me; I was afraid to venture out into this new, unknown world. It felt safe inside the little house with the familiar faces of my sister-in-law and my toddler-aged niece and nephew. But after a few days of tagging along with them while my brother worked, I realized that I would likely die from boredom if I spent an entire summer inside.
My first foray out was to the convenience store on the corner of our block. In carefully studied Spanish, I asked to buy a candy bar. The next day I made it a block farther. And a little farther the day after that, quickly walking back to the safety of home base after each outing. I began to recognize the neighbors and got to know the neighborhood, eventually daring to use my budding vocabulary and imperfectly conjugated verbs as I waved and walked on by. At sixteen years old, I returned home at the end of the summer having experienced my first adult beverage, my first night of stoned laughter, and my first nightclub dance party. I also returned with an earned sense of confidence, an insatiable desire to keep exploring, and a permanent tattoo that I effectively hid from my dad . . . for years.
It’s as if the universe heard my beacon going off like a Bat-Signal and sent me a fairy god/grandfather a year later who would support my newfound itch to travel despite my family’s modest income (a euphemism for my family just being perpetually broke). Having inherited all of his financial wealth, Mr. Dunn was like a surrogate father to my mom and a surrogate grandfather to me. As he was well into his eighties, his passion for travel had become too difficult for him to pursue alone. He was estranged from his only relative—a son—so during all my high school holidays, my mom and I were invited to join him on all his extraordinary adventures around the world, at the tail end of his beautiful life. In return for his outrageous generosity, and being the effective “help,” we earned our keep, overseeing all the travel logistics, pushing his wheelchair, and keeping him amused with our fresh-eyed views of the world we were exploring together. Like a twenty-first-century Cinderella, I was swept away to magical places we could never have otherwise afforded: Morocco, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Monaco, France, Switzerland, Spain, and the Channel Islands. Then when the proverbial clock turned midnight, my mom and I would humbly return to our tiny rented home in Cuernavaca, and I’d pray our phone wasn’t turned off again because we couldn’t pay the bill that month. When Mr. Dunn passed away a few years later, he left his fortune to his son, but he left me forever richer in life experience and perspective, because he opened my mind to just how big and beautiful the world was outside of my hometown. He also left me bitten by an insatiable travel bug.
As a broke college kid, I would save up every cent I could to buy the cheapest tickets I could find to get to yet another far-away, off-the-beaten-path land. Often traveling alone, I’d stay in youth hostels and eat street food to accommodate my shoestring budget, which also came with countless bouts of some version of Montezuma’s revenge, one life-threatening round of E. coli, and a mutant strain of lice that took me three months to cure. I learned more about myself and the world with no more than a backpack and a deep reverence for the people generously hosting me in whatever country I found myself exploring.
Over the next two decades, travel would provide me with the greatest education of all. I thought I knew a thing or two about growing up as a poor kid from “the other side of the tracks,” but the landfill slums of Cambodia and the destitution rampant in the rural outskirts of India gave me a whole new perspective on the relativity of wealth. In Istanbul, I learned that religious inclusivity was possible and haggling in the Grand Bazaar was an official sport. Antarctica stoked a fire in me for environmental stewardship and instilled an absolute obsession with penguins.
Machu Picchu brought a spiritual awakening that included one of the best make-outs and worst hangovers of my life. I learned about the ugly reality of sex trafficking and the delicious food in Thailand, art and dirty dancing as acceptable forms of rebellion in Cuba, and that you can drink all the wine and eat all the bread you want and for some mysterious reason you won’t gain weight in Italy. I learned about racial inequity and the absurdity of shark cage diving when I got so scared, I peed in my wet suit at least three times in Cape Town. I also learned that Tokyo is the gold standard for sushi, selfies, and public transportation, and that I’m capable of breaking a human hand, which I’m pretty certain I did on an overnight train in China when a guy tried to feel me up, thinking I was asleep.
Forty-nine American states, fifty-two countries, seven continents, lots of stomach bugs, head lice, make-outs, carbs, and a broken hand later, I am a tapestry of the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, feelings, people, and stories I have collected during my travels. And each person I have come across exists somewhere inside of me so that I have a name and a face for every time someone references a group of people they can’t relate to or understand. Proximity is the gateway to empathy, and I had it in spades.
In addition to providing a window into different cultures and worlds, chasing adventures around the globe also offered me a welcomed and relaxed counterbalance to my gold star–seeking, productivity-obsessive, manically structured life back home. Somehow these adventures temporarily silenced the chaos inside of me and lulled to sleep my inner dragon, the part of me that anxiously wanted to control every outcome and sought approval from everyone.
I was drowning in the pressure others had placed on me—or more accurately, that I had placed on myself. My addiction to hunting adventures in foreign lands became the only way I knew how to turn the dial of my joy up louder than the deafening sounds of my anxiety, my impossible expectations, and my feelings of unworthiness. When I was away from “life” and traveling, I was able to be present; more importantly, it was only then that I was able to feel a simplicity and calmness that otherwise eluded me.
So, by the time I was in my early twenties, there had become two of me, bifurcated between obligation and joy. I was my dutiful self, checking off boxes, people pleasing, and suppressing what was in my gut, until a metaphorical low-gas light would go on and I’d be at a crawling speed until “empty” began flashing in bright red. Then I’d book another trip to a destination where I would be among fellow seekers, hiking perilous mountains, skinny-dipping in ice cold streams, or curling up next to warm campfires. My energy—depleted by expectations, opinions, the judgment of others—would eventually refind its brilliance, and I would return to “real life,” once again with a full tank of gas.
What I didn’t know then, though, was that my real life could be as glorious and vibrant as the foreign lands in which I’d been seeking refuge. I didn’t know then that the most profound and exhilarating pilgrimage of my life would not be to a far-off land, or to a wilderness on the remotest edge of the globe, but instead, within my very own heart and mind.