True Confessions of a Travel Writer

I am not a proud traveler tonight.

I didn’t self-sufficiently navigate through twisty Roman pathways to find my hotel.  I didn’t strike up a conversation with a jolly taxi cab driver, asking him about his home and his family and his passions in life.  I didn’t ask around to find the most local cuisine in the area and end up in a dark corner, eating homemade Carbonara while listening to a steel guitarist make love to his instrument.

I bawled to a United gate agent, cried again to my mother and yelled at a shuttle driver.

Let me explain.

Tonight was the night I was supposed to be going home after two glorious months of travel.  In the past 64 days, I’ve been from Portland Oregon, to San Diego California, to Boulder Colorado, to all over Wisconsin, to all over Michigan, to all over Texas, to Bonaire in the Caribbean, to New York City (but not to my apartment and bed, as it was rented to someone else), to Kansas City Missouri, to San Francisco California, to Veracruz Mexico and most recently…. to Crested Butte Colorado.  That’s three countries, eight states and countless cities.

Tonight was the long-awaited night, where I was going to climb the steps to my two story Chelsea apartment, flip on the lights, drop my stuff down in a triumphant kind-of “Honey I’m home!” attitude and crawl into my feathertop bed, snuggled deep into my down comforter and fall asleep to the hum of the fan that I haven’t slept to in 64 days, the fan that would lure me into the deep and sound sleep that my weary body and soul so desperately need.

Instead, I’m in a stale airport hotel room with a plastic sack of cheap toiletries, munching on my sixth Larabar for the day at 1:57a.m., all I’ve eaten since yogurt and berries at 7 o’clock this morning, over seventeen hours ago.  Or, Clif bars.  And beef jerky.  Don’t forget the beef jerky.

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Long story short, I didn’t make it home.  We all know those four hour delays that cause missed flights, those weather problems that can keep us in the airport going back to Starbucks four times in four hours as we nervously pace the B Terminal wondering if the ol’ family vacation is really worth it.  If you have traveled, you know these kinds of things quite well.  Life happens.  It’s what make movies like “National Lampoon’s,” as absurd as some of those scenarios are, so hilarious– we can all relate on some level.

One hour ago, I had been sitting in line for an hour, after a four and a half hour delay on the tarmac that caused me to miss a connecting flight home, waiting to talk to a Customer Service agent who seemed about as chipper as this piece of jerky I’m chewing on about getting re-booked and where the heck my luggage was going to turn up.  When it was my turn, I walked up to the tired but kind-looking man at the counter,  and as I started to talk, I just…. lost it.  I completely lost it.  I did what any mature, travel-savvy thirty-one year old woman would do in this situation.

I started crying.  Not the kind of heaving, air-sucking, scary-face cry, per se, but enough of a cry that I found myself not even being able to speak.  All I could get out was some kind of primitive speech like, “delay… plane…. luggage.”

That sweet, balding, pumpkin-gate-agent-man must have recognized just how pathetic I looked in that very moment, and he softened with compassion.  “Hand me your ticket, honey,” he said as if I was twelve, and I slid it across the fake granite counter, my bottom lip whimpering and my mouth still unable to get words out.  If you’re a man, please understand: we women cannot help it sometimes.  Tears are the culmination of every emotion we’re feeling, and they just need to get out there.  Exhaustion, frustration, disappointment– they all just drip down our cheeks until we can re-gain our composure and once again speak the English language.  I know it doesn’t make sense.  It’s just a missed flight.  Baggage.  Getting a shuttle to the hotel.  It doesn’t have to make sense.  Things just are as they are.

I then realized I was going to miss my hotel shuttle if I didn’t leave right then, so with more exasperation and crying I grabbed my boarding pass back, mumbled a squishy ‘thank you sir’ under my breath and started running to reach Passenger Pick Up by midnight.  I was told by the hotel concierge that at midnight, the last shuttle would leave.  I knew I couldn’t deal with that tonight- I had to make that shuttle.

I get there at 11:58 p.m.  No shuttle.  I call the hotel, and the concierge (of course his names is George) says the driver should be there.  He isn’t.  George says he’ll call the shuttle to circle back and come get me.

The van pulls up, and the driver must have injected a shot of rude into his buttocks before making that loop to come pick me up.  He grabs my bag from my hand and roughly throws it into the back of the van, letting out a big sigh as he does it, like I am really disrupting his evening.

