Of Loss, Role Models, and Storms

On the Road, Campeche, Mexico

Rocketing down the highway, drops of rain nipped at the tops of my legs. I leaned forward into the wind, as if propelling the motorcycle forward through force of will. The road wound through hills in front of me, enormous dark storm clouds gathering behind. I had been outrunning the storm for the last 20 miles— what had been a pile of dark clouds on the horizon had become a dark mass overhead, the edges tinted green where the sun would have been setting, the rest a writhing mass of turbulent shapes. I didn’t know storm clouds well enough to determine what type of clouds I was seeing and what they meant, but I knew what was coming.

I was 10 miles away from Campeche, my destination for the evening after a grueling 11 hour day on the motorcycle. Most of the way had been spectacularly beautiful coastline with miles of white sand beach dropping away to my left into the perfectly green, clear sea. Bright green lizards scuttled across the road, butterflies floated at the edges and all sorts of birds swooped above me. I had crossed bridges to islands, small fishing boats in the water below, and followed the flat winding road all the way from Oaxaca to Campeche, almost 500 miles to the North-East. 

I was so close— but even screaming along the highway at 85 mph, the wind streaming my hair behind me, I couldn’t outrun the dark mass of clouds that were always there behind me. 

***

Oaxaca City, Mexico

“Who were your role models growing up?” Brad asked me. 

Brad Mendenhall of Cosmic Gepetto was interviewing me for a podcast about my experiences on the road, and what it was like as a solo female adventure traveler. The question took me by surprise, although it shouldn’t have. It was my first podcast interview talking about my experiences on the road, and even though being a strong woman is a huge part of my life and image, where it stemmed from wasn’t something I thought about often. Growing up, my role models existed in the pages of the books I read voraciously— Matilda, Maniac Magee, Lyra,  Hermione Granger— I read all of Roald Dahl’s books and about his time in South Africa in the RAF, the lions and insects and the snake catcher who would be called when a green mamba had gotten into someone’s house. I’ve lived in books most of my life, but people were harder to identify. People weren’t a constant like books were. 

“My Aunt was a big inspiration to me as a kid,” I said finally. “Although I only knew her when I was very young, hearing about her stories growing up gave me the inspiration to know I could do whatever I wanted, and that was enough for me.”

***

“Growing up, I took so many cues from books. They taught me most of what I knew about what people did, about how to behave. They were my teachers and my advisers.” ―Neil Gaiman

***

La Luz de Lena Hostal in Oaxaca City, where I camped out for most of the week. (Work spot to the right, chill spot in the hammock to the left.)

Oaxaca City at Night (so lovely!)

Oaxaca! The main square

***

My mother’s elder sister, 6 feet tall and larger than life, was at the heart of many of the adventure stories I was told as a child. Aunt Amy, an Amazon who would tell me and my siblings our fortunes and read our tea leaves. We knew all the stories about her— her narrowly missing being eaten by a shark in Thailand, how she would jump out of restaurant bathrooms to escape bad dates, how she swam through narrow sewage canals to skip school, and how she barely escaped being stung by a man of war on some exotic beach.

“Tell us the shark story again!” we’d yell from the back seat of the old green Impala my Mom used to drive. “Tell us about the jellyfish!” My Mom often talked about her fiery red-headed sister, and her wicked sense of humor. Up until I was 6, my siblings and I would make day trips with my Mom and Aunt to a circuit of thrift stores where we’d hunt for bargains. My Mom and Amy would treat themselves to a soda at 7-11, calling them brain burners. The brain burners and the excursions to thrift stores were always exciting to us, we’d make it into our own adventure, hiding in shopping carts, all of us wanting to be with Aunt Amy and hear her stories. 

After the thrift store there would always be a treat waiting for us back at her house, a box of Entenmann’s mixed donuts: three powdered sugar, three cinnamon + sugar, and three plain. While my brother and sister and I would debate over which flavor of donut to eat first (powdered sugar), my Mom and my Aunt would sit on the front steps drinking iced tea, my Aunt smoking a cigarette.

