I don't often leave my house before the sun rises. My regular life does not require it. On the occasions that I do though, in addition to the unshakeable feeling of sleepiness I also get an incredible sensation of adventure and a memory of a quenched wanderlust.
It seems dramatic, no?
Perhaps it is, perhaps it's a bit too severe a description to describe an early morning. But it's the truth.
It all traces back to my days in my early 20s as a single backpacker traipsing the streets of Western Europe, Australia and South America.
I didn't have a smartphone or a familiarity with any of these countries beyond what I'd read in my Lonely Planet guide. And so I'd read up as best I could before setting out on foot into cities I had dreamt for years about visiting.
What I felt was completely new to me.
It was the feeling of walking unfamiliar streets before the sun rose after emerging from an overnight bus or train ride.
Hungry, unshowered and with 20 pounds of my stuff on my back I felt adventurous, excited and scared and with a profound sense of purpose:
Find my hostel.
It wasn't a journey of great gravitas, looking for a hostel to check into, but it was one of singular focus. I had a goal and a map and only myself (and the frequent help of strangers) to count on.
Traveling to multiple countries during one trip the process would replicate itself every couple of days and that's when familiarities would make themselves apparent.
Cities are different before the sun rises. They are not lively things by nature, the life comes to them, out of doors, onto streets, tracing it, criss-crossing it, covering it. Before all that happens, before the footsteps and tires, before the tourists and suits, before a million pulses combine to form one, cities are just themselves.
Their potholes are sites and not sounds. Their parks are empty. Shadows don't move as quickly if at all.
The smell is new, singular, less a ravaging mixture of foods and exhausts and more a palate upon which everything else adheres.
Cool morning air makes things feel alive, smacking of possibility and promise.
Freshly hosed down sidewalks and streets let you hear the "squish squish" of your own footsteps, drops flying off the backs of your heels and hitting the backs of your legs to remind you how fresh everything is.
The smell, the look, the feel, it's all original. It's all new. And for me, then, it was entirely unfamiliar.
It is those thoughts that I think of on early mornings before the sun rises in New York City. I may be only steps from the subway on my way to a routine destination but I feel like I just walked out of a train station in Vienna, or Zagreb, or Santiago.
I was as ambitious as my strictly budgeted trip would allow. I craved adventure and feared confusion. For those reasons, I'd walk almost everywhere a city permitted. For as brave as I was to experience new cultures I was terrified of embarrassing interactions, of being branded a tourist, an American.
So with a backpack the size of a toddler containing everything I'd need for the trip, I'd walk. My travels were always in summer and backpack shaped sweat stains would quickly soak their way into my shirts as I'd huffed it over cobblestones and up hills.
Nobody thought I was a local. I was too green looking. Too out of place.
I marched on, getting a little bit lost, getting hopelessly lost, and sometimes stopping out of sheer exhaustion or pain.
I'm creating a story I'd tell myself. Even at the lowest scariest moments I was creating a story.
After all, I was thousands of miles from home, from anything I knew. I'd made it this far. I'd traveled an incredible distance to be then at that moment, I'd make it a little bit farther even if I didn't know how.
Even if I was hopelessly lost.
It goes without saying that we don't have to be lost anymore. Lost is not a place or an experience, it's a moment, a flash, a fleeting thought followed by resolution.
And I think about that, all the time. When I travel now in my own city or another. That the experience of knowing a city, of learning it, of knowing oneself through the mistakes made while navigating feels diluted.
That feeling makes me feel so grateful that I had the chance to travel the way I did, when I did. That I had the chance to get really lost, that I had to navigate complicated cities from maps the size of a credit card in a book the size of a bible. That I didn't have a single button on me that would tell me where I was or how to get anywhere. That fear and insecurity were so present while I traveled and that I tamped them down out of sheer will and desire to make myself into some worldly individual who had been, and seen, and done.
All of that, all of those emotions, all of those things that sit with such significant weight in my past, with impressive weight composed of my own pride, all of that surfaces now and again does battle with my gratitude.
But that same feeling of gratitude does not fully replace the craving that pops up now and again to get lost, the chance to feel that excitement I didn't know how to name when it was mine to experience.
I even seek out opportunities to manifest that feeling if I can.
And this is why several times this year I found myself almost hopelessly lost in major cities on either side of the country, including once in my own neighborhood roughly a mile from my apartment.
To Be Continued...