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By Sarah Johnson
Two and a half years ago I packed up my car with my skis and a little saved cash and left Montana to begin a new chapter of my life. I didn’t know exactly where I’d end up or how long I could survive on the road but I did know that I was searching, rather desperately, for some sort of direction or identity. Throughout my life the mountains have always been teachers and British Columbia is an excellent classroom. That first winter was the kickoff to an adventure that has lasted much longer than expected, and carried me through seasons in Canada, Europe, and South America. I can hardly explain the ways I’ve changed these past couple of years, but I can pinpoint a few simple examples of lessons I’ve learned, and will carry with me forever.
Lesson 1: Drink Toasting Culture
Just imagine: you’re sitting around a table with a group of friends after a long, exhilarating day in the mountains and you feel that happy glow inside that comes from camaraderie and adventure in the outdoors. The waiter brings those anxiously anticipated ice-cold beers you’ve all been dreaming about, and a toast is raised. A cheers to the successful day, the companionship, and the fact that everyone is back, safe and healthy. This is an important moment, a chance to look your buddies in the eye and say, “thanks for being here.”
I’ve learned that in many countries drink toasting is a well-practiced ritual and it’s important to pause and look each person directly in the eyes when you touch glasses, as a sign of acknowledgment and respect. The connection formed by looking a person in the eyes affirms your true appreciation for the moment. In France I was called out on my mediocre eye contact skills until I made it a habit. Beer toasting etiquette never crossed my mind before I traveled, but now when I visit the U.S., I notice undeniable eye contact shyness. In America, we tend to cheers to the table, wall, or the clinking beers in front of us, looking anywhere other than into the eyes of the person on the receiving end. In a world so full of mobile technology and distractions it’s refreshing and important to take one second, look in the eyes of those who matter most, and toast to their health and happiness.
Lesson 2: How to Live out of a Backpack
I’m travelling with my boyfriend and no vehicle, so we only have two backs for carrying our gear. Between the skiing, climbing, camping, fishing, and photography gear, and heavy but necessary first aid kit, we don’t have room for much else. We’re lucky to have formed solid friendships along the way and can leave our ski bags in a few trusted basements in the off-season. Nonetheless, getting from one point to another with everything can be a hilarious nightmare, especially passing through big cities like Paris or Santiago.
Carrying my house on my back has taught me how to prioritize, organize, and let go. I’ve learned how to patch my clothes and gear (dental floss makes excellent sewing thread, for example), and find joy in giving away possessions that might mean a lot to me but better fit the house of a friend. I’m finding the more I travel, the smaller my pack gets, because I realize what I truly use and can physically lift, I mean, how many beanies do I actually need? We don’t have room for souvenirs but that’s where my camera plays its vital role. The little luxuries we have accumulated, like the tiny coffee maker and mini chess board, have made it to three continents and are special because we use them so much.
Backpacking teaches us to learn to appreciate simple joys and shed surplus weight, both physically and spiritually. It’s so freeing to just pack up and go, without unnecessary clutter to get in the way.
Lesson 3: Hitchhiking is the Fastest, Best Way to Travel
Before I left home, I wouldn’t have dreamed of hitchhiking alone on the side of a South American highway. But two very important lessons I’ve learned in this journey are that most people in this world are good people, and to listen to my instincts. Embarking on a skiing or climbing trip without a vehicle is challenging and we often we find ourselves in the middle of nowhere, with a destination mountain in the distance and a dirt road to guide the way.
I’ve hitchhiked more days than not this last year and have never once had a bad experience. I can’t count the number of people who have pulled over out of pure goodness and crammed my boyfriend and I with our tremendous packs into their backseats.
I began this trip with such a powerful fear of strangers and I know that others sensed my insecurity. One of my biggest motivators for overcoming that fear is my friend Fran, one of the strongest women I know. Fran is a tiny New Zealand climber who has hitchhiked alone in South America for almost four years, including Colombia, Venezuela, and Peru. Fran carries such a confidence and positive energy that her hitchhiking hosts often offer her meals and a place to stay at their home. “You have to listen to your instincts,” she says. “And they will show you any real danger.” Hearing Fran’s stories reminds me that just because I’m a woman alone on the side of the road doesn’t mean the whole world is out to get me. In fact, it’s the opposite, I can get a ride ten times faster than my boyfriend.
There are a few obvious rules to hitchhiking. I won’t hitchhike in places where I don’t feel safe like in bad neighborhoods or huge cities. I won’t get in the car with someone who I don’t instantly feel secure around. I have never had a negative experience, but know I’m strong enough to tell someone to pull over if I am uncomfortable. I have found that a local place is the perfect opportunity to catch a free ride and meet someone new. I’ve encountered a grandma on her way to yoga, a circus musician preparing his new rendition on the “future”, and a local climber who has the best possible beta for the given day. Hitchhiking has restored some of my faith in the goodness of humanity. In ways it has fulfilled something of what I was searching for when I began this trip: a relief from the fear culture I was noticing in the US and a renewed self-confidence. I now look forward to repaying the ride favors the next time I’m fortunate enough to own a means of transportation.
Sharing what I have learned through my adventure helps me to realize the significance this journey is playing in my life. Basic cultural rules like eye contact, simple living, and trusting others in the community are skills that I may not have gained in any other circumstance, and it all began with a trip to the mountains. We have chosen to bounce around between ski and climbing towns, each with their own landscapes and tones of acceptance. As this new winter season begins, I’ll continue to reflect on and share my experiences, in hopes of inspiring others and reminding myself what the road is all about.