What I Learned From Backpacking Europe Alone At 57

It has been a dream trip of mine since I was a child.
The author on her trip.
The author on her trip.

I always dreamed of backpacking Europe as a child. My favorite magazine was National Geographic, which I would race to the mailbox to get before Dad did, so I could read it cover to cover. I saved my money and had enough to live out this dream when my high school graduation came around at 17.

Instead, I married and started my beautiful family. Rather than backpacking along the Seine, I worked in a record store and attended junior college. The next 40 years flew by, and I haven’t been able to shake my dream. Last year, I finally decided I would revisit the old articles, notes and ideas of places, foods and museums I wanted to experience. I felt that since I had a family so young in life, I missed out on seeing the world while working, studying and running a successful business. There was never enough money left over to travel overseas. Vacation was a weekend at Disneyland, a local museum or a half day in a city I was visiting for work. It was now or never.

In 2018 at 57, I decided to pack my old Jansport backpack and travel by train across France, Spain and Portugal. Some of my family thought I had finally lost my mind. My daughter and son were excited for my adventures, and I was excited at the prospect of traveling to exotic places with no one else to distract me from absorbing all the sights, food and culture. I wanted to learn Flamenco in Sevilla and the Charleston in Paris. I did both!  

A few years earlier, I had set out on a cross-country road trip alone using the Couchsurfing app. I met so many people who were helpful and showed me parts of their towns I would never have seen as just another tourist in a motel. I learned that fear of the unknown can be overcome if you are confident you have prepared and are aware of your surroundings. 

I learned that fear of the unknown can be overcome if you are confident you have prepared and are aware of your surroundings.

I decided to take only a normal backpack and spent weeks having my daughter take out a scale so I could weigh each possible permutation of clothes, toiletries and medication. I figured the backpack, although weighty, would be easier to wrangle than wheeled luggage up Metro stairs, down cobblestone streets, up seven flights to a Paris apartment and onto crowded buses. It had the added benefit of being a weight-bearing exercise and possible shield against unexpected trouble.

I was going to start in Paris for a week but extended my stay to meet up with a college friend from Mumbai. I did a combination of Airbnb and hotels, and I planned my lodging loosely and not more than a week or two in advance. If I couldn’t find a great Airbnb share, I would book a hotel for a night or two until I could find one. I had originally planned a monthlong adventure, and I purchased a one-way flight to Paris. But with my Eurorail pass, I was able to travel to Spain and Portugal before going back to Paris and then returning home.

I never felt in danger in Barcelona, which has a reputation as a pickpocket’s paradise. I had small padlocks on my mini-backpack as well as on all the zippers of my full-size pack. I wore shorts with hidden pockets, drank only an occasional glass of wine with meals and kept large bills separate from small. I didn’t venture out far after dark and kept a keen eye on my surroundings. I did meet some thoughtful locals who offered directions and help with quirky Metro ticket machines. I knew there were good people in the world, and I just needed to experience it more.

Paris was a reintroduction to fast, pungent and glorious culture. I walked for many miles each day and felt the weight of my backpack each time I changed lodgings and had to traverse the city while sightseeing wearing my extra 25 pounds. At home, I consider myself an intentionalist, which is a sort of reformed minimalist. When your backpack arrives in Paris with you already nine-tenths full, you don’t get to cram it full of souvenirs. I quickly learned to enjoy the things I saw without attachment or the need to bring Paris home with me except in my heart and memories. This continued in all the wonderful places I visited in my 11 weeks.

I learned to trust myself and made a point of noting streets, landmarks and neighborhoods versus relying on my phone for directions. I wasn’t shy about asking for directions, dining alone or sharing a table in a crowded cafe. I became much more confident in my French and Spanish, even if they were a shambles. I found people understood my efforts and intentions and wild, waving gestures.

Through my negotiations in packing, I started to have a deeper understanding of the burdens we carry that sometimes are best left behind.

Most of my wardrobe had consisted of travel shorts, a silk skirt, Levi’s and T-shirts. I started adding and subtracting to suit the weather and my environment. I bought a French soccer tee and ditched my plain American one. In Spain, I bought a swimsuit and a blouse and ditched another plain tee. I carried, or should I say lugged, my cowboy boots in order to wear them for one week of polo in Spain. In hindsight, I would reconsider that footwear choice.

Through my negotiations in packing, I started to have a deeper understanding of the burdens we carry that sometimes are best left behind. I forgave myself for choices my younger self made that older me would never have made. I began to release a lifetime of guilt and anger over opportunity lost, realizing every single choice made me the responsible, appreciative adult I have become.

By the time I reached Portugal, my home in Colorado was in the path of a massive wildfire moving fast. I could only be supportive long distance as my daughter moved horses to safety and packed for a possible evacuation. I felt a weird sense of calm knowing I had to release all attachment to my belongings and my home. I believe that being on the road with my backpack helped me accept that hard possibility. I felt freer knowing I could live with whatever happened to my material world, knowing that we would be OK. The fire finally was controlled less than five miles from our ranch before I returned home.

They say travel changes the person. That is my truth. I am now even more trusting of my own decisions and question when someone else may be pushing their own agenda. I embrace the cultural differences as part of the rich fabric of life, and I am a more tolerant, even embracing, person because of it. I know that missing a train isn’t the end of the world or even worth getting upset over. Life has a way of moving at its own pace.

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