A tiny cut on my finger had stayed the same for 28 days: raw, open, and exposed. Blisters on my heels from hiking, bruises from falling off of my bike, and scratches on my legs remained for weeks. My body, my self-repairing window to the world, had stopped healing.
A few months previously, I had done the unthinkable. I had decided to take one long look at the thing I believed in most, and leave it behind me. That thing was my company Balyolu: The Honey Road. It was a honey-tasting trekking company, led and inspired by rural women in Eastern Turkey. We trained women in traditional beekeeping practices, we partnered with certified travel companies to lead global travelers into unmapped border regions near Georgia and Armenia, and we used the proceeds to employ women who had never before had formal education or work.
I believed in it, because it was my proof that we can run businesses that do things better. I believed in it because I was addicted to high-adrenaline honey hunting. The terrain was equally enchanting; endless wild Anatolian steppes teaming with nomadic beekeepers, healers, cheese bosses, and cowboys.
And then I chose to close it all down.
There had been challenges all along: car accidents, theft, harassment, a lack of infrastructure, limited funding, high liability, and major security risks. But in June 2013, I encountered an obstacle that I could not overcome. As many people in Turkey took to the streets to speak out against government corruption, an off-duty policeman pretending to be my next-door neighbor came by my house every Saturday to investigate my life and make advances on my friends and me. After I had refused him entry into my home, called the police, filed reports, and started a court case, an anonymous report appeared at the police station accusing me of being a spy, a butterfly thief, and a rebel. Without warrant or witnesses I was cornered and interrogated for six hours at the local police station. There was no accurate evidence for the accusations, and the police shrugged off all charges against me after asking far too many personal questions. But suspicion was on the rise as Prime Minster Tayyip Erdoğan had publicly announced that the country’s protests were a result of resident foreigners. Everyone was suspicious of everyone, and foreigners like me on the periphery had little protection or rights. Some Erasmus students had already been expelled from the country. Locals told me worriedly that I might be next.
I was also tired. It was not the kind of tired that comes from sleeping too little, or doing too much. It was a fatigue born from being constantly enmeshed in a complicated tangle of politics, religion, and social tensions. During my life in Turkey, I had encountered the strongest women role models. Date a Turk, and you will learn their mothers are the most powerful women on the planet. Even beyond family life, Turkey has one of the highest numbers of female CEOs, and I had been fortunate to dine with many of them. But I would also see women in some of our villages be cut, beaten, and forbidden to leave their homes. With my program, we challenged these practices, and as soon as we did, the secret police would appear again with their unmasked gun holsters and cardboard ties. They would corner me, blowing curls of smoke in my face, and interrogate my team and me for hours.
I was tired of always looking over my shoulder ready to defend myself and my vision of producing ethical local honey. So I decided to step down from the 10-year plan of building the Napa Valley of honey tasting in Eastern Turkey led by local women entrepreneurs. It was time to return home.
The problem was, I had no clear idea where a home outside of Turkey even was.
The place I was born is Colorado, so I tried a new job, rented a house, and attempted to start over. But my heart was broken, and in my dreams, tears crawled across my face like hungry, searching bees. I kept thinking that no matter what, at least I had my health. At least I came out whole. But I hadn’t. I started to notice that scratches wouldn’t heal and blisters remained raw. I went to a doctor and found out that the viruses my body should have overcome had taken hold of my cells. Tests that were once healthy now weren’t. The war I fought inside, against depression, anxiety, and the loss of my company was starting to take a physical toll.
I knew I needed to do something. I had tried therapy, acupuncture, cross-fit, yoga, vitamins, but nothing was really helping. I needed to find out who I was and where I was from.
Often the hardest part of an adventure is returning home, and trying to understand where home even is.
After scrawling these questions across notebooks over and over, I decided I would put aside a few months to travel solo. With 14 pairs of sports shoes, I would explore the land that I was born as if I was traveling here for the first time. I wanted to find what it meant to live and be in the American West and try to heal.
Since heading out on the road, I have camped in sand dunes watching Sandhill cranes migrate purposefully through the San Luis Valley. I have dined on corn chips and whipped cream with Mexican Americans in Cortez. And I have skied every caution sign I could find, from Wyoming to Colorado to New Mexico to Utah. And here are the lessons that I have learned about how to adventure as a solo woman and why it is the best medicine for heartbreak.
The solo adventurer is not on the run.
I constantly hear people say that when you travel, you are running from something. This is only ever said by people who have remained stagnant in their lives. Staring out at eagles swooping over long uninterrupted highways—all you have are your thoughts. Music, audiobooks, road games are fun, but they are no distraction. In a daily job and routine where you drink coffee and wave “hi” to Bob, you don’t confront your thoughts and fears. But with every heavy step of a hike through the snow, every quite night in a tent where you hear coyotes chorusing in operatic soprano, you breathe through your past and let it go. Learning to be at peace with your thoughts is the only way to sleep soundly through the cacophony of what sounds like ET using the bathroom at your local campground.
The solo adventurer learns to trust wisely.
