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The light turbulence on the airplane jostles 135 tired co-workers as they jet south through Alberta’s famously big sky at 650 kilometers an hour. A short 75-minute flight is all that’s required for 135 millwrights, shift supervisors and other engineers like myself to shed their navy-blue, fire-resistant fleeces and operator-branded ball caps, metamorphosing back into husbands, parents and partners. In 10 days, we will meet again at the crack of dawn and jet together once more to the promised riches of Northern Alberta’s bituminous black earth. This is my 57th flight of the year.
I wanted to be a journalist. But my always-wanting-the-best-for-me parents reminded me that math makes money, so off to engineering school I went. In my post-university young-adult life, I’ve managed to emerge with “conventionally successful” stamped on my forehead: 24 years old, female engineer, working for a big oil company, homeowner. My life was laid out in front of me like a long stretch of highway with no off-ramps: settle down with another engineer, who probably drives a respectable truck and spends weekends on the golf course; return to a business-casual office environment; eat quinoa salad out of a Tupperware container at my desk five days a week; take weekend trips to lake country; get a dog (probably a golden retriever); have a rustic wedding with reclaimed wood and mason jars; have two kids; retire in lake country.
The realization that the rest of my life could be measured in “volumes of Tupperware quinoa salad consumed” stifled me with the force of a wrecking ball. So, I did what any respectable 24-year-old with a history of black eyeliner and punk-rock preferences would do – I rebelled against my own life.
I said sayonara to my now ex-boyfriend and pulled out my suitcase. Armed with an extremely efficient packing philosophy and a couple excellent playlists, I threw myself solo into the world with the grace and beauty of a baby deer taking its first steps with skateboards taped to its feet.
In Austin, I zipped from taco shop to taco shop on the back of a moped. I bloodied my knees mountain biking through Utah’s red canyons. I shivered, soaked to the bone on top of a mountain in Peru and splashed around at a thermal bath rave in Budapest. I contemplated modern art in Vienna’s cultural core and danced to ABBA at a goth bar in Denver. I sipped wine from the bottle at a campground in Yellowstone I never planned to be at and spent four days trudging through grizzly-bear country with 50 pounds on my back. I pranced around a grassy Seattle music festival covered head to toe in glitter, then let the cold September rain settle on my face in a steaming hot spring in Jasper.
This would be the part where I talk about how some transformative realization crashed over me at “Sightseeing point of interest A” or “Historical landmark B” and changed my entire outlook on life. But at points A, B and C through Z, I had no big moment. I bought all these flights so that I, too, could walk away from Machu Picchu a changed person, just like I had seen everybody on Instagram describe. My transformation was not a supernova. My a-ha moment was a million flecks of space dust influencing one another in the dark with an imperceptible gravitational pull. It took me an eon to realize the dust had – in fact – finally turned into a light source.
It wasn’t Machu Picchu that made a difference, but the two Peruvian women along my Andean trek who taught me how to roast coffee and stayed up helping me practise my Spanish until 1 a.m. It wasn’t Vienna’s culturally renowned core of museums; it was a sunny patch of grass beside the Danube river with someone from my hostel, changing our narrative from strangers to friends. It wasn’t Yellowstone’s Old Faithful geyser launching into the air; it was charging through Montana’s extremely unremarkable landscape blasting music so loud the car windows shook. The truth is, I didn’t actually need to be abroad to have almost any of my favourite experiences. They were just small everyday moments that happened to happen abroad, leading me to realize that the true value of my flight tickets were not the landmarks, it was learning to be a more attentive participant in my own life. No more coasting allowed.
I now spend less time online shopping and more time lying alone on the floor listening to an album cover-to-cover without distractions. I call or FaceTime my friends to ask them how they’re doing; sometimes, I surprise them with flowers simply because I want to make them smile. I bought a ukulele and practise it loudly (and terribly) in public. I tell everyone I interact with to have a good day. When I woke up and decided I wanted another piercing, I went out and got one (then didn’t get too upset when it ripped out in a mosh pit at a punk show within a single month). I spend time with who I want, when I want. I sit in the sun a lot. Every day after work I pick one song and have a dance party in my beige camp room. I have never been publicly weirder than I am today, and that’s totally cool with me.
Now, as I board the plane to go to work, I smile to myself as a bleary-eyed co-worker texts his girlfriend three heart emojis and “I’ll miss you so much.” For 10 days, we will lose ourselves fussing over pipe specifications and production volumes. When he comes home, he will probably go golfing and maybe even make some quinoa salad. I think about how maybe when he quietly steps off the golf cart at the seventh hole, the sun will peek through the clouds – the moment is so perfect it causes him to raise his face to the sky and exhale as the rays suspend him in five seconds of pure bliss.
Maybe I’ll continue to be selfish for the next five years and touch down in dozens more countries. Maybe I’ll stay grounded in my home city, but I’m no longer stifled by the idea. Armed with my new perspective earned in a year of travel, mistakes, laughter and too many missed hours of sleep, I know with complete confidence that there’s adventure hiding in any permutation of my life – as long as I’m awake enough to look for it.
Nathalie Carson lived in Calgary.