After my grandparents (my Mom’s parents) died when I was 6, my family had a falling out, and we moved away. The memories of who I was in relation to my Aunt Amy at age 6 was something I held onto for 14 years, until I would see my Aunt again when we found out she had cancer.

“Aunt Amy! Aunt Amy! Aunt Amy’s house!” We would shout as kids, racing up the steep hill to the gate, the words running together to form a chant, “AntTamy, AntTamy, AntTamy!” My sister and I fighting over who got to ride in AntTamy’s shopping cart, showing her what we found at the thrift store, and waiting for her approval of our bargains. AntTamy on her front stoop, AntTamy in her Volkswagon beetle, AntTamy with cancer.

As I grew older, I held onto the person I was crouched in my Aunt’s shopping cart in thrift stores. The girl who reminded everyone so much of Amy herself, this person I didn’t know save my childhood memories, but who was such an integral part of me. This heroic goddess I had heard so much about, this beautiful, daring woman I hoped to be just like. I remember even at 6 knowing I wanted my life to be full of adventure, just like hers. I’d wanted those same adventures, those stories. I remember getting my driver’s license, and right after the test thinking, I have my driver’s license Aunt Amy! And, in the back of my mind, I could go visit her, now. I remember birthdays and life changes and successes, always successes, thinking of her. Comparing myself to 6 year old Dani and the woman I knew then, thinking, I wonder how like her I am now?

***

“You may tire of me, as our December sun is setting, because I’m not who I used to be.” —Death Cab for Cutie

***

On the Road to Campeche

“Buenas dias,” I said the the woman at the counter of the Oxxo, a small store at the gas station. 

“Tardes,” she squawked, reminding me it was afternoon not morning, grabbing my bottle of water not even looking at me. 

It was the first unpleasant person I had encountered in Mexico, after traveling for a month, which blew my mind to think about. Encountering unpleasant people is a daily occurrence on the East Coast in the US, but everyone I had met in Mexico was friendly and kind. The trip so far was unlike like any other trip I had ever taken— people approached me all the time, to talk about the bike and where I was going. They asked about the tank size, how much weight I was carrying, they asked where I had come from and where I was going. Sometimes I couldn’t remember where I had come from that morning, but I always knew where I was going— Patagonia. 

On the road, one of the many gas station stops.

***

Campeche

I was almost to the city, I was 8 miles away, then 5. All of a sudden, I could see the hazy grey on the road surface ahead which meant one thing— rain. All of a sudden I was being pelted with what felt like tiny grains of sand but were actually rain drops. Just up ahead, a man on a motorcycle was stopped on the highway under an overhanging tree. I quickly pulled over underneath, throwing out a quick hello as I pulled on my jacket, and zipped it up to the neck. 

Huddling under the scrap of a tree, I pulled up the map on my phone to get the final directions to my hostel. It was raining so hard even with my helmet on, beads of water dripped off the end of my nose. I slid my phone into the clear sleeve on my tank bag, kicked the stand up, started the bike, and gunned down the highway. 

Thunder grumbled overhead as I navigated the last few miles into the city. I parked in a row of bike parking in front of a small doorway that said “Monkey Hostel”. Like every day, I systematically unpacked my bike, making two trips up the steep, narrow staircase. Although I was in a mixed dorm with 6 beds, no one else was there, and I opened the doors to the balcony that overlooked the street. 

The clouds had parted to reveal a rainbow sunset, golden light spilling across pinks and greens and reds. The church in the distance cut through the sky, backlit by the dying sun. Before it dropped below the horizon, everything was illuminated. 

The spectacular Campeche sunset.

The streets of Campeche after the rain.

The coolest bike lane, Capeche.

