The Grieving Traveler by Sydney Joy Willis

photos by Chelsey Paige and Sydney Joy Willis

(Updated version of original article published in March 2019)

Accompanying video by Chelsey Paige. Hope you Enjoy!

Sometimes all a person needs to navigate through grief is a reminder that they are still living. It is easy to overlook the reminders of life that surround us when we have fallen into a pattern that does not surprise or bring about wonder and curiosity. People are more susceptible to becoming stagnant after a loss or other traumatic event and especially susceptible if they cannot be reminded of the value of their own life. Therefore, I believe that both traveling and reflecting on those travels can be useful tools in navigating the emotions that are brought about by grief. For me, it was the loss of a mother; but grief can be felt at the loss of nearly anything, from the death of a loved one, or loss of a job or pet to breaking up with a significant other. All these changes can be traumatic, and the emotions that come along with these experiences can be very confusing.

During my road trip to Minnesota in November of 2018, I navigated difficult emotions through both travel and the subsequent reflection of my experience. Why I decided only a few days before we left to spontaneously go on the trip still escapes me. If I am being honest with myself, perhaps I would say that I was trying to escape reality or maybe even pretend to be someone else for a week. But that would be admitting that I was unhappy with my life and perhaps still am. Now that I stand on the other side of the trip and look back, I am glad I had the opportunity to explore the world and my own feelings about life. I am glad I found things to write about at a time when life seems lifeless.

Though it is important to have intention for your travels and an idea of what you want to get out of your traveling experiences, it is much harder to outline what you want from an experience when you are struggling with grief. My intentions for my trip to Minnesota were unclear at the start other than the need to escape my current state of mind and the fact that I wanted to eat some damn good food. My traveling companions, Nathan, Jared, Chelsey, barely knew me, which brought me an odd comfort. I learned about three things that I believe should be kept in mind when planning to travel following emotional trauma or loss: explore someplace new, treat yourself to the things that bring you life, and pursue the things that make you feel closer to yourself.

Saturday November 17, 2018 / Day 1: A Long Drive & Daddy Issues

It was 3am and I was pulling warm clothes out of the dryer and stuffing them into a duffle bag with a blank mind and tired eyes. I had been up since 6am the previous day so I was completely unconcerned with what I was packing. Nathan, Jared, and Chelsey pulled into my driveway in Nathan’s silver ford fusion. I threw my bag in the trunk and hopped into the passenger side to say. “I love you guys but I’m going to sleep now” and pulled my beanie over my eyes. I woke up a few hours later with my forehead pressed into the dashboard. I rubbed the dent out of my forehead as I followed my friends into a Cracker Barrel in nowhere, Illinois.

I can crudely sum up my traveling companions and I with the words “weird kids with daddy issues.” Though, of course, we are so much more. I met Nathan two years ago at my favorite Nashville coffee shop. I remember it vividly. He was wearing a green velvet suit jacket, a polka-dotted button down, a wide brimmed brown hat and khakis. His wavy brown hair brushed the tips of his shoulders and his round glasses framed green eyes above his gap-toothed smile. I was instinctively drawn to him and we quickly became friends. Jared and Chelsey are Nathan’s best friends from high school – and, by extension, have become friends of mine as well. Jared is a giant boy with an outgoing and affectionate demeanor, superior to all of us in both height and enthusiasm. Chelsey is petite but intimidating, repping a “daddy issues” tattoo on her inner arm and willing to put anyone in their place.

We continued to drive north after filling up on breakfast food. I drifted back to sleep to wake up around noon. I looked out my window to see the world dusted in white. We were apparently now in Wisconsin. The drive lagged on as we all took turns controlling the music. Our destination was Minneapolis, Minnesota. Why I committed to go on this trip only a few days before we were to leave still escaped me. If I was being honest with myself, perhaps I would say that I was trying to escape reality or maybe even pretend to be someone else for a week. But that would be admitting that I am unhappy with my life.

Once I was on my trip, I told myself that no matter what, I needed to get out of bed and refuse to stay behind while my traveling companions explored. I also told myself I would allow reflection of emotions that I seemed to believe that “real life” had no room for. This is when I began to focus on making each morning of my travel a memorable one. I forced myself to be observant each morning and was surprised with the amount of gratitude I felt through this exercise.

Sunday November 18, 2018 / Day 2: Cold Floors & Cruel Reminders

I awoke my first morning in Minneapolis and the air mattress I slept on was so deflated that my hip pressed into the cold, hard floor. I crawled awkwardly out of the floppy crinkly fabric, trying my best not to wake Nathan. It was 6 in the morning. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to fall back asleep so I wrapped a blanket around myself and sat cross-legged at the coffee table to do some schoolwork. The house was quiet, and the large bay window slowly filled the sitting room where our mattresses lay with light. Nathan would stir occasionally and even open one eye to look at me across the room and smile softly in my direction before sinking back into slumber. The house began to wake up after a few hours. Coffee brewed, and the sound of slippers sliding across the cold kitchen floor echoed in the old house as Rueben, Nathan’s uncle, cooked. Soon, the table was filled with bacon, chocolate chip pancakes, and sunny-side up eggs. I talked eagerly with Uncle Reuben and Aunt Amy about their lives as artists and teachers and pondered on what I might do someday. The day had only just begun, and I already felt so full of life.

