The Wander Women – Ashley

“Get this show on the road.”

These were the last words Ashley heard from her dying grandfather before she left him to pursue a college degree, the first one anyone in her family would ever receive. She hadn’t wanted to leave. Her Grandad was the only person she was related to who had ever shown her true, unconditional love amidst a childhood punctuated by drug use, physical violence, and emotional uproar.

His words returned to her like flowers in the wind three days and 33 miles into what was supposed to be a 32 mile trek in the Himalayas. She was utterly defeated and could not remotely begin to gather the strength needed to continue the journey.

“I can’t,” Ashley whispered back to the wind, sticky tears freezing to her cheeks the moment they dropped from her eyes. It felt like she hadn’t stopped crying since the journey began. Her body ached with the cruel thought of hiking yet another day, twelve miles still to cover, and who knows how many feet left to climb and scramble down.

It was nearing mid afternoon while Ashley rested, mentally wrestling with the reality that she did in fact need to continue. Going back the way she came would only be more of the same.

Her pack was off, leaning against the same tree as herself. It was short and gnarled by the Himalayan wind, the graying branches pointing mockingly in the direction Ashley knew she must continue. Small Nepalese prayer flags were adorned to the tree, and despite how shredded they seemed and the fact that the sun had clearly dulled their coloring, they fluttered in earnest.

The tears continued their descent as Ashley closed her eyes in an attempt to gather herself. Slowly she became aware of the beating of her own heart. It seemed to run at a pace appropriate to both the altitude and her exhaustion.

Splatters of purple and green shifted behind her eyelids, changing shape whenever she attempted to focus in on anything in particular. This was a game Ashley had played since childhood, a distraction from the domestic violence shattering the household just outside her bedroom door. If she could just will those colors to take the shape of her favorite animals, a monkey, a cat, a butterfly, or even a combination of all three, maybe she could drown out the horrible sounds.

Instead those colors took a new form as Ashley pulled herself together on a mountain peak in the Everest range. The face of her best friend metamorphosed on her eyelid canvas – Timber. He was a good dog, a good boy who made it to sixteen years old despite a brutal car accident that failed to claim his life, resilient as he was.

“Maybe all those years of insanity are finally taking their toll on me,” Ashley jokingly wondered to herself. She had always prided herself on her ability to thrive from such a horrific upbringing. All things considered, she survived unscathed.

The swarm of eyelid colors currently known as Timber cocked his head like he always had when considering the situation in front of him. It was his way of showing that he was listening, and even though he couldn’t speak, he made for an incredible confidante.

“Get this show on the road,” barked the eternally smiling face of Ashley’s formal travel companion.

Her eyes flew open. The words came to her crisper than the surrounding Himalayan wind. They were uttered with such clarity that the realty of them not being real seemed more insane than accepting them as fact.

Ashley felt that her heart rate had increased, and became suddenly aware of the growing cold. Her hands were still pressed against the chalky dirt below the tree, and the sweat that seemed to never leave her body clung to her body, chilling her to the bone.

She had neither the strength nor desire to continue, but it was clear that she had lingered too long. There was no other choice but to get the show on the road.

The pack slung on like the weight of the world, making Ashley groan with the effort. She couldn’t remotely believe that this is what Sherpas did with ease on a regular basis. She made a mental note to praise the next Sherpa she came across.

Before finishing the day’s three miles, Ashley paused to take in the view. So far it had been nothing but depressing gray, completely obscuring the mountains just beyond the clouds. Somehow, as she rested under that tree, the clouds parted enough to grant her the view that inspired her to travel to the Himalayas in the first place.

It was unlike anything she had ever seen. Those entirely too common tears began flowing at once as the snowy peaks across the valley soaked in the last of the day’s sunlight. They were truly glorious, and in their glory it felt as though the world paused to observe them with Ashley. At that moment she knew, and the universe knew, she could continue on.

The sun was long gone by the time Ashley stumbled in to the Nepalese teahouse three miles and 1000 vertical feet from where she has rested hours earlier. She was utterly broken apart, emotionally, physically, and mentally. The range of emotions she felt were caught in a tumultuous roller coaster, and all she could think to do was seek shelter and the heat it provided. She had to duck her head to enter what was essentially a hut, and felt a tremendous burden lifted once her pack, a literal burden, found its way to the floor.

