Let me just start by saying – oh. my. goodness.
I can’t remember how I heard about Robyn Davidson or her extraordinary journey.
I just remember, the moment I heard about it, I was online hunting down her book.
Titled simply “Tracks: a Woman’s Solo Journey Across 1,700 Miles of Australian Outback,” the story she has to tell is simply mind-bending.
Davidson embarked upon her solo adventure in her mid-20’s.
When I was in my mid-20’s, I, too, was embarking upon a solo adventure. Mine was to India and Israel, hers through the Australian desert.
But I will confess it took me many more years since then to unpack even a portion of the wisdom she unearthed within herself during her 1,700 mile journey.
For the record, it also seems pertinent here to mention I have never once in my life had even the merest inkling of desire to walk across any large, hot, dangerous body of sand accompanied only by camels and a dog.
Clearly, my life is the poorer for it.
During the early stages of her journey, Davidson frequently gave in to bouts of panic, which, to hear her tell it, were largely initiated by intense inner battles between the order/regime/structure she had previously relied on and the freedom to live in the moment that desert life demanded.
As the desert’s ever-changing environment did its work on her and she slowly learned the wisdom of opting for the latter, her panic eased and inner wisdom arose in its place.
That inner wisdom was – is – as timeless and profound as the desert itself (click here for amazing vintage photos from her journey).
Davidson on her love of animals:
I am quite sure Diggity [her canine companion through the desert] was more than dog, or rather other than dog….She combined all the best qualities of dog and human and was a great listener…..The trip, of necessity, had brought me much closer to all the animals, but my relationship with Diggity was something special. There are very few humans with whom I could associate the word love as easily as I did with that wonderful little dog…..Animal lovers, especially female ones, are often accused of being neurotic and unable to relate successfully to other human beings. How many times had friends noted my relationship with Diggity, and, with that baleful look usually associated with psychiatrists, said, “You’ve never thought of having a child, have you?”
Davidson on love:
I had discovered capabilities and strengths that I would not have imagined possible….I had rediscovered people in my past and come to terms with my feelings towards them. I had learnt what love was. That love wanted the best possible for those you cared for even if that excluded yourself. In the past, I had wanted to possess people without loving them, and now I could love them and wish them the best without needing them.
Davidson on freedom:
I had understood freedom and security. That to be free one needs constant and unrelenting vigilance over one’s weaknesses…..we relax back into the moulds of habit. They are secure, they bind us and keep us contained at the expense of freedom. To break the moulds, to be heedless of the seductions of security is an impossible struggle, but one of the few that count. To be free is to learn, to test yourself constantly, to gamble. It is not safe. I had learnt to use my fears as stepping stones rather than stumbling blocks, and best of all I had learnt to laugh.
Davidson on prettiness:
I probably looked like a senile old derelict in fact, with my over-large sandals, filthy baggy trousers, my torn shirt, my calloused hands and feet and my dirt-smeared face. I liked myself this way, it was such a relief to be free of disguises and prettiness and attractiveness. Above all that horrible, false, debilitating attractiveness that women hide behind. I pulled my hat down over my ears so that they stuck out beneath it. “I must remember this when I get back. I must not fall into that trap again.” I must let people see me as I am.
Davidson on social mores and customs:
I’m amazed at how quickly and absolutely this sense of the importance of social custom fell away from me. And the awareness of its absurdity has never really left me. I have slowly regained a sense of the niceties, but I think, I hope, that I will always see the obsession with social graces and female modesty for the perverted crippling insanity it really is.
Davidson on her top FAQ trip questions:
It is extraordinary that the two most commonly asked questions about the trip (after “Why did you do it?”) are….one, What did you do when you ran out of toilet paper? and two (and this is always whispered over in the corner by women who giggle a lot), What did you do when you ran out of Meds?
And there you have it.
It dawns on me that there are many in this world who may at one time or another grapple with the kind of questions that can literally transform a life.
But only a very rare and wonderful few ever set out – as Davidson did – to track down those questions AND record the answers she unearthed.
Reading Davidson’s story – told mainly from memory with assistance from a few diary entries and letters to friends – is now putting many pieces of my own journey into place.
I understand now why I struggled so hard with the “Twenty Questions” others had about my journey – why was I going?, why on earth India?, how long would I be gone?, was I worried about disease?, what would I wear?, how would I live? (this last usually about money) – before and during my trip, and even for some time after, I had no idea how to answer many of these questions myself.
Yet others clearly needed answers NOW and they weren’t happy about waiting.
As well, like Davidson, I found my sense of femininity and its place in the greater society tipped completely upside down…and was glad of such a refreshing change and oh-so-eager to hang on to it (which proved very difficult indeed once I was back stateside).
And like Davidson, throughout my travels I did battle at times with crippling loneliness and depression, even wondering once or twice if suicide was better than grappling with questions at once so ethereal and addicting.
Looking back now, I understand what Davidson means at a gut experiential level when she says, To be free is to learn, to test yourself constantly, to gamble. It is not safe.
In the interim years between that trip and now, I have realized that security and freedom, people and animals, solitude and togetherness, questions and answers, beauty and custom – each has their appropriate place and time.
But most of all, I learned that I can’t be fenced in by any of them and expect my spirit to survive its captivity intact.
Perhaps none of us can.
Today’s Takeaway: Have you ever considered taking an extended period of time to make a journey of personal importance? If so, and you haven’t yet begun, what holds you back? If so, and you are in-progress or already through to the other side, what gifts did your journey bestow upon you?