“Well, the summer after high school, I went to Europe for a weekend to attend my friend’s wedding and all I packed were pajamas and my bridesmaid dress,” she told me as we walked along the forest trail.
I thought I had a grasp on reality and life.
I thought I knew what true adventure and spontaneity looked like.
I thought my skepticism for what modern travel had become was justified…
“It was only supposed to be two days, but I loved it there so much that I skipped my flight home and stayed for seven years. I ditched my college plans, scholarships, everything in one weekend.”
…Until I met Rachel.
“It was crazy at first. I had nothing, no plan, not even clothes. I found a couple in France who paid me to nanny their kids, and just…figured it out from there,” she shrugged, smiling.
Just…figured it out — as if it were a bus schedule. Or a coffeemaker.
Before Rachel, I always felt distrusting and maybe a little tired at people who pontificated over how spontaneous and adventurous they were. They would have you believe that their summer trip was an adventure on the scale of Sir Edmund Hillary climbing Everest. They would drone on and on trying to convince you that their exotic, not-touristy-at-all escape was something to inspire Jules Verne had he been there. And then they would try to sell you on travel through glamorous, embellished photos and posts.
What did they actually do? Suntan on the beach at a resort, never sharing anything real.
After hearing these travel stories over and over again from people whose “adventures” existed solely “for the ‘gram”, I would then travel in the hopes of finding the same wild fun and happy bliss that those others had captured, but I came up short of their perfection every time.
As a result, I was starting to believe that travel had been commodified, adventure stuffed in a box to be sold as an experience — yet another victim of our consumer culture. The true to life travel stories of Bill Bryson, Pico Iyer, and Jon Krakauer had been replaced by influencers, digital nomads, and gilded bloggers. I was convinced that authentic travel had gone extinct.
The world was getting shallower and I wondered if there was anyone left who knew how to swim.
“…And then after Europe,” she continued, “I was ready for something new, so I took a trip to Australia and spent a few years going from town to town working job postings at hostels.”
Rachel proved me so wrong.
I met her on a trip to Michigan. Why Michigan? I’m not sure. It was two weeks before my wedding and I had a four day weekend ahead of me with no plans. In my desperate search for something spontaneous, adventurous, and real, I picked a random point on a map of the US.
I threw some clothes into a backpack, threw that backpack into a Jeep, threw that Jeep into gear.
Was this what adventure looked like?
After a day and a half of rainy driving, I was standing in front of a trailhead at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.
I came to this national park because I saw a painting of the area at a coffeeshop in the nearby town of Munising. The art depicted a somber looking seascape of a rocky shoreline. Above the choppy water, a tree stood defiantly on the edge of a small cliff. The placard said Chapel Rock. So, I decided to hike to the cliff.
There was only one problem. As I noticed on the drive up, it had been raining heavily the past few days. Rain meant mud — mud meant for a slow, messy hike.
Mud by itself wasn’t necessarily the problem, though. The problem was my lack of planni — ahem, my abundance of spontaneity…
I looked down at my exposed feet and sighed.
I was wearing flip flops. It was all I packed.
This would be fun.
This trail was supposed to be easy — a nice, half day hike that promised to end at that iconic tree on the cliff. Needless to say that, in the mud, it was slow going. With every step, the cold, sticky earth would swallow me up to the ankle. Whenever I pulled myself free, only my naked foot would emerge.
I would then spend some time digging around in the muck for my lost footwear, trying to maintain balance on the slick trail. After victoriously reclaiming my muddy flip flop, I would take another step, get stuck, and the whole process would start over again.
Of course, I would inevitably fall on my face every three or four steps, get back up, then use my muddy hands to clean off my muddy clothes and continue along the muddy trail.
Yes, the disgusting mental image you have in your head right now is probably accurate. In fact, add to your mental picture the fact that I’d been living out of my car the past two days, roadtripping without a shower or a shave.
Not very pleasant, right?
Now, imagine something much better:
Imagine a pretty girl — not in a dolled up with makeup let’s-go-out-for-a-night-on-the-town kind of pretty. Not pretty in the ways that a girl wants you to see her, with her hair done and nails and lipstick and cocktail dress.
No, instead, picture a girl in jeans and a white rain jacket, with long blonde hair tied up in a loose, messy, pile of a bun perched precariously on top of her head, threatening to topple over her face. Picture this girl with bright, lively eyes, and the wickedest sharp smile you can imagine.
When I first saw her, though, I wasn’t looking at her face. In fact, I can honestly say it wasn’t her physical appearance that drew my attention to her, honest.
That’s because, when I stumbled around a corner on the trail and saw her up ahead, I only noticed one thing.
I looked down at her exposed feet and smiled.
She was wearing flip flops.
This would be fun.
She was walking slower and more carefully than me to avoid falling face first like I had been doing all day. She still struggled with each muddy step, but was more graceful in her recovery. While I was looking like a swamp monster, her white rain jacket only had a few flecks of that dark, smelly mud that encompassed my whole being.
Eventually, she stopped at a fork in the trail, allowing me to catch up to her.