Later that day we visited the Walker Art Galleries, which I quite enjoyed despite the vivid reminder of a painful experience that one art piece brought. As we began to walk through the final gallery, I rounded a corner to be shocked by a real-size replica of a car from a fatal accident. I stared at it. The driver’s side and front end of the car were smashed in. The detail was incredible, and the sculpture was completely gray to create a “ghost” of the real car it was modeled after. The artist, Charles Ray, had created the sculpture as a “memento mori,” an object serving as a reminder of mortality. My travel companions thought it was cool, but quickly moved on to the next room. However, I was unable to move, being carried back to months prior, when I stood in sandals on the wet gravel of the impound on a rainy night in May, staring somberly at the car from another fatal crash. This one was no replica. Broken glass sparkled across the car, and the driver’s side was so much more violently smashed. The car was folded into itself so horrifically from the impact that it seemed to be swallowing itself whole. An anger reflecting that which I had felt that day consumed me as I continued to gaze at the sculpture. I realized that these painful emotions now felt more familiar and muted under the thick skin I involuntarily received through the numbing experience of grief. I realized that I was scared of this numbness. Tears began to slide down my cheeks as I turned away to find myself staring emptily at the faceless black and white photos that smiled unknowingly at me until I forced the tears to subside. Then I moved on to the next room.

Allowing myself to break in that moment gave me a better awareness of what the emotions I felt through my grief were. This, in turn, gave me the opportunity to start building my “story” for my trip and better understand why I went on it in the first place. Sometimes those emotions are incredibly difficult to face but traveling can be used as a time where you can allow yourself to break and to explore the even more complex of emotions. I think it is important to avoid searching for pain though. Search for life, and if you come across painful emotions in the exploration of life, then take them, feel them, ponder them, and write them down.

Monday November 19, 2018 / Day 3: Arctic Foxes, a Naked Woman & Ramen Noodles

I woke up and my throat burned angrily. I cursed the cold for weakening my immune system. I could feel the congestion beginning to swell inside my head. I popped some DayQuil and sucked it up. There was no way I was letting a head cold keep me from having fun.

I don’t find zoos to be the most inspiring of places, so I will spare the details of our visit to the Como Zoo. It was free though, so that was nice, and the arctic foxes were rather cute (I bought a stuffed one at the gift shop and named him Toby). Walking around the botanical conservatory beside the zoo was my favorite part of the day though. I adore plants. They are beautiful, revitalizing reminders of all the great things about nature. There was a gorgeous sunken garden room that I sat in for nearly an hour. The colors of the flowers mingled together to create an otherworldly affect. A slender pool of dark water ran through the middle and down the length of the room, leading to a lovely statue of a seemingly graceful (and naked) woman. It was enchanting.

I demanded ramen for dinner after leaving the conservatory. I used the excuse that it would help with my cold, but the truth is that I just adore some good shoyu ramen. My nose began to run as I slurped up the noodles soaked in spicy broth, but I didn’t mind one bit.

Tuesday November 20, 2018 Day 4: Pretty Donuts, Nervous Barbers & IKEA

I woke up to the sound of my companions discussing donut flavors. As soon as they began claiming which ones they wanted, my eyes popped open and I was out of bed before Jared could finish saying “blackberry honey glaze.” Nathan had brought back a big box of the most beautiful donuts I had ever laid my eyes on from a local bakery. I ate three along with a couple of “cuties” (those tiny, delightful little oranges).

Chelsey and I had decided the night before that we both wanted haircuts. Jared wanted a flat razor shave, so we decided to find a barber to go to. As Jared was thoroughly enjoying himself in the massive chair that only he could make look small, Chelsey and I walked around from chair to chair, pointing to pictures of Pinterest pixie cuts to receive skeptical facial expressions and nervous laughter from each of the barbers. We still decided that we weren’t leaving that place without short hair.

After our excursion to the barber shop, we drove to the IKEA that stood near the Mall of America. I felt connected to my companions as we all agreed that we preferred IKEA to the mall. We ate Swedish meatballs in the IKEA cafeteria then walked around the massive store, pointing at what we would buy and mentally designing the rooms inside the palaces of our minds.

Wednesday November 21, 2018 / Day 5: Duluth & Three Scary Children

I woke to Nathan tickling my feet. The half-asleep version of myself can apparently be mean. I kicked at his hand and croaked “Fuck off!” He just laughed. I sat up, and he laughed even harder. My hair was sticking straight up and in every direction as I glared at him sleepily. My throat felt so much better, but I still reached into the bag of “cuties” when I got to the kitchen. We prepared to leave for Duluth. I felt an odd pang as I said goodbye to Amy and Reuben. It seems that my heart is divided into a thousand tiny pieces. It is a double-edged sword because I feel like I belong to every family and every house I stay in, but it is always difficult saying goodbye. The feeling that I might not see someone again does not sit well with me.

