Backpacking in the USA
I left Bali feeling revitalised and very excited that I had met ‘the one’. The fact that I had only known him for half an hour was a mere speck of a detail in my elaborate plan for the two of us.
Fortunately I had the good sense not to derail my life just yet but instead to honour my commitment to spending time in the USA with my mum and dad. Dad was there researching a book he was writing about the 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army and we had been invited to a war veterans’ reunion in Indianapolis.
We met vets from the Second World War, Vietnam and Korea, lovely old guys with extraordinary stories. Dad and I, who had previously bonded on anti-war demonstrations in London, suddenly found ourselves singing along to the star-spangled banner and pledging our allegiance to the United States.
One of my best friends, Vicky, was due to get married in Malibu in less than two months’ time so I decided to stick around in the States until the wedding. Mum, Dad and I flew to New York for a few days and we wandered on foot from Wall Street to Central Park, mainly because we couldn’t figure out the subway. We tried to visit the Empire States Building but it was closed because of an outbreak of bed bugs in the city, so instead we had a wonderfully memorable last dinner in Little Italy on a swelteringly hot summer’s night.
I was due to fly to LA the next morning to see Vicky and my other school friend, Zell. But when I woke up I discovered I had been bitten all over by the dreaded bed bugs that were plaguing the city. I was covered in such a hideous rash that when I went to the local pharmacy and the pharmacist asked me to take off my jacket to see my rash, people behind me gasped and took a few steps back. I took the cream, went back to the apartment, and fumigated my backpack and its contents. I said an emotional goodbye to my mum and dad and headed to the airport.
I needn’t have worried about the backpack because American Airlines lost it anyway. So I arrived at LAX with nothing to my name but an incredibly itchy rash. It says a lot about my wonderful friend Zell that she welcomed me into her home with open arms. Every night when she’d finished work we’d talk for hours in her downtown loft apartment and every day I’d head out to explore LA. I watched basketball games on street corners and drug deals on Venice Beach. I walked on all the stars on Hollywood Boulevard and did yoga classes in the Hollywood hills. And I hiked up to the Hollywood sign to see this insanely eccentric and eclectic city in all its glory.
It was time to leave LA and see some more of America. I wanted to go to a Vipassana meditation retreat and was happy to leave the direction I went in next to whichever Vipassana centre could fit me in. There are numerous centres around the States but the only state that wasn’t fully booked was Texas. When you think ‘Texas’ you don’t immediately think ‘meditation’. But I’d never been before and I was a curious kind of cowgirl so I called the Southwest Centre and said thanks, see y’all soon!
I had 4 weeks to get to Dallas travelling through Arizona and New Mexico. I’d heard about a town in Arizona called Sedona, known for its arts and new age community and I decided to make a beeline for it.
Zell drove me to LA’s bus station and made me promise to take care over the next few weeks until I was due back for Vicky’s wedding.
I bought a ticket for Flagstaff, the nearest town to Sedona with a bus stop, and reserved a bed at a Flagstaff hostel for that night. The hostel told me I would need to check in before the front desk closed at 10pm which would give me ample time, all going well.
I boarded the Greyhound and settled in for the 10 hour drive, looking out at the Californian deserts and futuristic wind farms. There’s nothing more liberating than travelling by yourself, I was brimming with excitement. But loads of crazy things went wrong, of course.
I started to feel sick a few hours into the journey, nausea and stomach cramps increased with each lurch of the bus. Something I’d eaten had given me food poisoning and I spent the rest of the journey in the bus’s tiny toilet throwing up. It was the first time I’d vomited for weeks and as hideous as it was it triggered bulimic thoughts - I was happy I was getting rid of the calories. Isn’t that just… awfully sad.
After a few hours of being sick, the bus broke down. We all got off and waited for a replacement service for hours, me dry reaching on the sidewalk. The several hours leeway I had granted myself to arrive at the hostel before it shut were disappearing. Eventually another bus came and we trundled along Route 66 passing small towns and wide open spaces as the sun went down and my fear over where I was going to lay my weary bones for the night increased.
By the time we arrived at Flagstaff sure enough, the hostel’s front desk was closed and the only way in was for guests with keys. But if hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, hell also hath no grit like a woman fatigued. I found an open window, climbed through it and went to sleep on the couch in the lobby. I woke up in the morning to find lots of German backpackers standing over me in astonishment. “Guten tag,” I said, “how do I get to Sedona?”
