Last weekend, a friend put her belongings in storage to travel across south America alone. Until a month ago, she’d been saving for a deposit on a flat, and her redundancy last month was a shock. Kicking aside the property ladder to embrace adventure was brave, since she wasn’t simply awarding herself a holiday. Solo travel scares her.
“But now I need to push myself through my fears,” she told me. “I need to get a bit lost to move on to find the next stage.”
“Of what?” I asked her, intrigued.
“Of, you know, life,” she replied. “I want this trip to help me move on to the next stage of my life.”
I sent her off with a massive hug and a ribbon with a lucky silver horseshoe on it, like the one my sister gave me when I went out alone, after graduation aged 23 to face what felt like a similar rite of passage. It was 1998 and the dot-com era was booming; starting one of these new things called a website looked, briefly, like a route to instant riches. But rather than moving to London, I used a small amount of savings to go America to find out if cowboys were, you know, real, rather than just a product of my over-active fantasy life.
This was pre-9/11; I sailed through immigration on a one-way ticket. Apart from half a dozen addresses of tenuous contacts, nothing was planned and I had no idea where I was going. I criss-crossed America on a Greyhound bus, travelling by night to save on motels, or sleeping on the sofas of friends of friends, long before couch-surfing was a “thing”. It was both a heady and lonely time. I relied on the kindness of strangers and chance encounters to show me the way. I was, in a sense, lost, until fate intervened and I found a T-shirt in a junk shop with TEXAS IS THE REASON across it, then headed straight to Dallas, and from there forayed deep into cowboy country, in the heart of west Texas. I talked my way onto several ranches, where the managers would laugh at me, an English girl, telling me their world was too tough, too patriarchal, too damn male, to employ me. But just setting foot on the red dusty soil was a boot in the door, and from there I went dancing with cowboys and slept in pick up trucks, until I found a ranch near the Mexican border which gave me a start in return for hard work and no complaints.
I’d struck gold. For 18 months I worked on two separate ranches, learning how to rope cattle, break wild horses and fix wire fences until my hands were ripped to shreds. It was every bit as tough and lonely as it was exhilarating and extraordinary. I gulped down an intoxicating sense I’d stepped into a film – the cowboys in their chaps and spurs, the wide open plains, the neon-lit motels – but what I really took from those months was a sense I had deep wells of strength inside me I hadn’t known where there. That strength helped me get on again when I was – quite literally – bucked off but also helped me make sense of the formless, disorientating mess most of us call everyday life.
I didn’t understand it until I looked back, but these self-imposed rites of passage were a way of shouldering what felt like the almost unbearable pain of Mum’s accident
I’m now 41, and looking back it’s obvious the challenges I set myself in Texas were my way of piecing together the shards of my life which had shattered when I was 16, after a riding accident left my adorable mother catastrophically brain damaged. She was in a coma for three months, and awoke a completely altered person. She needed full time nursing care, and could never care for herself, talk or communicate again. When I was 18 she moved into full-time nursing care where she lived for 22 years. When she died in 2013, I still don’t know if she had once recognised me as her daughter.
The circumstances of what had happened to Mum were strange and hard; I tried to anaesthetise my pain with wild men, wild sex, wild drugs, but instead found real solace in a series of personal rites of passage which manifested themselves in travel. When real everyday life hurt too much, I sent myself out alone as a way of making myself brave. Texas was just one of these rites of passage; at 18, I lived in a horse-drawn wagon trading horses with gypsies in Ireland, and after Texas had two children but was a single mother by 28. I never wanted moderation, always looking for intense personal experiences, and in my late twenties had a boyfriend in deepest southern Russia. Visiting was difficult and sometimes dangerous, and for two years I lived with half of my heart in the Caucasus mountains, and half with my kids at home in Oxford.
I didn’t understand it until I looked back, but these self-imposed rites of passage were a way of shouldering what felt like the almost unbearable pain of Mum’s accident. Creating my own challenges – my own pain, if you like – was a way of owning it rather than allowing it to suffocate me.
Travelling in Ireland, Texas and Russia felt like going into the wild, and were my way of tapping into an age-old longing humans have to send themselves out on a quest or pilgrimage to feel alive, often at the moment when they’re feeling most broken.
As a society we no longer value the traditional idea of a rite of passage, but as I watched my friend hoiking her backpack on, it wasn’t lost on me that a need to feel brave and powerful whatever fears we face has a special resonance right now. My friend chose travel, but you don’t need to go to the other side of the world to create your own rite of passage, as anything that pushes you out of the comfort of normal life to find a stronger, braver version of yourself is a great thing. That might be conquering a fear of speaking in public, swimming in the sea, taking the first steps to write that novel you might have inside you, or running a marathon. It might also be marching in the face of adversity, to say to what feels like an increasingly uncaring world, I am here and I am powerful. As women, we have a special talent for that right now.
The Wild Other by Clover Stroud is published by Hodder & Stoughton.