Nathan drove the entire way to Duluth. It was only 3 hours and I spent most of it snacking on Swedish fish I had picked up at IKEA. The amount of snow on the ground in Duluth probably doubled that of Minneapolis. We trudged through the snow to be met by Nathan’s Mother, Sarah, and his Step-father, Brian. We were also met by their two dogs, Lefty and Zoe. I was nervous and overwhelmed as I attempted to say hello to both the adults and the dogs. I became even more overwhelmed as I was met by three toddling children as we walked through the door and into the warm house. Nathan lit up at the sight of his siblings. Elise is a quiet girl of four years who seems to be constantly changing between different princess costumes. Audi is a monster of a three-year-old boy who constantly demands attention. And Emery is a tottering 18-month-old who seems oddly more mature than both her older siblings. We played with them for the rest of the day. At one point, I was ordered by Audi to read the same book five times in a row, and I happily obliged.

Thursday November 22, 2018 / Day 6: Lake Superior and Mommy Juice

I woke to a small finger poking me in the forehead and the slurred question “aw you awake?” on Thanksgiving Day. It was Audi. I crawled out of the pull-out couch and joined Nathan in the kitchen for some coffee. I listened as he told me about how beautiful the lake is, and how excited he was for me to see it.

Looking at something for the very first time is one of my favorite things about existing. We walked in the bitter cold up to the lookout that provided a perfect view to look down to the city of Duluth, which was tiny compared to the vastness of Lake Superior. The lake was so large that it disappeared into the horizon as if it was the ocean. We sat on the bench, shivering as we each smoked a cigarette. I was awestruck. And I was happy to see Nathan so content as he smiled down on the world.

We drove to downtown Duluth next, which sat right beside the Lake. We got out of the car as we watched a large boat come into port. I was both surprised at its massiveness as well as filled with curiosity about the lives of the people on the boat.

We came home to chaos. Chelsey and I sat at the kids table with Audi and Elise, sipping our “mommy juice” (aka wine) as the boys helped Sarah and Brian finish cooking our Thanksgiving feast. The warm food was even more delicious after spending the day out in the cold.

Friday November 23, 2018 / Day 7: Diners, Antiques, and Angry Cigarettes

I awoke to Nathan gently shaking my shoulder. The comfort of his hand on my shoulder almost made me want to pretend to still be asleep so his hand would stay there, but I opened my eyes and he whispered, “We’re gonna go get breakfast soon. You should get in the shower before Chelsey beats you to it and steals all the hot water.” He had an excellent point. I hadn’t showered in three days. A cleaner version of me came downstairs and we all left for breakfast at Bridgeman’s. I tried eggs benedict for the first time and was not disappointed. I listened as my companions discussed which antique stores to hit on our final day. I love antique stores. I could spend an entire day in a single antique store.

Once we crossed the bridge that separated Duluth from Superior, Wisconsin, every shop sported the word “superior” before the rest of the name. I thought it humorous that it seemed like every shop was claiming to be better than all others. After spending the day treasure-hunting, I had accumulated one pocket watch, a necklace with a secret compartment, and a variety of old postcards. On the last night of our trip, my companions and I sat together in the garage, talking about our traveling shenanigans. I was surprised at my sudden awareness of the anger lying beneath every swig of whiskey and at the hiss of every cigarette put out by our black boots. We were four kids who were simultaneously angry at this world and trying to become a part of it. This was the most alive I had felt in a long time, yet my heart still ached with the knowledge that these people did not know me. Maybe we all felt that way.

Saturday November 24, 2018 / Day 8: Reflections

Halfway through our trip back, Jared demanded that Nathan take a break from driving. Chelsey took the passenger seat and Nathan and I slipped into the backseat. Nathan fell asleep in the backseat of the car on our way back. His head rested in my lap and his body sighed with each breath of sleep. I laid my hand on his head and gently stroked his messy brown hair. He looked like a small child there in my lap. His face softened with the peace of sleep. His face had been shadowed in pain throughout most of the day and I was stunned now by how gentle and child-like he appeared. I knew he was going to miss his mother and siblings deeply. I knew exactly how difficult it is to say goodbye. I realized that he feels alone, just like I do. We were all hurting. And I was wrong to think I was alone at any point on our trip. They stood beside me the whole time despite the pain I felt.

And that is what I learned on this trip, that we all go through painful experiences, but that we all must keep living. Perhaps I would have spent most of my week in bed, but instead I went on this trip and was awakened each day by a reminder on life. The cold floor, the smell of donuts, Nathan tickling my feet or gently shaking my shoulder, a toddler’s finger aggressively poking my face, and the anticipation for exploration pulled me from my bed each morning. And for that, I am thankful.

The End.

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