The guy who owned the hostel drove me there and wished me luck. I walked into a shop selling crystals and other new age stuff and asked the lady behind the counter if there was a cheap hotel in town. “No.” She said and my heart sank. “Hold on,” she added, “would you like to come and stay with me and my daughter?” Her name was Joy and she was, a complete joy. She made the couch up for me to sleep on and fed me delicious vegan food. But Joy I’m so sorry, I threw it all up in your bathroom. Just like that I was back to being bulimic.
I did not know how to stop, I just couldn’t get control over it. I was so angry with myself, so ashamed. I can still see myself looking in her mirror and crying, not knowing what to do.
But I had come to the right place for healing.
Sedona is famous for its red rock formations that glow in the rising and setting sun. They’re breathtaking. Native Americans consider Sedona a sacred place and the rocks to be a vortex of energy.
The arrival of Europeans had a devastating effect on the native populations in Arizona, just as in the rest of the Americas. Warfare and disease decimated their populations by as much as 90%. But thankfully many tribes still live here today; the Yavahai and Tonto Apaches, the Hopi and Navajo. Joy and I walked for hours each day, climbing the rocks and swimming in the river, exploring the ancient Ruins of Palatki and even watching a Native American ceremony. It is a special place.
One day we climbed Cathedral Rock in the Coconino National Forest in Yavapai County. The smooth rocks require careful navigating, it’s difficult to get a foothold and I spent quite a bit of time on my backside. Apparently it’s full of tourists now but Joy and I were fortunate enough to only encounter one man, sitting crossed legged and meditating high up in the rocks. He looked to be in his 80’s, was bare chested, wiry, and deeply tanned. He opened his eyes when Joy and I approached and he smiled a winning, toothless smile. We got talking and he told us he meditated up there every day, that he would occasionally have a sip of water but hadn’t eaten for years. He was like a plant that only needed the sun. I don’t know if he was bonkers or not but I also don’t remember ever seeing anyone so content.
The week had come to an end and I had to keep pressing on towards Dallas. Joy and I exchanged emails for years but alas we eventually lost touch. Maybe I’ll send her one now.
I got back on the bus and started heading for Texas, staying at towns and cities along the way.
One of the vets I had met at the veterans’ reunion was from Austin and he’d invited me to come and stay with him and his two daughters who were a little younger than I was. I loved Austin the minute I set foot off the bus. Said to be the Live Music Capital of the World, it’s slogan is ‘Keep Austin Weird.’ The vet’s daughters took me out to lots of bars and showed me the best of times. Everyone sang and played the guitar and was covered in body art.
It was unbelievably hot, a searing heat that felt like it was stripping the skin from your bones. We just slipped from one air conditioned building to the next.
One day the vet took me with him while he went shopping for a new shotgun. I’m glad I don’t live somewhere where guns are that accessible to be honest. It’s a different world in Texas, but I’ll say this for it, I have never met friendlier nor more hospitable people. After a week I said thank you and goodbye to my new Austin family and got on the train to Dallas. The train was a huge, silver, double decker of a thing, it’s size perhaps accounting for the agonisingly slow progress it made through the Texan countryside.
By the time I arrived in Dallas it was again late and dark. I took my Lonely Planet guide up to a group of businessmen and asked them the way to a street that promised an affordable hostel. They told me the way but warned that it was a dangerous neighbourhood. I thanked them and started looking for other hostels in my guidebook. The businessmen put their heads together and walked back over to me with an offer. They explained that they were in town for a convention at the Hyatt Regency and that two of them, a father and son, were happy to share a room so that I could have the other’s. There are really good people in the world aren’t there? It’s enough to give you hope for the place.
I got on the hotel’s shuttle bus with them and smiled at the hotel receptionist as the businessmen explained the room change to her. She looked at me like I was Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. Her fingers clasped the room key with surprising strength. We engaged in a tiny tug of war until eventually, she relinquished the key. I thanked the businessmen from the bottom of my heart and headed for the lift before the receptionist could wrestle me to the ground. I found my room and opened the door to my very own deluxe suite overlooking the Dallas skyline. I couldn’t believe my luck, after weeks of crashing on couches and in dingy hostel dorms I climbed into my huge, crisp bed, ready to tackle the Dhamma Siri Vipassana Centre the next day.