A fire was lit in the hearth and she gravitated to it by instinct alone, for all her strength had left with her tears. She pushed her frozen hands into its heat, grateful for even the smallest exposure to comfort.

Again her eyes closed, from exhaustion, from gratitude, from having no more moisture left to keep her eyes hydrated. She sat this was for many minutes, feeling her heart rate return to a calm pace.

“Namaste,” creaked a voice behind her. It was paired with a tap on her back by something that felt much harder than a finger.

Ashley swiveled around on the small wooden stool upon which she sat and was greeted by the face of a very old Nepalese woman. Wrinkles upon wrinkles decorated her every expression, bending and moving with the slightest provocation. Her hands were tanned and looked to be the texture of leather, the wisdom of her life etched into her palms. Clasped in those hands was a long walking stick, the end of which was ornamented with small, colorful beads that matched the prayer flags Ashley had seen throughout her journey.

The woman said nothing more, instead gesturing with the walking stick in a way that suggested she wanted Ashley to take it.

“I can’t,” she politely refused, touched by the gesture of this complete and total stranger. Had she seen her walking the trail? Ashley did not have the energy to recall the faces that had crossed her bleary vision that day.

The woman gesticulated more aggressively, insistent that Ashley receive her gift. With a cautious hand she reached out for the stick, and once her hand was upon it the old woman released her grip, bowed lightly, and turned to leave the refuge. She was out the door before Ashley could offer her thanks.

She wasn’t alone in this common area, so she looked around the room to see if anyone else had witnessed what just took place. Most faces were focused deeply on the hot drink or food in front of them, but the woman who ran the refuge made eye contact with Ashley, waving her towards the counter with a quick flick of her wrist.

“Who was that?” Ashley inquired, too curious for formalities as she sat down at the stool in front of this woman.

“She is from here, but exactly where here is no one knows,” the woman responded in a riddling tone.

Ashley, too confused and tired to speak, begged the woman to continue through her eyes alone.

“I have seen her before, though only a handful of times since I was a young girl. My mother would tell me the tales of this shaman woman who appears when she is needed most, like the answer to a prayer. The other people like me who were raised here came to know her as the Wander Woman, forever adrift in the mountains assisting those when they least expect it. It seems today she has chosen you to have your prayer answer,” she added, nodding toward the stick in Ashley’s hand.

She turned the stick over, intimidated by its presence. The tears came again as she felt the significance of what had happened, how much she truly did need help on what was turning out to be one of the most difficult things she has ever attempted in her life. There was still a day left to complete the journey, and for the first time since she started did Ashley understand with total clarity that she had the strength to do so.

The beads adorning the stick were clearly very old, held fast by thin strands of leather, most likely yak. The top was darkened by what looked like fire, and etched into the blackness was a small line of script, reading, ” गेट थिस शोव ओन द रॉद”. Ashley ran her finger over the small divets, almost too tiny to register properly.

“Can you tell me what this says,” Ashley asked the woman at the counter, feeling crashing waves of fear and exhaustion encompassing her at once. The appearance of this Wander Woman haunted her as much as it energized her. She felt that the significance of the meeting would be something she would be unable to process right away.

The woman considered the writing, squinting to see the tiny letters. She too ran her finger over the script to get a better understanding of the message scratched into the wood.

“The road…” she mumbled, her words trailing. “Ah, I see it now. It says, ‘get this show on the road.’” She smiled and handed the stick back to a thoroughly shaken Ashley, who quickly gathered her things and retired to her room for the night.

Only moments after closing the door did she burst into tears yet again, overwhelmed by the magnitude of what she was experiencing.

Everything about this journey challenged her in ways she hadn’t endured since childhood. From brutal thunderstorms to a scorching sun, aching and blistered feet to bearing a backbreaking load, and now this. How could her beloved grandfather’s words be carried to her on the wind, in the memory of her dead best friend, and finally in a supernatural encounter with a Wander Woman of myth?

It was all too much, but it was also exactly what must have been.

