The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows provides a word that exactly describes how I felt after returning from a thoroughly amazing summer of traveling: Rückkehrunruhe is the feeling one gets when returning home after an immersive trip and finding that trip rapidly fading from one’s awareness, even to the extent that one wonders if it happened at all.
As an instructor of English at a local community college, there is not much time or place for contemplation, quiet, or solitude like what will be offered at Ebenezer Chapel. I am surrounded by demands, voices, technology, people and words, words, words, all the time. This past summer, I granted myself a summer of allowance. I trimmed down my teaching load, making a significant (and financially burdensome) effort to allow myself time for me alone. My goals were to step out of the role of the caregiver of others and become my own caregiver, to experience everything and every place I went with renewed engagement. Most importantly, I hoped to recognize and relish those every day moments of silence on my trip with new eyes and then later, once home, drop into them and remember the spirit with which I’d like to meet life every day. To make that experience of the mundane portable and bring it home with me.
One of my self-sanctioned allowances was travel. Over the course of the summer, I had the great privilege of traveling all over the continent. Each of the trips I took was a gift of unique experience that recharged, rejuvenated, and changed me.
The first of my adventures was to Durango, Colorado. I was originally supposed to take the trip with a friend and on reflection, it would have been a drastically different experience than the one I ended up having. Two days before departure, my friend had a family emergency which kept her home. The plane tickets were purchased, but suddenly all of the other plans were up in the air – no car, no hotel, no, no, no! So at the age of 50, I took off on my first ever trip completely and totally by myself. What I discovered? That what I thought would be intimidating and lonely was actually a lovely way to travel. Not that I didn’t miss companions or that I didn’t wish my friend had been able to join me or that I didn’t have an equally lovely time on the trips I took with other people. But what happened when I traveled by myself was that I was able to tune in to the pockets of silence I found even in the hustle and bustle of airline travel.
There was the moment in the Denver airport where I found various pieces of art just waiting to be observed. Most people hurried past them without even noticing. Because I was by myself, though, I not only noticed them but spent time with them, and, in the case of the gargoyle at the luggage claim area, laughed in delight.
There were the moments when I rode the lite rail system through Denver and got to see the city in a way I would have missed had there been someone there to talk to. And then, there were the moments I spent at my destination, a friend’s cattle ranch in Durango.
My hosts had expected to see me for only two or three days in the original trip plan, but instead, they graciously hosted me for my entire two weeks. They showed me the mysteries of Mesa Verde, the comedy and music of the Bar D Wranglers, the yummy, yummy barbeque of Serious Texas Barbeque, and introduced me to a place they call home and I now have as a part of me forever. Their ranch. Their lives and their world. And what came with it was another allowance. A new kind of quiet.
Work on a ranch doesn’t stop, so there were many times when I was on my own while they picked sugar snap peas or the flowers they sold, dealt with customers, or did other duties. I spent many hours listening – listening to the cows, the breeze, my self. I reveled in those moments of silence amongst the chaos of being a tourist. They allowed me to feel centered in that place and to experience it, find ME in it, in a much deeper way than I would have if I’d been accompanied and moving from one event to another. I felt a part of my hosts’ lives for that brief time and felt embraced by them.
I wept the day before I left Durango, recognizing, but unable to verbalize its profound impact. Profound, not in the way many bandy about the word, but profound in the way that I knew some alteration had been made inside me, inside my way of being in the world. As I sat for the last time watching the sun move across the red hills beyond the Animas Valley, I longed to take the silence I'd found there with me.
I wept because I knew I would be returning to my real life, a life of loneliness so loud and raucous that it often deafens me to moments of silence. I wept because here I had found a different silence, one of both quietness and solitude but still able to wrap me in the arms of friendship and the graciousness of kind people. My hosts had shown me not only the beauty of their home but also the beauty within themselves and their lives together. I wept because the beauty around me was so unique and specific to its place that I could not imagine ever seeing something like it elsewhere.
I wept because my adventure in meeting myself was coming to a close and I knew that the me I was there had no place in the life I lead. She was fearless and filled with light. She reveled in traveling alone and finding the treasures she would have overlooked if she had been with others. She relished the silence in the chaos finding moments of crystal clear beauty even while standing at the luggage carousel or in the airport snack shop, or when listening to cowboys sing of campfires long ago extinguished. Hers was a life of solitary travel that made her feel connected to everyone around her, a part of the whole. I envied that me.
And, so, I returned to the ordinary world prepared to fall back on the routine, the ordinary, the lackluster solitudes of my single life. Rückkehrunruhe seemed to be taking over and the me I'd found in Durango seemed to be fading even with my intentions of making room for allowance. For a brief while, though, I found that the glow of the Animas sun remained and I could hear the charge of the river and murmur of the steer in my blood, entreating me to listen to the silence, to be open to the special brand of silence that makes one part of the whole even in solitude. And, now, I weep for the profound, for the silence in the chaos we all seek and which can be found if we are but brave enough to allow it.
Jennifer Browning teaches English, is a published writer of poems and short stories, lavishes kisses on beagles regardless of owner and can be found most days surrounded by frogs.