Normal, kind, understanding Ashley– non-emotional Ashley- would have reasoned with herself and said, “He’s probably had a long day and just wants to go home.  I’m sure he’s frustrated he had to circle the airport several times and it’s now midnight.  He must have a wife and kids and is clearly not from this country (by his accent), so treat him kindly.  Show him love.”

Kind Ashley doesn’t show up tonight.

“You know, sir, you don’t have to act so rudely.”

The clock reads midnight, straight up.

“I was here before midnight and the shuttle runs until midnight,” I inform him, trying to remind him of something he seemed to have apparently forgotten.

“I wasn’t rude!!,” he proclaims rudely.

“Ummm yes– yes, you were, sir.  You threw my bag into the back and acted like you were upset that you had to come get me.  This is your JOB to come get me,” I firmly remind him once again.

To which he replies, “If you tink I’m rude, I drop you back at airport and you stay there!!”

Oh no, he didn’t.  Did this hotel shuttle driver just threaten to take me back to Washington Dulles International Airport and leave me at the curb?  Hellsssss to the no.

“OH YEAH?  Well let me just remind you, THIS IS YOUR JOB.  To pick me up at the airport!  And I was here before midnight! Did you just THREATEN to take me back there and leave me?!”

Angry Ashley doesn’t come out much.  Let’s say, hardly ever.  But Carlos the van driver hit a nerve, and I let him know it.

He stops with his threatening yells and I cease my loud exclamations, and we both ride in the van in silence like two siblings who have just gotten into a fight, the thick fog of awkwardness hanging in the air.  As the minutes drag on and the tension fills the van like sticky buttercream frosting, I am thinking, and I realize that here I am, tired from a day’s travel and upset to not be sleeping in my bed.  And, here is this man, driving an airport shuttle at midnight, not coming from a luxury resort in Colorado back to his home in New York City– and he is probably just exhausted and trying to provide for his family.

While he shouldn’t have treated me the way he did tonight, who knows what kinds of people he’s had to deal with today.  Or everyday, for that matter.

My cheeks grow hot with the sadness and shame that perspective has just brought me.

Exhaustion and frustration are never reasons to treat another human being poorly.  I scratch my plans to turn him in to the hotel manager and take the elevator up to the second floor to my stale hotel room, where I sit now as I write this.

While this isn’t a thrilling travel story with beautiful, thoughtfully-chosen photography, this is real life, and I love traveling because it makes me feel alive.  If you love something, you must love it for all that it is– not just for the comfortable parts that you choose to sift out and love.  Traveling brings out the full spectrum of human emotion– many times the highs of emotion, and tonight it brought out some of the lows.  It stretches me.  And while the pictures on Instragram and Facebook are always sparkling and edited to perfection, life isn’t.

It’s important to see both sides.

People constantly remark at the life I have built, the adventures and experiences I get to have and the places I get to go to.  And you know what– I am so grateful to be building the life that I am living.  I have to pinch myself daily.  Yesterday I was riding on a helicopter over the Rocky Mountains, brushing 12,000 foot mountain ranges and looking at the shimmering crystal blue alpine lakes below.

But, not everything in life sparkles.  I heard a quote not too long ago that really resonated with me:

“People get depressed because they compare the highlight reels of other peoples’ lives with the behind the scenes of their own.”

It did more than resonate with me.  It hit me like a Mac truck.  How resoundingly true this is.

All we see on Facebook, Instagram and other outlets are the highlight reels of peoples’ lives– and, if someone’s constantly complaining on their Facebook status, no one really cares or wants to hear about it, anyway.  Constant complaining about stupid stuff will get you blocked or de-friended sooner than it will take me to go to sleep tonight.  Bad joke– I’ve always been poor in the comedy creation department–but you get the point.

While the life of a travel writer IS beautiful and wonderful and glamorous– and I truly believe that I have the most wonderful and fulfilling life that I could ever have for me— it comes with its ups and downs, and not all moments are folded, tucked neatly and sealed with a lipgloss kiss.  Sometimes moments are sloppy and things don’t quite come out right.

So that happy, exuberant, joy-filled Travel With Castle that you see in my pictures?  That is absolutely me.  This tired, mascara-rubbed, puffy-eyed, exhausted Ashley is me, too.  It’s all a part of being human.  (Good lord, is a picture really necessary, Ashley?  Here’s to authenticity.)