I have traveled across the world as a single woman and had a small number of questionable interactions while hitchhiking and staying with people I meet on the road. But I have also had overwhelming success in finding trustworthy strangers that quickly become like family. The couple of 70-something couchsurfing.com veterans who live off of the grid, the Starbucks manager who recites Steinbeck by heart, the designer who rescues every stray – these are the hosts who opened their homes to me in the Southwest and reminded me why people are so good. My guideline for finding trustworthy hosts has been to stay with people who have well-loved pets, who live with their families, and who are other women. I also make my travels public, blogging and leveraging social media all along the way. Once, while stranded in Telluride, I posted on Facebook that I needed a ride home last-minute, at 9 p.m. By 9:15 p.m., I had a host. People understand it takes extra courage to travel alone as a woman, and they want to help; but the only way they will is by letting them know that you need it.
The solo adventurer seeks purpose.
The idea of wandering is beautiful, but it is unsustainable. The best travelers I have seen are the ones who have a theme, a purpose, a drive. You want to heal. You want to learn those accidental lessons and have chance encounters. But it helps when you have something guiding your path, where you go, and what you do. In Eastern Turkey, I hunted for honey, and in the process discovered everything from how to harvest chewing gum from trees to how to dance like a fish. Now in the Southwestern U.S. I am searching to understand the secret cultures that live at the heart of tiny remote mountain civilizations. I have been looking for what it means to be American, and I have found a 50-year-old woman draped in layer upon layer of shawls with two long silver braids that approached me in the desert to invite me to swirl like a Sufi at a hot spring. I met a self-proclaimed “dirtbag” businesswoman who runs the coolest ski area on the planet. There was even a pot-bellied man who chased me off of his property with a gun who lived right next to the elderly woman who managed an extraterrestrial viewing preserve, complete with a photo album of sun glare, or alien sightings. These are a random assortment of Americans, but they are helping me build a picture of what it means to be from this place. They are the meaning behind my journey.
The solo adventurer must face themselves, over, and over, and over again.
If you want to know who you are, travel. You meet someone and they start asking all kinds of questions that even a therapist couldn’t conjure. And then you meet someone else. And then someone else. Who are you? What is your purpose? What are you doing? What do you want to do? They all want to know. And practicing repeating it over and over is like repeating a conversation in Spanish class every morning. You become fluent in you. Constantly explaining who you are is a good way of remembering when you have forgotten.
The solo adventurer forms communities, fast.
Traveling through mountain towns, skiing in the backcountry, exploring agriculture co-ops, and biking through the desert, I have found there are quick tricks to building a tribe. Over 25% of most mountain town people play hockey, so as soon as I roll into a new place, I find the drop-in skate schedule and jump on the ice. And in many towns, they are single gender leagues, so you can play with women who love to grab a drink after time on the ice. While skiing, I have made a rule that I have to ride the chairlift with other people and talk to them about what they do and why. Chairlifts are the great chat roulette of the mountain world. Sitting and soaking in a hot springs are another easy way to find out what’s happening nearby and to meet people who are going. Mountain towns are little universes of random winter festivities, from ski joring to mac-and-cheese festivals, to costumed scavenger hunts and backward snowshoeing competitions. Sign up for races, check coffee shop walls for locals’ days and events, take a weekend course in avalanche awareness. Just show up and see what happens.
Most of all, the solo adventurer better bring good footwear.
Clothes don’t matter. With a pair of excellent ski boots, you might be skiing Aspen naked, but you’re still skiing Aspen. Nothing inhibits a woman like bad footwear, and a well-fitting shoe can’t always be bought or found. Bring the shoes to do everything that you ever wanted, and then go out there and do it. Nothing hampers an activity like a nasty blister that won’t go away. And if you are having trouble healing, a blister can stay for a long time.
Heartbreak, depression, big transitions, and loss are tough. Actually, tough doesn’t even begin to describe it. And the toll that our emotions take is not like physical wounds, where you break a leg. To hurt from the inside is another feeling entirely, and without the right attention and time, that hurt can fester and spread throughout your body.
Everyone heals differently, but I have noticed that in dropping couloirs on my skis into chest deep powder, chatting with 6-year-olds on chairlifts about lunch specials, chasing bison and sunsets across Wyoming, skating in women’s pond hockey tournaments in Colorado, exploring snowy Anasazi ruins as the sole visitor in a national park in New Mexico, and sailing across sandy slick rock in Utah, I am finding my country and myself. My heart feels lighter, my dreams are of mountains and canyons, and my cuts are healing, one at a time.
Amazing article. Would love to hear more of her adventures!
🙂 what a great perspective. i often find the most peace when i launch myself into the unknown.
Fantastic to read your story. Agreed, travel works wonders although I’m not the hitchiking type, I’m more slow travel but each to their own. I hope it all works out for you.
Great article Cat.
So poignant. Solo-ing the roads and mountains of America.
I had no idea you were Balyolu when I friended you on FB.
I returned to Colorado last summer to see/feel if I could live there again. I did come back to south west Turkey last November.
Where are we, who are we and where do we tread in this life – the eternal question.
Great story. Be comforted at the fact that you have tried and not have any regrets.
Very insightful article. You hit the nail on the head with this: “If you want to know who you are, travel.”
Safe and happy solo travels!