Fishing boats in the small harbor along the Malecon, Campeche

***

Cape Town, 2013

“Amy was found unconscious this morning, she’s in the hospital now. We’re not sure what’s going to happen,” my Mom said. The Skype connection started breaking up. “We’re not sure what’s going to happen,” my Mom repeated. 

I had been traveling around Africa for months before settling down at an apartment in Cape Town. I had planned on staying for a few months, maybe moving there permanently, when I had woken up that day to the phone call. After years of fighting cancer, the day we all knew was coming had arrived.

The flight home from Cape Town was long, usually around 24 hours. Even if I found a flight the next morning, I’d still be a full day away from home, and it would be too late. Amy was in the hospital back home on the east coast, and there was nothing I could do but wait. 

The next evening, my Mom called again. I could hear the tears in her voice, and my whole body constricted. I remember the room going completely silent, holding its breath, as if everything had been waiting for this moment, and after my Mom said what she was going to say the world would be changed forever. “We’re all headed to the hospital now, the doctors told us to say our goodbyes.” I sat in my empty apartment for hours, in the dark, seeing the lights sparkle off in the distance on Table Mountain.

When my roommate arrived, I told her what had been happening. I looked at her tearfully, “If she dies, I don’t know how I should feel. She’s been my hero my entire life, but she doesn’t know me at all.”

***

A role model is a story we tell ourselves. Even if that person is family, family who doesn’t know your birthday or calls or wants to see you, they shape who you become. They give you a piece of their fire, their wicked sense of humor, tales of their adventures— and even if it isn’t real, even if the person you thought they were and the person you wanted to become was a story— it changed you anyway. That’s what stories do. And so we tell ourselves these stories, and move onward into the unknown, the stories lighting the path to who we want to become. 

“Words save our lives, sometimes.” ―Neil Gaiman

My computer buzzed, another call. My Mom was openly crying this time. I could hear people in the background. “We told her you love her, and wished you could be here,” my Mom sobbed over the phone. We were all together over the phone for a few moments. During the last few moments of my Aunt’s life, before they pulled the life support, I slept halfway around the world, and she was gone.

Aunt Amy, AntTamy, my godmother, my role model, the woman who swam with sharks, the woman who made me want my life to be different, the woman who didn’t know me at all and the woman who arguably I didn’t know either, was gone.

***

Valladolid

The next morning I rode into Valladolid, a town known for its close proximity to the famous Chitzen Itza ruins, and local cennotes— but better known to me as a place I had visited with my sister years before. As I rode down the city streets I recognized some of the places we had been— the large sprawling town square filled with big trees and green grass, the stone cathedral. All of a sudden, I turned right down a familiar street, Calle de Los Frailles. I stopped my bike in front of a small hostel, one that I remembered from all those years ago— the thatched hut private room in the back that no longer had a thatched roof, the open air bathroom with a giant concrete sink. My sister and I had stayed in that room and I remembered brushing my teeth in that sink outside, thinking, I wanted to brush my teeth outside every day for the rest of my life. 

The famous concrete sink

The first hostel I ever stayed at

This was the first hostel I every stayed in. My sister had to convince me— back then, like many unseasoned travelers, I had a healthy suspicion of the unknown, but my sister knew. Everything had started here. I walked around, touching the walls and taking photos. Everything I had wanted to do back then I had now done. It made me happy and proud and immeasurably sad at the same time— that through all the the years since, all the things I had done and all the things I had worked so hard for, the woman that I had become and the girl I had been were standing together in that place, and waiting for some answer about the world.

I told Brad during the interview all we needed was for someone to tell us we could choose our path, to show us it was okay to be a little different to move forward in the world. My Aunt did that for me, and my sister did as well. It’s okay to sleep in a room full of people in a strange place, it’s okay to leave and see the world and create new stories. I’m surrounded by people who are constantly surprising me, people doing amazing different things, people I know well and people I’ve never met, paving the way for new generations of small kids in shopping carts making heroes of the people in their lives, the small things like powdered sugar donuts and stories about sharks making every difference in the world.

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