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I travel because it makes me expand as a person.  It brings me to higher moments of delight and exploration than I’ve ever known.  And, it sometimes puts me in uncomfortable situations that stretch me and make me face elements of myself that aren’t so pleasant.  Which, from what my sister and friends tell me, parenting does times ten.

So, my challenge to you tonight isn’t to start putting depressing pictures on your Instagram- no one really wants to see those.  Things like Instagram are meant to be a highlight reel for a reason and hopefully a source of light and inspiration.

My challenge to you, and to myself, is for us to be real and honest with one another and to recognize that life comes with the good and the bad– to seek perspective and an attitude of gratitude when the ‘harder times’ come (and women, we can seek that perspective after we get a good cry in– we all know we’re useless before that happens), to treat fellow humans with kindness– even when it doesn’t seem warranted, and to remember that life is short.  Too short for bad attitudes, complaining, comparison to others, and to not live in any other way as to seize each day.

Carpe Diem.

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Pure Michigan’s Top 5!

When I travel, I am always fascinated by just how much there is to see and experience in our beautiful and fascinating world, and by how it would take more than ten lifetimes to even scratch the surface in exploring it.

Taken out on Lake Huron in Michigan- I was on another ship like this, sailing at sunset.

Taken out on Lake Huron in Michigan- I was on another ship like this, sailing at sunset.

I’ve been to Las Vegas at least fifteen times but have never been to Lake Tahoe; I’ve hopped down to South Carolina on ten or more trips but have yet to see the charming southern town of Charleston; and, I visited New Orleans with my mother when I was seventeen for a quick day trip, but I’ve never had the proper “N’awlins” experience.

You get my drift—for me, traveling isn’t about just checking off destinations.  I am frequently asked about my ‘country count’– i.e., how many countries I’ve visited so far.   While that number is frequently expanding and I always enjoy ticking off a new country or state, this is not why I travel.   For me, travel is about so much more than going to a place to say I’ve been there: I travel because it inspires and teaches me, expands who I am, causes me to be a better human being and helps me to live to my fullest self.

Just being my 'fullest self' at Frankenmuth Brewery in Michigan's Little Bavaria.

Just becoming a better human being at Frankenmuth Brewery in Michigan’s Little Bavaria.

So, while traveling to Michigan recently allowed me to ‘check off’ my 49th U.S. state, there is so much more to see and experience there.  From all that I saw and did during my visit, here is my personal ‘Top 5” guide to Northern Michigan:

1. Hunt for Shipwrecks on the Crystal Clear Great Lakes

The view from our Glass-Bottom boat out in Thunderhead Bay.

The view from our Glass-Bottom boat out in Thunderhead Bay.

I was absolutely floored by the enormity and grandeur of the Great Lakes.  These aren’t just lakes; they’re so massive that Great Britain would fit inside of Lake Superior!!  They feel more like freshwater oceans.  Lake Huron’s Thunderhead Bay National Marine Sanctuary holds dozens of shipwrecks.  The water is unbelievably clear, so if you take a glass-bottom boat tour like I did, you can see the wrecks in clear view from the boat, a view that cannot normally be obtained without being 100 feet underwater with a scuba tank of your back.

2. Eat Garden-To-Table at Alpena’s Globally Inspired Restaurants

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The massive garden that provides the majority of the produce that is served at The Courtyard Restaurant and Inn.

I was beyond impressed by three restaurants in Alpena: The Cellar, The Courtyard and The Fresh Palate.  All of the restaurants’ owners grew up in Alpena but had moved away for a time and lived in Alaska, Venice Beach, California and Hawaii, respectively, before returning to their beloved community to open businesses and raise their families.

They each gained inspiration from their travels and have incorporated that inspiration in to all they do.

The Courtyard's owners, Chris and Lora Carlson.

The Courtyard’s owners, Chris and Lora Carlson.

The Cellar served unique offerings like a seared bison with thai basil and a coconut red curry sauce and a Tahitian vanilla panna cotta with stewed blueberries, lemon and thyme.

At The Courtyard, owners Lora and Chris lived in California and also traveled extensively before moving back to Alpena.  Prior, on a trip to Italy, Chris realized just how fresh the food is there, with many of the vegetables being grown out back by the restaurants’ families.

The garden is beautifully used and displayed in each of the dishes at The Courtyard.

The garden is beautifully used and displayed in each of the dishes at The Courtyard.