I knew I wasn’t the most appealing sight even in a normal situation — let alone in the middle of the forest with no one around. I figured she would avoid me as I passed by, maybe give a curt nod before wishing me to go away. In fact, I half expected her to whip out a can of pepper spray on sight. The way I looked and, considering the situation — 100lb-ish girl and 190lb guy in the middle of the forest with no phone signal — I wouldn’t have blamed her.
Her head turned to the sound of my feet plopping along in the mud behind her. As I stopped at the fork, there was no polite, reserved nod as she let me by, no effort to ignore me, and (thankfully) no pepper spray.
Only hysteric laughter.
She doubled over, laughing tears at the sight of me. All it took her was one glance to immediately understand what I had been through for the past few hours.
I stood there at the trail fork with her and just…laughed back.
What else was I supposed to do?
There we stood, two strangers alone in the woods, giggling like children, as the mud made its slow attempts to consume us.
“Nice shoes,” she managed to say between chuckles. Then, she picked up one of her own feet and waved it around in the air to acknowledge our similarity, like a secret handshake in a club of two. She flicked mud everywhere in the process, which caused more laughter.
After finally gaining control of herself and stifling her laughing fit, she turned back to her predicament concerning the fork in the trail, “Do you know which way to Chapel Rock?”
And that’s how I met Rachel, the manic pixie dream girl, and my sole hiking companion for the next several hours.
“…I just got back from Australia a few weeks ago, and now I’m headed up to Canada to take this training class for my new teaching job,” she continued her life story that began with her European weekend-turned-to-yearslong-wandering.
I listened to Rachel talk about her crazy life for the entire hike. From living in Europe on a whim to bouncing between hostels while working random jobs in Australia.
Was she doing it “for the ‘gram”? Or maybe some blog where she romanticized her travels to others? Was she just another pipe dream seller?
I wondered these questions in my head as she pulled out a phone.
“Do you know how to work this thing?” It was an older model. She fiddled with the screen, “I don’t know how to get to the camera. I haven’t used a phone much in years, I got this one when I came back to the States and it drives me crazy.”
So…that’s a no on the travel blog thing, then.
Rachel was the real deal. No picture perfect scenes or dolled up online presence. Just a girl — 18 years old when she first started out — terrified at the risk she was taking and doing it anyways. She hadn’t embellished or prettied up her story, posting picture after perfect picture. She simply lived it, experienced it for no one else but herself. She was adventure and spontaneity in the real world.
We slogged our way through the mud for what felt like hours, but the words never stopped flowing between us. As she shared her stories with me, I told her about some of my own travels and how I was getting married in just a few weeks.
“Shouldn’t you be out at a bachelor party with your boys or something,” she teased, “instead of mucking about in the woods?”
“To be honest, I don’t have a lot of ‘boys’,” it was true, I hadn’t really considered a bachelor party. I didn’t have many friends to invite. After all, I managed to vanish to Michigan for days without anyone beyond my fiancée really noticing.
“Well then, I guess this is your bachelor party!” She raised her arms at the deep, thick forest around us, shins deep in mud, and chuckled, “I’ve always wanted to throw one for someone, so…here you go!”
I don’t remember every conversation we had — there were so many on that hike. But, I do remember making it to Chapel Rock. She did eventually fall face first a few times along the way so, by the end, both of us were just two animated mud piles.
We sat on the rocky shore beneath the gaze of that cliffside tree, looking out over the lake that seemed to extend into an eternal unknown.
“I’m excited about this new career, but nervous, too,” she confessed. “I get to teach kids about nature, which sounds like my dream job. But I’m not sure that I’m cut out to teach, or if anyone will listen to me. And, it means I have to settle down,” she laughed, “I don’t even know what that looks like after being gone for ten years.”
Ten years living on a whim, out of a backpack filled at first with nothing but pajamas and a bridesmaid dress. She told me she didn’t even have a toothbrush that first weekend. Or normal walking shoes.
“I think that’s why I took this detour from my drive up to Canada. I saw a picture of this spot at a coffeeshop in that town nearby, so I decided to go hiking. One last whimsical day before starting my teacher’s training.”
Rachel had more stories than I could ever share, more adventures than I could fit in my lifetime. She taught me that, yes, a real life full of spontaneity and adventure does still exist — but, if you try to find it online, authenticity will suffer a death by a thousand like buttons.
Instead, I learned from her that you have to get out into the real world. You have to take risks — you can’t pack all the glamour and perfect sunsets in your carry on because there’s only room for pajamas, a bridesmaid dress, and boldness.
True adventure can’t be wholly contained in snapshots or 280 character posts. She taught me that there’s #nofilter for spontaneity. Authentic travelers like Bill Bryson, Pico Iyer, and Jon Krakauer didn’t go extinct, they simply got drowned out as I looked for them in all the wrong places.
Thanks to Rachel, I learned that, if you want realness to your life, you have to get down and dirty.
You have to get some mud on your clothes.
As I traveled back home and married my wonderful wife, I thanked Rachel for what she taught me. Because of her, my spouse and I fell in love with real travel — we learned from Rachel that authenticity was still out there, so we chased that instead of the gilded dreams those others tried to sell us.
At my one-on-one bachelor party in the woods, a manic pixie dream girl taught me a life lesson that I followed for years.
I guess she was cut out to be a teacher after all.