The retreat had organised car-pooling from the city and a woman I had been emailing picked me up from the hotel. A middle aged mum, she couldn’t wait to escape her demanding kids. We chatted excitedly as we drove to the retreat 40 miles outside of Dallas. It’s one of numerous centres worldwide dedicated to the teaching of Vipassana meditation. We would meditate for 10 hours of each of the 10 days.
Fantastically, they don’t charge you to stay there. If you enjoy the experience you’re welcome to donate at the end. It takes any scepticism out of it, you don’t go into it worrying about parting with your hard earned cash.
When we arrived we were allocated our individual rooms and told that talking and eye contact were forbidden. We would be woken at 4am, meditate until 6.30am, eat breakfast, meditate until noon, have lunch then meditate until 5pm, eat dinner, take a walk, go to bed, repeat.
The small vegan meals were great for me, I had no urge to make myself sick. The not talking or making eye contact was also just what I needed. I felt like I had been talking exhaustedly for years, always wanting to please people, always the diplomat, always the entertainer. I couldn’t wait to have a break. But this was no break, this was some serious shit.
Understanding how to meditate, vipassana style, was easy. Putting it into practice, impossibly hard. You have to focus on your breath, specifically the area under your nostrils, just feeling the sensation of your exhalations. Don’t think about anything else. You will though, every second. And when you do, start again, focusing purely on the sensation under your nostrils. Do that for 10 hours.
Sitting cross legged for that length of time is agonising. But we had to try not to move. We were supposed to observe the discomfort and then observe the pain. It was a barrel of laughs as you can imagine.
The Centre was next to an abattoir and every so often you’d hear the pop of a gun killing a cow. The extreme heat, the intensity of the meditation, the isolation… I can’t say it was pleasurable. But it wasn’t meant to be pleasurable, it was meant to give you the tools to calm your monkey mind, and I regret not trying harder.
You’re not allowed to bring your phone in nor any reading material, it’s all about the meditation. I remember reading the instructions on the fire extinguisher a million times just to think about something other than my nostrils.
After a few days of focusing on our breath we were told to focus on other areas of our bodies. Sometimes I was able to focus my attention on sensations in my body for extended periods of time and without thoughts arising. Other times, I bloody hated it.
One day we were allowed a break and I went outside to see the most magnificent sunset. I went back into the meditation room filled with happiness until the teacher said, “Don’t get attached to that sunset, it’s impermanent.” It was all I could do not to murder him. Now, in hindsight, I see what he was getting at. When you get into meditating you find a contentment within yourself, accessible at all times. When you look to something external to please you you’re setting yourself up for disappointment because it’s out of your control.
I was agitated now, eager to get back to LA, see my friends and then move to Australia. I resented not being able to think about the past or the future, I wanted to agonise over them.
The 10 days finally came to an end. The nice lady who had driven me there asked if I wanted a lift back to Dallas and I said yes. We were both surprised to hear the sound of our own voices. We slowly adjusted to communicating again and when she discovered I didn’t have any plans for the night she kindly invited me to stay with her family. It sounds irresponsible of me not having lined up accommodation in advance, but it was a bit of an exercise in spontaneity and it turned out that I met wonderful people and got a much better insight into the country than I would have done by just staying at hotels.
We got to her house and she was overjoyed to be reunited with her kids again and while she hadn’t mastered meditating either, her new appreciation for her family had made the days away all worthwhile. I had a lovely evening with her family and in the morning I left to discover Dallas. I went to a café feeling overjoyed with life, but when I’d eaten I headed straight for the bathroom to purge. It was an all time low. I’d pinned everything on the retreat being able to cure me but I hadn’t even lasted 24 hours.
In a nutshell, the sensation of feeling full after eating used to make me feel disgusting. The only way to stop feeling disgusting was to get it all out. And then I felt revolting because making yourself sick is a deeply unpleasant experience, emotionally and physically traumatising. So I tried not eating, which isn’t sustainable. Eventually I’d eat, and I’d eat a lot because I was starving and then I’d feel full and disgusting and off we’d go again.
I flew back to LA and spent time with Zell and Vicky in the run up to Vicky’s beautiful wedding on Malibu Beach. It was so good to be with my friends, that comfort you can only get from people who have known you a long time and love you, warts and all. They kindly listened as I tried to convince them that moving to Australia for this stranger was a logical decision.
I just felt like I had to keep on going. Like a hamster on a wheel, the faster the hamster runs the faster the wheel turns. I didn’t know how to get off.
I booked what turned out to be my final flight on my global adventure, a one way ticket to Melbourne.