It is, admittedly, a fairly low bid for immortality but if there is ever a Guinness World Record category for sheer quantity of phobias in a single personality, I should have a fair shot at the title. This is not to imply that my phobic range is large, encompassing everything from fear of spiders to fear of the dark. Rather mine all seem to have something to do with motion or lack of motion. Almost any form of getting from one place to another that does not involve walking, biking, or swimming frightens me terribly. I am afraid of riding elevators, motorcycles, roller coasters, ferris wheels, planes and motor boats. Yet none of these approach the sheer horror of being stuck in my car at a blocked railroad crossing or having the elevator I’m occupying come to a stop while I stare at the doors for several seconds before they slowly begin to open, or feeling like a hostage in a long line that doesn’t move, or feeling captive on a sailboat when the wind dies.
It occurred to me that this might be a plausible explanation for my decision in late middle age to quit a rather cushy job and take fourteen months to backpack alone around the world. We can all identify with the time-honored tradition of soul-searching followed by a firm resolve and finally an active quest for some variety of self-improvement. Actually this explanation wouldn’t be very plausible in practice since practically no one is aware that I have these debilitating fears. One gets adept at donning an air of competence, confidence, and even insouciance in a society where tics and aversions are regarded with pity, laughter, or contempt.
No, since I will definitely be asked, it would probably be more convincing to say something about being motivated by the mystique of solitary long term travel considering all the opportunities for unusual psychological experiences. One such experience seems to occur most often out of doors in strange environments. The mind temporarily ceases its chatter and categorizing and the entire field of perception becomes very sharp and ultra-real. Simultaneously there is a sense of the separate observer dimming as if arbitrary boundaries and time itself have no meaning. Obviously, this isn’t going to happen when you are chatting up the retired teacher that glommed onto you at the Katmandu airport, and is sticking to you like a barnacle on the Annapurna circuit. To a large extent, you need to be on your own. Personally I’d trade a thousand adrenaline rushes for just one of those ironic presence/absence moments. Unfortunately, such opportunities are not easily described as a travel goal and might smack of a kind of mystical goofiness best avoided in conversation among strangers or new acquaintances.
Actually, the allure of long term solitary travel is almost always presented as a quest to “find” oneself. I feel sure that this gets much better box office in our American culture than notions of “losing” oneself. As in all quests, the process of finding one’s true self begins with a series of questions. Who would I be without the usual roles and the many habits associated with those roles? What would it be like to be no one’s mother, wife, sister, with no profession or obvious signs of social standing? How will people respond to me? Will they accept me as I am? Will I accept me as I am? Will I even like me? Yes, that’s a good explanation for my decision to go. What’s more, it’s also easy to remember and repeat, a plausible response.
The truth is that all three motivations – confronting phobias, losing myself, and finding myself only came consciously to mind after the fact, “the fact” being the rather sudden and irreversible decision to just do it, come what may. The house was sold, possessions were given away, and all obligations were eliminated including any obligation to return at all. We make decisions and perform acts. The mind seeks to make sense of it all. We need a plausible story.
In my case, there didn’t seem to be any personal will involved. One day I happened to leaf through a paperback at the local bookstore and read a quote by William Blake in the frontispiece. The quote was from the poem, “London” and I was particularly struck by the words “mind-forged manacles”. The next day and following week, the words drifted through my consciousness in various altered forms. One phrase was so persistent that I came to think of it as an annoying earworm “… manacles of the mind … manacles of the mind … man-a-cles-of-the-mind.” Soon thereafter a series of unexpected events began to unfold and, in each case, rather than muscling my way through the problem, setting objectives, and struggling with poorly understood forces, in short, doing it my way, I uncharacteristically inclined to just do what was before me to do. I did whatever seemed obvious at the time. It was as if I were walking down a long hall when suddenly a door opened and I walked through it at which point I heard a loud thud as if a mind-forged manacle had just fallen to the ground. This seemed to trigger another door opening and I walked through that as well, hearing successively gentler sounds as, one after another, doors continued to open and ever lighter manacles continued to fall, finishing with the tiny tinkle of a delicate golden chain striking the floor behind me.
Perhaps if we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that this is much the way the important events in life unfold. In a way it’s more interesting and inspiring than charting a course and setting out hell-bent-for-leather to get there. I’ll admit there is a time for hunkering down, gritting the teeth, and expending effort but apparently this wasn’t one of them. I was too astonished at the synchronicity and happy bits of luck to question the fact that the universe, or at least my universe was rearranging itself.