This Fall, I officially entered my forties.
What did I do to celebrate?
I hit the rails.
About this time last year, my husband and I began discussing what we’d like to do to celebrate my 40th birthday. My first suggestion was to take the whole family on a cross-country train trip, maybe out to Colorado or up to Maine. He wasn’t opposed to the idea but, after doing some digging about options for the trip, he asked–
“Wouldn’t you rather just go someplace by yourself? Like maybe go on a writing retreat somewhere? Or rent a cabin in the woods and be alone for a few days?”
Ding! Ding! Ding!
We have a winner!
Let me pause here and say that some of you probably think it’s absolutely bonkers that I would want to celebrate my 40th birthday alone, let alone be alone for days at a time. To be honest, my husband thinks it’s a little bonkers, too. But he knows me well enough to know that one of the things I long for most these days is a quiet moment alone to do my favorite things–rest and read and write and be outdoors.
So, I got to work planning my perfect 40th birthday adventure—
80 hours of train travel.
A few days of hiking.
A few days in an idyllic small town.
8 total days alone to rest and read and write and hang out outside.
Then, in September, after months of planning and waiting and waiting and waiting, I put my kids to bed in Cincinnati and hopped on a train for Glacier National Park in Montana.
The trip went off without any major issues except that, 24hrs before I was to head back home, Amtrak cancelled my train due to an impending labor strike (that never actually happened). Because of the weird train schedule in Cincinnati, I couldn’t just reschedule for the next available train because it would have set me back a full two or three days. So, instead of enjoying a 40hr train trip back home, I spent an extra day in Whitefish, Montana and then flew home via Seattle, Washington.
It was a little frustrating to arrive home tired after a sleepless night in an airport, but the whole debacle only set me back 12 hours total and gave me a great story to tell about “that time I was stranded in Montana.”
My trip was honestly the perfect way to celebrate my birthday.
A few notable thoughts and highlights–
- I planned the entire trip to be accessible on foot, rail, bike, and shuttle.
Everything–my hotel and airbnb, the national park, grocery stores, coffee, and restaurants–was in perfect proximity to each other. It was a pedestrian dream and now I can’t imagine traveling any other way.
- My family did just fine without me.
This is huge because, leading up to my trip, I struggled with a lot of anxiety about how my husband and kids would make it through a whole week without me. I’d never been away from my kids for more than 48 hours, and have not traveled alone in 15 years. I wasn’t afraid of being alone, but it was a real stretch for me to extract myself from our home life and trust that everything would be fine. As it turns out, the world doesn’t revolve around me like I thought it did and my husband is a great dad and a perfectly capable grownup man. This was a good lesson to learn.
- I had so. much. time.
My life at home with four kids and a family business and all the other things we do is really chaotic. I feel like there’s rarely a moment when someone doesn’t need something from me. It has been years since I had the time and space to enjoy extended moments of mental quiet and physical space. Talking with my husband after I returned, I marveled at the fact that there were moments I was actually “thinking about nothing.” Friends, this never happens in my daily life. It was a real blessing and exactly what I needed.
- I have a lot of unprocessed thoughts and feelings.
One of my goals for my trip was to do a lot of writing and get down on paper some of the thoughts and ideas that have been swirling through my head the past few years. “Maybe I’ll start writing a book, or finish my new album,” I thought. But I didn’t quite get to the point of producing any sort of finished product during my trip. In the time I had to be alone with my thoughts, I realized I have a lot of unresolved things swirling around inside me that I might be getting closer to understanding, but not expressing in a meaningful way. This was a surprise to me because I consider myself a pretty introspective and self-aware person.
- Health is a great blessing.
I traveled a week after Labor Day, which I’ve now affectionately dubbed “retiree season,” because most of the other people I met and saw traveling were Boomers enjoying their retirement. While chatting with strangers about their travels, I had a recurrent thought that it is a great blessing to be in good enough health to be able to travel in older age, let alone to be able to climb a mountain into your 60s and 70s. I pray for the blessing of good health into my empty-nest years. And, while I am happy to say that I am healthier now at 40 than I was at 30, I know that I have a lot of work to do if I want to be as healthy at 60 as I am now.
- I miss being in the woods.
There’s something exhilarating about being at the mercy of the outdoors. I think it’s the same thing I love so much about living in the city–that feeling of vulnerability, of being a small part of something so much bigger than yourself. But, in natural spaces, the feeling is magnified by all the unknown and all the uncertainty of wild things. I love that feeling. I’ve never been a hardcore wilderness woman or anything like that, but the second I stepped out of my hotel that first day and started walking into an unknown, outdoor space, a missing part of me came alive again. And it felt amazing.
Which leads me to my most vivid memory of the trip–
I arrived at the train station in West Glacier, Montana, around 10pm at night and had a room booked at the historic chalet across the street. I had a seat booked on a shuttle at 7:30am the next morning to take me into the national park for a day of hiking, but the shuttle never showed up. (It was a private hotel shuttle from the train station to a hotel inside the park and, because the train was delayed, the shuttle was delayed to accommodate.)
I checked my map and decided that I’d just grab a coffee at the camp store and walk the 3 miles into the park to the nearest visitor center where I could hop on a public shuttle up to my planned hike. So, I started walking.
Once I entered the park, most of the walk was on a mixed use bike/hiking path straight into the woods.
It was cold.
I was alone.
I was surrounded by tall, looming trees.
It was almost completely silent.
And it was amazing.
I cried like a baby for that first 30 minutes.
It was so beautiful and I was just so damn happy to be there.
It feels really weird to admit that the happiest moment of my 40th birthday celebration was spent alone, in the cold, 2,000 miles from my husband and children. But I am willing to admit the profound tension I feel between loving the amazing, beautiful life I’ve been given and mourning the amazing, beautiful things I gave up to have this life.
I think it’s okay to be honest about those complicated feelings.
I think it’s more dangerous to pretend they don’t exist.
I really, truly love my normal, chaotic life, even if I’m often overwhelmed by the need and noise of it all.
And I am really, truly thankful for the five amazing people who were waiting for me when I got home.
(And I’m also really, truly excited to take another trip someday…)