So when Chris and Lora opened The Courtyard, they cultivated a massive garden on property that now provides the majority of the restaurant’s produce.  And it’s really become a community affair, with friends, family members and neighbors joining to help tend the garden.  They use all of the fresh produce they’re able to, and then they can, freeze and preserve the rest to use during the winter months.

Finally at The Fresh Palate, owner Eric Peterson, along with his wife Stacie, lived in Hawaii after also going to culinary school out-of-state.  He decided he wanted to bring fresh, healthy food and more choices to their hometown.

Chef and owner Eric Peterson preparing a fresh meal at his downtown Alpena location of The Fresh Palate.

Chef and owner Eric Peterson preparing a fresh meal at his downtown Alpena location of The Fresh Palate.

I could eat at The Fresh Palate in Alpena everyday, three times a day.

I could eat at The Fresh Palate in Alpena everyday, three times a day.

3. Take a Lighthouse Tour

The Old Presque Lighthouse in Alpena, MI

The Old Presque Lighthouse in Alpena, MI

Lighthouses are magical– people have always had a fascination with them.  Michigan has more lighthouses than any other state in the U.S., some of which are still operational and others which are landmarks.  You can climb up in them and get a view from the top, so if you enjoy being out in nature and  having killer views, a lighthouse tour is definitely something you’d enjoy!

4. Drink Local Brew With Pirates at the Tall Ships Celebration

Hop on to each of these tall ships for a tour!

Hop on to each of these tall ships for a tour!

Each year, Tall Ships sail throughout the Great Lakes, making stops in Duluth, Toronto, Green Bay and Chicago, amongst others.  I went to the Tall Ships Celebration in Bay City, Michigan, and I learned about this entirely new world that exists, where modern-day crews man these massive ships and sleep under deck, some of the ships sailing exclusively in the Great Lakes and others sailing throughout the world.  There was a jovial celebration that followed with handfuls of pirates, lots of freshly brewed beer and lively Celtic music.

Real-life pirates! This made for some rowdy, tall ship kind-of fun.

Real-life pirates! This made for some rowdy, tall ship kind-of fun.

5. Explore Michigan’s Own Little Bavaria in Frankenmuth

Frankenmuth is absolutely picturesque.

Frankenmuth is absolutely picturesque.

If you want to take a trip to Europe but desire to stay closer to home, Frankenmuth, Michigan would be a great place to start.  Known as Michigan’s Little Bavaria, the flower-lined streets and charming shops really do make you feel like you’re in a far, distant place.  Especially, when you see a guy like this walking down the street in a lederhosen.

Just a little Lederhosen fun with Chris of www.captainandclark.com.

Just a little Lederhosen fun with Chris of http://www.captainandclark.com.

Frankemuth is also home to Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland, the WORLD’s largest Christmas store.  Literally– this place covers the space of 1&1/2 football fields.  So if you’re as “in to” holidays as I am, you’ll feel like a kid in a candy store here.

An absolute Christmas wonderland, started by a man named Wally Bronner who is one of Frankenmuth's most cherished persons.

An absolute Christmas wonderland, started by a man named Wally Bronner who is one of Frankenmuth’s most cherished persons.

These are the beautiful things about traveling: hearing peoples’ stories, discovering new places and doing things that you’ve never done before.  I hope wherever you venture to next, you dig into the culture a bit, try some new food, have a few good conversations and carry a spirit of exploration with you everywhere you go.

Carpe Diem.

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My 49th U.S. State: Michigan!

It was 4:30 in the morning when I was jostled out of bed, scooped up into strong arms and placed in the back of a van, on to brown crushed velour seats that had been folded down to make a palette.  I was disoriented and less than pleased, until the sun’s rising coaxed me from my slumber and I felt the whirring of movement below me that helped me recognize where I was:  on the open road.

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The open Texas Highway. Growing up in Texas, you get used to long road trips. On the drive from Houston to San Diego, CA, over half of the drive is spent in the state of Texas!

Growing up, we didn’t take exotic international trips as a family.  In fact, I didn’t leave the country until I was 20 years old, when I went to Europe for the first time and backpacked for a couple of months with friends, none of us really knowing what we were doing—only knowing that we were supposed to be there, having that experience.  A lot of people look at my life now and my love for travel and naturally assume that I must have been taken abroad quite often when I was younger.  I’ve been to over 40 countries at this point, but I’ve only been traveling outside of the U.S. for just about one third of my life.