Ashley laid there, eyes staring directly up. “The Himalayas have cracked me wide open, in deep and powerful ways,” she thought as tears careened across her cheeks and onto the thin pillow under her head.

Finally her eyelids closed in an attempt to rest, but this time the colors shifted and changed between the faces of her grandfather, timber, and the mysterious Wander Woman who came and left as quickly as the clouds over Mt. Everest.

As Ashley finally drifted into sleep, restoring what energy she could get for the final ascent the following day, she whispered, “namaste, namaste.”

Paradise by the airplane light

This time will be different, I promise myself emphatically, squeezing my fingers around the airplane armrests so my body is as stable as my word. How could it not be? I’ve spent the last three weeks exploring the literal paradise that is Belize, criss crossing every inch of its unique landscape while bonding with locals and like-minded travelers.

I am stoic with the refusal to go home and return to the slavery of my technological devices. I cast out the routine that has recently characterized me, the schedule which includes me never leaving the house and never meeting new people as are the joys of self-employment. I can and will be this wonderful new relaxed Caribbean version of myself (who apparently likes reggae) that I’ve cultivated over the last few days, and this is how things will be from now on.

Okay, great, so it’s settled. Tropical Me is going to stop wearing makeup, quit committing to everyone else’s deadlines just because that’s How Things Are Done where I live, and just generally chill the fuck out. I’ll wander the streets of San Francisco in flip flops quietly cursing the fog I’ve always loved, demanding the world accept my most recent whimsy.

Yeah, right. 

These are similar to promises I’ve made plenty of times before, and never really kept. As a 14-year-old returning from Europe I declared everyone would henceforth be greeted with cheek kisses, and that lasted maybe a week. I couldn’t even keep an Argentinean accent going for long after coming back from a summer in the Córdoban countryside, much to the relief of my Spanish teachers.

However, none of that changes that unique blend of nostalgia, relief, and panic that accompanies many overly self-aware travelers (like me) on the plane back home. You think of the complicated life ahead of you, choosing to ignore that while yes you were in the slower-paced Belize, you were also on vacation, which is inherently less peppered with responsibility. Either way, you keep a cold grip on the new facets of you that have come to light while abroad, hoping that maybe this time you can take a few of the fragments back home with you.

You know from experience that the way these experiences have shaped you have the potential to slip away quickly as you return to the you-shaped rut on your couch.

There’s the lack of time spent online and how much it didn’t matter. The rooster-based early wake ups that allowed you to experience the entire day. The genuine way people treated each other – can you imagine, people actually acknowledging their neighbors, and treating them with respect no matter their vocation? The unprocessed food was pretty good too, even though it gave you giardia.

But you can’t have live poultry in your 400 square foot apartment in the city, you can’t force everyone around you suddenly eager to talk to strangers, and hating on living in a developed nation is beyond cliche. In fact, many of these desires make you border on becoming a Humanitarian of Tinder, and we can’t have that.

Ultimately it’s not so much about the sunshine or the flip flops or the face kissing, it’s about you, and how easily you return to a routine that you don’t find especially fulfilling. Abroad you thrived in discomfort, opened up your heart just enough to fall in love a little bit, and for a brief handful of days escaped the bubble of anxieties and insecurities that everyone back home seems to find completely normal. You haven’t seen this you for a while.

You’re scared you’ve left behind the more authentic version of yourself that you thought was lost years ago, the person eager to explore and adventure, even though you were certain your wanderlust had long since been extinguished.

That’s what all the armrest squeezing on the plane ride back home is about. You earnestly believed that the fire had long since gone out, so every mile home feels like you’re sucking the life out of the ember you’ve only just discovered still exists.

The good news is nothing is ever as dramatic as I make it out to be, even though my goal in life is to live with as much intensity as a Meat Loaf song. Sure, I might go back to walking quickly and wearing makeup as needed, but ultimately my fulfillment is up to me, so if I want to talk to the neighbors, then I should talk to the neighbors, be they in San Francisco or anywhere else. 

And maybe if I squeeze hard enough, I’ll continue being the version of me who takes things a little less seriously.

Or, I can just go back to Belize.