Do it while you’re young, people tell me. Travel the world while you have legs that can walk and youthful buckets of energy to keep you going throughout the long days. Travel the world while your eyes are as big as saucers, while you aren’t disillusioned by the disappointments in life, while you find beauty in the smallest of things.
“So lovely,” they would coo, “to be so young and to have gone to so many places. Twenty-two years old…”
“Twenty-three in June,” I would add, because I felt like it made a difference.
I turned twenty-one a few days before I saw the Mona Lisa. For my birthday I bought myself a blue dress with a twirling skirt and a plane ticket to Paris. It seemed casual enough to get out of Barcelona for a few days to see the capital of France. It wasn’t until I saw her that I realized the gravity of the event. There I was, staring at the most famous painting in the entire world, a portrait that some people only ever saw on the internet and in their daydreams.
I thought she was beautiful. As her eyes followed me across the hall, I felt like she and I were in on a joke. She had a smile tucked in the corner of her mouth like she had said something quite clever. It was the kind of sly comment whispered in only the strictest confidentiality, and as her eyes met my gaze, I was her confidante. Just Mona and me, sharing secrets in the glass pyramid of the Louve.
When I was under the age of 10, every single pile of granite boulders bore the name “Rock Candy Mountain.” I would spend hours a day memorizing the indents that fit rubber hiking boots and little hands with dirt under the nails. Each climb was filled with victory, scraped knees, and views down to the campsite, where tents became ants and redwoods seemed a little less immense. Each rock formation blurred into one: Rock Candy Mountain was everywhere that I was, like soul searching for something that was always in my heart.
Also around that age I remember seeing the Milky Way for the first time. I was in Yosemite National Park, and I was falling asleep at the campfire after roasting far too many marshmallows. I held the sugar cloud close to the coals to get it brown before raising it higher above the flames to heat it through until it puffed out; it was an art and a science. My father took my hand and a fold-up chair and brought me out to the meadow. Our boots whispered through the tall grass where deer sometimes walked. It was chilly away from the campfire, but Daddy was warm. Above me, God had spilled a glass of milk and hadn’t cried. The stars rippled through the sky, millions of eyes winking at me through the dark night.
The details I remember of trips I made when I was very young are vivid but scattered. I remember the hiss and bang of fireworks on the Great Mall in Washington D.C. on the Fourth of July. After, we dusted ashes off our shirts, and I was ruined for all other fireworks. I remember the click clack of carriages in colonial Williamsburg and the heavens reflecting off of the infinite indigo blue of Crater Lake in Oregon. I remember my fingers stumbling across a guitar to “Louie Louie” in Seattle’s Experience Music Project and watching the trees of Vancouver Island grow taller as our ferry reached its emerald shore. I remember the musty sulfur smell of Old Faithful in Yellowstone and the squish of the soft, dark mud in the natural hot springs. I remember my first time in Europe, my father driving us on the left side of the road from some airport out to the English Cotswold District. There were wild ponies everywhere with soft eyes and scruffy muzzles, and the air was fresh and crisp in July. I had just turned 15, and I had decided that my favorite place in the world was standing on top of Warwick Castle with the wind and rolling green hills before me. I whispered most of the lines to Romeo and Juliet when we watched a performance by the Royal Shakespeare Company in the Swan Theatre and concluded that if I couldn’t go to Hogwarts, Oxford was an acceptable second option.
Since then, I have had many adventures, most of them in Europe when studying and working abroad. These trips are clearer, documented by Facebook albums and notes in journals if I ever worry about forgetting what I witnessed and experienced. But there were times when things weren’t great, when I was sick, homesick, and could barely get out of YouTube and my own head. There were times when I felt more like an English-language prostitute rather than a teacher, used for my language rather than appreciated for it. There were times when trains ran late, maps didn’t help, and wallets vanished. Some days even the little things—asking for a medicine at the pharmacy and explaining Halloween—seemed impossibly difficult. There was a week when three different Spanish students tried to convince me that the n-word was an acceptable term for black people and not at all offensive. There was a time when a psychotic individual rampaged my coastal university town and forever shattered the Isla Vista community. I learned about it on the news as I was eating dinner with an unsympathetic host family. As articles flooded international headlines, people asked me, why, why does this always happen in America, and I could not offer any answers, only my own confusion, anger, and sadness. At those low times, I remembered that traveling while I was young was made easier, better, and more special by the people rather than the places.
After exchanging knowing glances with Mona in the Louve, I missed my plane back from Paris. Well, I missed my bus to take me to the airport far outside of the city. I was too busy being hungry, waiting in line for a quiche. Its crust was flaky and buttery, like a denser version of the warm croissants I gorged on each morning. The filling was egg-y, cheesy, and heavy, something that could fill me up. And yes, it was a good quiche, but not quite worth the price of another night in the hostel and a last-minute plane ticket out of Paris early the next morning. It made for a good story, but I suppose that’s why you do it while you’re young.