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A Prague River Cruise, summer of 2002 on my first trip out of the country– I backpacked through 9 countries with friends.  The experience changed my life.  Photo courtesy of Taylor Shepard.

My family did go on great All-American road trips, and those adventures really birthed a sense of exploration and curiosity in my heart for new places, experiences and people.   I have a deep-rooted love for travel within the United States, as we live in a country with an abundance of things to see in terms of landscapes, city dynamics, and cultures.  Going from New Orleans, Louisiana to San Francisco, California requires about the same amount of time and distance as a trip from Lisbon, Portugal to Bucharest, Romania; one of the trips keeps you in the same country for the entire duration and the other itinerary takes you through nine.  My point is this: America is a huge country with so much to explore, so if you want to get started with traveling, the U.S. is a beautiful place to start.

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It’s hard to believe that these routes cover just about the same amount of time and distance!

I didn’t necessarily set out to go to all 50 states by a certain age.  A couple of years ago, I was looking at a map of the United States and just started realizing that I had been to nearly all of them—all but seven, at that time.  Although I’ve eaten a potato in Idaho and been to a cheese-making farm in Wisconsin, it certainly doesn’t mean I’ve ‘seen it all.’  Even at this point, I’ve been in nearly every state in the U.S. but feel as if I’ve barely scratched the surface of the abundance of gems to uncover within our beautiful country.

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The gorgeous flower-lined streets of Frankenmuth, Michigan.

Which, brings me to Michigan.  I had wanted to get to this northern state for a long time now, and it so happens that it falls as my 49th state.  The only one remaining now is Alaska.   There was always a draw in my heart for Michigan—I knew it was on the Great Lakes, which have fascinated me with their size and splendor.  Did you know that Lake Superior is bigger than Great Britain?  I’ve also been curious to visit Michigan because I’ve recently been reading some amazing AFAR highlights about all of the young, vibrant growth occurring there, following the strained years that the state has gone through with our country’s economic difficulties.  I feel inspired by the resilience of the human spirit there and wanted to see and experience it for myself.

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On Michigan’s Lake Huron- the enormity of the Great Lakes is truly breathtaking! This tanker was passing through Lake Huron.

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A quaint bridge in the town of Frankenmuth, Michigan- known as America’s “Little Bavaria.” It is so unbelievably picturesque!

So, I jumped at the opportunity to visit, and what I found is a state that has the friendliness of Texas, the beauty of Northern California and the emerging food scene of Portland.  Michigan is steeped in nature, history and culture.  You don’t have to go to the Cape of Good Hope to find shipwrecks: Thunderhead Bay, for example, has one of the biggest concentration of shipwrecks in the world, with over 45 in a small area of Lake Huron.  Because the lake is extremely clear, you can see the wrecks as clear as day like we did on our glass-bottom boat tour.

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The water in Lake Huron’s Thunderhead Bay is so clear, that you can see straight down to the ship wrecks. This photo was taken by a normal Canon camera, no filter. The water really is this clear!

I had no idea just how integral Michigan has been not only in the auto industry, but in the formation of our country with its logging, mining and shipping.  Michigan helped to build America in to the nation that it is, and I absolutely loved my week there.

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Gorgeous restored cars at the Bay City Motor Company in Bay City, Michigan, a car lover’s dreamland. http://www.thebaycitymotorcompany.com/

Sometimes, when I speak with people who haven’t traveled much (or at all) internationally, they seem to feel a bit badly about it.  I recently met a young man on a plane who was 25 and hadn’t ever been out of the country—circumstances just hadn’t allowed it for him yet, with getting himself through school by working two jobs, getting a job out of college to take care of himself and getting in to the daily grind.  But, he did have the desire—and, that’s where it all starts.

The fields of wildflowers in Alpena, Michigan, while exploring their many Lighthouses built in the 1800's.

The fields of wildflowers in Alpena, Michigan, while exploring their many Lighthouses built in the 1800’s.

Travel isn’t just about the places you have- or, haven’t- been to.  It’s about having a curiosity for life and a thirst to go to new places and be in foreign environments because they expand your horizons and stretch you as a person.

The Tall Ships Celebration in Bay City, Michigan--it was quite incredible to be a part of!

The Tall Ships Celebration in Bay City, Michigan–it was quite incredible to be a part of!

