Trail Thoughts: The Dark Forest, Part 2

Over the past six months, I’ve been writing, re-writing and re-imagining this entry more than I can count. In the end, I’ve decided to forego a narrative opening to just keep things simple:

I’ve not been doing so well in the past two years.

Sounds familiar, right? I know, we’ve all been through tough times recently. I could write endlessly on how the pandemic negatively impacted tourism and those trying to make a living on it, but that would just be treading worn-out subjects that have been detailed and discussed far better by thousands of others.

The truth is, I got hit. I got hit hard from two separate directions, and I never saw it coming. This double-whammy of a sucker punch that life threw at me knocked me out of my game for a while. I lost the will to travel and I was left disillusioned and unable to continue my solo travelling lifestyle. Picking up the pieces while giving yourself time to heal is often the best remedy in these situations. But what if your chosen lifestyle suddenly seems like something you’re unable to continue? What do you do when, after building your life around full-time solo travel, the will to travel solo suddenly leaves you?

Buckle up boys and girls, because this is a long one.

In my previous entry, I mentioned entering a figurative dark forest in my mind that prevented me from enjoying my travels to the fullest. At the time, I thought it was just a feeling of homesickness unexpectedly rearing its head. So I made my way back to the Netherlands in the summer of 2020 and I spent some long-awaited time in the company of family and friends. After a while, I felt my homesickness was cured and I had escaped the dark forest growing in my mind.

I even found unexpected comfort in the form of an old crush turned love interest, where our love for each other very quickly culminated in an intense relationship. I’ve always been very comfortable travelling alone, mostly due to me accepting that I’d never meet a compatible partner to share this travelling lifestyle with. So when she expressed her desire to join me in my adventures, our relationship reached a level I thought I’d never find while living this nomadic lifestyle.

My thoughts turned darker with every month

At the same time, the increasingly restrictive nature of the measures taken by governments all over the world turned my worldview on its head. The fact that I’ve always been wary of government overreach really didn’t help my acceptance of the situation either. As the lockdowns continued and unrestrained world travel increasingly seemed a thing of the past, my thoughts turned darker with every month. The dark forest I thought I’d escaped was still growing all around me. In fact, it seems now that I never left that dark place in my mind.

So when we finally did leave the Netherlands for Croatia in the spring of 2021, I seemed to lose my grip on the world when she left me.

For the sake of sticking to the point of this blog entry, it doesn’t really matter what reasons she had for leaving me. What matters is that I was clinging to the idea of things, rather than accepting the changing situation of my relationship and the world around me. The breakup alone shouldn’t have brought me down as low as it did. Neither should the difficult and uncertain state of the world have broken me the way it suddenly did. But because I was so reluctant to face that growing dark forest in my mind, I fell into an even darker place when the things I clung to suddenly came to an abrupt end and I was left facing the uncertainties of the world by myself.

To stick with the metaphor of a dark forest: by desperately trying to get out of the darkness, I suddenly found myself in the darkest part of the woods. I had only one option: to bring out the axe and start chopping in whatever direction seemed promising. And so I did. Of course, what seemed most promising at the time was to try and fight to get it all back. Facing the idea of solo travel in a world where things like world travel or even freedom of movement were all but crippled was something I just couldn’t do. And so I fought, I struggled and in spite of my efforts, I ended up living alone in Sofia, Bulgaria after a lukewarm second attempt at our relationship.

I slowly regained a sense of self again

Ironically, this was also the first step in getting out of my depressed state. Even though I was still alone and feeling low, I was proud of myself for having fought for what I thought was worth saving. And from that pride, I slowly regained a sense of self again. I spent the better part of 2022 settling in Sofia while letting go of my travel dreams, just for a while, so I could focus on rebuilding myself. So I could focus on leaving the dark forest behind, once and for all.

So what do you do when the will to follow your dream suddenly leaves you? You let yourself fall. You learn from the experience as best you can. And you do whatever you can to stay proud of yourself. The rest comes down to taking baby steps.

Baby steps that allow you to enjoy the little things while treating yourself to the luxuries of a settled life. Buy that rice cooker, get yourself a gaming console. Get to know every trail on the nearby mountain. Make new friends and go see them every weekend over a few pints. Have stupid drunken adventures that leave you exhausted but smiling over the next few days. And most of all, keep on the lookout for these simple pleasures so you can enjoy them to the fullest. And when you catch yourself coming up with reasons to see the bad in your future adventures? You focus on the little things that make each place beautiful and find objectivity in experiencing the beauty of a new place for the first time.

It worked for me, at least. While I’m writing this, I find myself in a house in arctic Norway, looking out over a frozen landscape ringed by fjords and steep, snowy mountains. I’m not travelling fulltime yet, but at least I’m seeing new places again. As for my next adventure, I think I’ll go work with reindeer for a while. And after that? Perhaps I’ll branch out into personally guided hikes, who knows?

The life of a nomad isn’t easy, but I never expected this much trouble from a desire for romantic relationships. In a way, I was right about what I wrote back then: the metaphorical dark forest in my mind sprang from an unanswered need deep below the surface. I just never dug down far enough. I know that this time, I really left the dark forest behind me. But it will always be there when I look over my shoulder; and that’s fine. As long as I acknowledge the dark woods behind me, I’m sure I can take the next punch life will undoubtedly throw at me without waking up in darkness again.

Bring it on.

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