This is the 1st article in a summer series on the life lessons that traveling has to teach us.
Four years ago, I was transitioning from married to single life. Admittedly, it was not going smoothly for me. It often felt like my heart was breaking into a thousand pieces each second of each minute of each day. I was spending all my free time crying and hurting up in the spare bedroom that I’d sloughed off to when I’d separated from my ex.
So, when my sister called to ask if I’d like to road trip down to Bluestone State Park in Hinton, West Virginia, I decided that I better take her up on it. I knew that if I didn’t, I was in danger of living out the remainder of my days conversing with my cats while stuffing peanut butter chunk ice cream with extra added peanut butter into my piehole. A break from my cycle of grief (and some non sugary sustenance) were in order.
We decided to meet up on a Friday to hike the paths along the New River. While awaiting her late arrival that first evening, I sat down to a solo spaghetti dinner. And lost it. I sobbed, pulled myself together, then repeated that cycle about five more times. Experiencing a vacation without my husband with me or to go back to for the first time in ten years overwhelmed me with sorrow. I was deeply grateful for the tall trees outside and the quiet serenity of the place, glad that nature did not judge that I was a hot mess.
I remembered some teaching somewhere that when you’re at your lowest and can’t pull yourself back up, think of an off-the-wall blessing to cheer yourself up. All I could come up with was thanking God I’d packed my straightening iron and hair dryer, lest I walk outside and be mistaken for a Yeti by some overeager anthropologist trying to make their mark on the annals of history.
My ultra adventurer sister eventually arrived and razzed me for bringing such domestic hygiene tools to a cabin in the woods. Then she graciously pretended not to notice my tear-streaked face and distracted me from my heartache with gab about her latest gluten-free finds.
That weekend we hiked paths we’d never taken before. I cried like I’d done 5,000 times before and talked too much about my impending divorce. She nodded a lot. We took pictures. The dog came along and was his usual happy-dog self. She cooked her vegan gluten-free recipes; I ate them and told her they were good. It all went so smooth and everything exciting that happened was on the inside, where I felt freer and stronger for it all. Driving myself five hours away from my old life was immensely empowering, like a practice run at the new one.
But it was what I found out one dawn while seeking out my morning brew that really changed the course of my journey. I woke up well before my sister and decided to see if they had coffee ready yet at the visitor’s center. It was still percolating when I arrived, so I began to thumb through some of the pamphlets left out for us tourists. It was then that I stumbled across a piece of literature by the Friends of the New River.
What I discovered was an intriguing controversy surrounding the New River’s creation. According the the Friends, the New River is actually the oldest river in the U.S., and the second oldest in the world. Some of it’s current path follows the course of the ancient Teays Valley, which is theorized by many in the scientific community to have formed somewhere between 10 to 360 million years ago. It also holds the rare distinction of being one of the few rivers in the world that flows from the south to the north.
Why was this information so profound to me? It was because the mislabeling of the river as “new” put in perspective for me all the erroneous labels I’d also been slapped with since my separation: by my ex, by society, and most of all by myself. Suddenly the nomenclatures ‘failure’, ‘less-than’, and ‘inadequate’ became easier to dismiss as I watched the flow of this ancient river which, despite its’ name, carried eons of memories along its current.
As I absorbed the long-enduring history that surrounded me, I felt that my old self was newly emerging again too, after having been in self-imposed isolation. If this beautifully flowing waterway had seen so much and still survived, so too could I.
I didn’t have to go on this trip. I could have said ‘no’ and stayed in the cesspool of my separation. But now when I think back to that time in my life, I think of the oldest New River in the world, and all it did to teach me about chucking the labels and forging my own unique path through the world.
Discussion Question: What place or places have you traveled to that most profoundly affected you?