This is one of the reasons I adore traveling: it shifts your perspectives as a human.  When you talk to people who are different from you, it opens you up as a person and helps you to realize that we’re really just all in this thing called ‘life’ together.

In the June/July 2013 issue of AFAR Magazine, AFAR’s founder Greg Sullivan, says:

“…. It surprised me when I told a friend about a trip I’m planning to Redwood National Park this summer and she said, ‘That doesn’t sound very AFAR.’  I realize there is a far in AFAR, and we do cover a lot of international destinations, but AFAR is not about the distance you travel.  It’s about curiosity.  It’s about exploring and taking it all in.  It’s that spirit my mom instilled in me by showing us so many sides of our country.  It’s a mind-set you carry with you when you walk out your front door.  You might have slept at a beautiful hotel, in a sleeping bag under the stars, or in your own bed.  It doesn’t matter.  There are no rules….”

He is absolutely right.  We’re all on our own journey.  My encouragement to you is to do something that stretches you and takes you out of your version of normal for a time.  For you, that could mean traveling to a new state, or even to a place within your own state that you’ve never experienced and have always wanted to go to.  Or, it possibly could mean getting a passport for the first time, leaving the country and going to explore a place that you’ve wanted to discover since you were fifteen years old.

Kayaking in Thunder Bay  Marine Sanctuary in Alpena, Michigan.  Traveling and having a curiosity for life could also mean picking up a new activity or hobby!

Kayaking in Thunder Bay Marine Sanctuary in Alpena, Michigan. Traveling and having a curiosity for life could also mean picking up a new activity or hobby!

It doesn’t matter — there are no rules to this thing.  The only thing that counts is that you’re living.  Life is short.  Really, really short.  Collect experiences over things and start pushing yourself to new limits.  When you reach the end of your life, you’ll be thankful that you actually went out and did the things that you wanted to do instead of deferring them for a later time.

Carpe Diem.

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Will I Ever ‘Settle Down’? Thoughts From a Traveler on This Curious Topic.

“So kid, when are you finally going to settle down?,” my nearly 92 year old grandmother asks me today at our family reunion in Wausau, Wisconsin.

She puts her thin, wrinkled but ever-elegant hand on my shoulder, staring intently into my eyes with her crystal blues.

“I want to meet your children before I die, you know.”

We sit for a few long seconds.

“Grandma, I know you do.  I also want you to.  It just….. well, it just hasn’t happened yet.  And it’s going to take a heck of a lot to capture my attention, you know that.  I’m really happy in my life and in what I’m creating right now.”

She doesn’t look amused.

“Listen,” I say playfully.  “You’re going to live until you’re at least 100, so that means I’ve got 8 years …. deal?”

She scoffs under her breath, and with a slight one-sided grin, replies in her Wisconsin-turned-Texas accent, “yeah right.”

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Me and my grandmother, Flo- short for Florence. She’s 60 years my senior and one of the coolest women I know.

Perhaps the scoffing is a result of my sweet (and rather sassy) grandmother not thinking she’ll be around to make it on the Smuckers jar for the Today Show’s Centurion Club.  Or, maybe she doubts that I’ll actually be ‘settled down’ in the coming 8 years. 

Either way, our heart-to-heart inspired me to give some thought today about the phrase ‘settling down’ and to explore what it even means, especially for a traveler like myself who has sometimes been referred to as a vagabond or a nomad….terms defined as ‘one who has ‘no settled home’ or a ‘wanderer.’ 

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My recent trip to Firenze, Italy on the Ponte Vecchio at sunset.

There is fear around this phrase for many, and while typically the male species tends to have more of a knee-jerk reaction when asked about settling down—when, how, with whom, where, etc. etc. etc. … I know there are many females (myself clearly included) who are confronting this societal question on a regular basis, both in conversations with others and frequently in our own minds.

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Luckily, settling down doesn’t mean not traveling.  If it did, I wouldn’t ever do it!

 The true definition of settling down, versus the one based on societal norms, centers around meanings like, but not limited to:

– To put into order; arrange or fix definitely as desired (emphasis mine)
– To restore calmness or comfort to (I like the sound of this!)
– To come to rest

The Urban Dictionary, on the other hand, defines ‘settling down’ in a much less desirable light:

“It means to get married or commit to a monogamous relationship; probably the two most indicative words for the situation itself, born of a word that can mean “to move downward; sink, or descend,” “to subdue,” and “to conclude,” and a word that means the “opposite of up.”

