As I wait for my next adventure, Whidbey Island in Washington State, I have been thinking back on what first sparked my hunger for travel and exploration. I am consumed with the need and want to travel like it is my first, and okay maybe only, love. I am running a half-marathon in every state, and after this weekend, Washington State will be number 17. I have also decided to run a half-marathon on every continent. Obviously North America has been conquered, but next on the list is Antarctica in 2019. And if I am being honest, I am sure Europe will happen in 2018. Seventeen years ago, I wouldn’t have fathomed that traveling, hiking, running, meeting people and hearing their stories, and seeing different lifestyles and cultures would be my life goal and healthy obsession.

Growing up, in Berwyn, Illinois, my parents did not share my now enthusiasm for traveling. My mom and I took small trips to different cities throughout Illinois and neighboring states, mainly Wisconsin, but that was the extent of my travels. My first time for a true “family vacation” was with my best friend and her family when I was 16 after my parents had moved me to Estill Springs, Tennessee. We left Tennessee and headed northeast. The official vacation started in Washington D.C. then we just traveled down the coast with stops like The Smithsonian, Monticello, an annual Irish Festival in Richmond Virginia, and the beach in South Carolina. This was the first time I had ever seen the ocean, and her waves, size, and beauty imprinted on me. But this still wasn’t what captured my attention. No, that would happen 5 years later, just a month after I turned 21.

I was a poor college student as many college students were. I went to school full-time, worked part-time at Home Depot, and paid my own rent and bills. When money was really scarce, meals consisted of cans of corn and boxed spaghetti noodles mixed with ketchup, and the beer was cheap and basically alcohol flavored water. But there were those moments where I actually had an extra 50 to 100 dollars. In true college student fashion I normally would have had to get a cute new pair of shoes or a new top to go out in. But in July 2000, I used my little bit of extra money to buy a bus ticket. Yes, I was going to take a bus from Clarksville, Tennessee to Los Angeles, California.

This was not a random trip. One of my best friends, Dave, was being deployed to Korea and before he left for Korea he was heading home to see his family who were sprawled across the California coast. Dave and I wanting to see each other one more time, and I also wanting to escape Tennessee for a bit, thought it sounded like the best idea for me to go to California. Plane tickets were too expensive, and driving all the way by myself would not have been a logical solution. So the bright idea was for me to take the Greyhound Bus. It was inexpensive, I would make it to Los Angeles in a few days, and I would get to see California for the first time. The farthest west I had been up until that point was North Dakota, but I was a small child and do not remember the trip. So the farthest west I had ever been that I can actually remember was Missouri.

I was absolutely ecstatic. Not only was I going to see my best friend, I had a free place to stay, I would get to see the ocean and beach again, but I was going all the way to California by bus. It seemed so adventurous and out of the norm of anything I had ever done. However, my parents did not share in my enthusiasm. My dad expressed his displeasure by saying this was a stupid idea, and he didn’t support me going. (I wasn’t really asking for permission though since I had already bought the ticket, and there wasn’t much he could do to stop me anyways).

So a few weeks later I was packed, my roommate dropped me off at the bus station, and I waited for my departure. When that bus finally departed the station, I spent a lot of my time staring out the window watching the blurred scenery distort and blend together. I also spent a lot of time listening to artists whose songs had become the soundtrack of my life that summer: James Taylor, Moby, The Bloodhound Gang, Tom Petty, and Fatboy Slim.

My first true interaction I had on the Greyhound Bus was with a middle-aged woman who was headed to California as well. She joined the bus on the stop in Dallas by way of Virginia. Her nerves were vibrating off her like a plucked string on a guitar. Not too long into the trip she began to open up. She told the story of her first love. Sometimes, as with first loves, she explained they went their separate ways. She said she ended up marrying another man and started a family, but it ended in divorce after her children were grown. Through the beginning of the social media craze, her first love found her and reached out to her. Coincidentally, he too had married another person, and it had recently ended in divorce. Through this new chance online encounter, these two previous loves were able to reconnect. They had spent the last 6 months getting to know each other on the phone, through social media, and email. They hadn’t seen each other in over 5 years, and at that time, both of them were still married to other people. Before she found herself on this Greyhound Bus bound for L.A., her first true love asked her to marry him. Even though they hadn’t seen each other in person for quite some time, she said yes. With that, she decided to sell her house she raised her children in, move across the country, and they would get married when she arrived in California. He sent her the engagement ring through Fed-Ex just a few weeks prior to this trip. She had delicately slipped the ring off her finger and smiled as she twirled it between her fingertips as the gold band and diamond reflected the sunlight peeking through the bus windows.

She continued, sharing her excitement and fear with me. She said the connection she felt with him hadn’t changed. In fact, it was magical. Even though they went in their separate directions after high school, their lives intersected at so many important points still. But she was still fearful. Since he last saw her she had gained some weight, and of course she was older. She acknowledged he had seen pictures of her, but it still wasn’t the same. But the beauty and romanticism of this story was not lost on me, and I was able to genuinely offer reassurance and comfort.

First, I was just so inspired and in awe by this love story. I didn’t know this then, but reflecting on it now it is really highlighted, but there was a no-nonsense, no bullshit aspect to this rekindling of love. At 21, it was just a romantic love story, and I hoped to find true love as well one day. But now at 37, I see another layer and have a deeper understanding of what it is to want to just be seen and vulnerable and cut out all the excess games. Well, not even the excess games, all the games. That was truly apparent in the telling of her story. This story was just about two people who wanted to be real together.

Second, she looked beautiful to me. Once again at 21, I don’t know if aging was high on my radar of concerns, but definitely almost two decades later, the pressure to not age is strong. Yes, she had a few smile wrinkles and a few extra pounds, but her sweet demeanor and loving spirit truly shined through as well. I saw the beauty in exactly who she was, and I knew her future husband did and would.

When we arrived in L.A., I wished her all the luck in the world and a huge congratulations. As strangers, yet as new momentary confidantes, we gave each other a hug.

When I was in L.A., I did have the best time with my friend. We spent several days at his family’s beach house in Huntington Beach literally just donning bathing suits the whole time. The ability to step from the backdoor onto the sand is an experience I will never forget. There is something about the beach in the middle of the night, dark with the moon offering her light, the waves rolling over one another, and the cooled sand spreading out under my feet that ignited me inside. We even took trips through the cities of Hollywood and Beverly Hills, to the Los Angeles Zoo, Six Flags Magic Mountain, and maybe even stole a huge paper sign out of a laundromat that became a staple in my apartment.

Even though this blog is about traveling, my interactions with people are just as much a part of traveling as seeing the world is. This trip made me want to fan that fire that started inside me. It opened my eyes to all the people that we see and pass by every day, yet know nothing about. All the people in this world who are on their own journeys and explorations with stories to tell. It opened my eyes and made me realize all the different landscapes and cultures each city, each state, and each country has to offer.

That was the moment I realized, I wanted to see it all.