I don’t know about you, but I don’t really want to sink, descend, be subdued or be going in a downward direction.  No, thank you.

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Flying over the beaches of Rio de Janeiro, December 2012.

Traditionally, travelers like myself get a twitch in their right eye when asked this question because it oftentimes means (or is perceived to mean):

– When are you going to stop traveling, find someone to marry….. and, for females, start popping out babies?
– When will you start trading in trips to Morocco, Thailand and Bhutan for family vacations to Disneyworld?
– When will you get a real job? (Whatever that really means in this day and age)
– When will you swap your nomadic suitcase-trekking lifestyle or your downtown city apartment for a house in the ‘burbs on a cul-de-sac?

Of course, all of the above mentioned are totally fine!  If there’s anything I’ve learned in life, it’s that most things cannot be defined by a measurement of good versus bad or right versus wrong.  Things are as they are, and we each live our lives based upon the choices we make.  I know many people who live in a house in the ‘burbs, who have popped out several babies before the age of 30, who have a 9-5 that they don’t love but don’t hate …. and, who are completely happy and content in their lives.  And, I think that is wonderful for them. 

On the flip side, I live in a tiny 1-bedroom apartment in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan.  There is a gay strip club on the corner of my block called Rawhide with black leather curtains at the entrance.  I carry my North Face backpack around instead of a child at this point in my life, and I’m away from my apartment more than I’m home.  I don’t have a dream home decorated like a Pottery Barn show room.  Instead, my home is filled with furniture from IKEA and Craigs List and furnished with a wall-sized map of the world (also from IKEA, naturally).

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I used to be much more socially ‘settled’- my former home in Dallas, Texas, back in 2005.

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My current home in NYC–  simple and cozy.

I am living out the life that I have designed, so in my mind, I am settled—I have, as the above definition describes, arranged my life as desired. 

For me, this means seeing as much of this beautiful world that we live in while we have such a short time on this earth.  It means investing into relationships and being the best friend, sister, daughter and aunt that I can be.  It means taking every opportunity in life that I have to explore or try something new.  My definition of living full-out means investing my time and my life into experiences instead of possessions and having an attitude of curiosity and wonder in how I approach each day.

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Riding a sidecar through Lisbon, Portugal’s narrow cobble-stoned streets.

So this leaves the ever-obvious, lingering question about settling down that my grandmother, and countless others, continually ask me…. “Will I settle down?” 

That answer (without re-hashing what I just covered) is … we’ll see what life holds.

I am continually learning to open my hands and not clench so tightly to ideas of what my life will, or should, become.  Instead of focusing on imaginary, social timelines, I am doing my best to just focus on living

As I challenge myself to push back on certain societal norms and to live out my own personal journey, I urge you to do the same– with whatever that means, for you.  This isn’t an issue of having – or not having — a white picket fence and 2.5 children.  It’s about embracing your own life path and making choices that support a deep sense of purpose.  When you do that, no matter what your life looks like externally, you will be living out your own personal calling, and nothing can be more fulfilling.

Carpe Diem.

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Iceland, May 2010

Iceland, May 2010

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MINI International Meeting 2013: Mugello, Italy

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I knew that I was in for a good time when I decided to head to Italy for the MINI International Meeting being held in Mugello, Tuscany. MINI’s are the most fun, playful cars on the road, and let’s be honest: anything taking place in Tuscany is going to be off the charts experience-wise. With the emerald Tuscan hills and deep forest green Cypress trees set as the backdrop, the location for IMM 2013 was breathtaking.

As several thousand classic and current MINI owners paraded in through the hills of Mugello for 72 hours of community, the energy was electric. Windows and tops were down, the Tuscan sun was shining, music was blaring and everyone was smiling. Each car bore its European license plate or a flag showing where it came from– many owners drove thousands of kilometers and camped out for days to be a part of this.

With such a rich history and a spirit of independence and spontaneity, this was far more than a ‘car club’– it was an extended family of people who love life. An attitude of openness and adventure filled the place, and it made me really want to buy my own MINI and join the fam! I think I’d go for this one in hot pink.

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Driving to the International MINI Meeting with our fun classic convoy!

Driving to the International MINI Meeting with our fun classic convoy!

Today, I encourage you to step in to life in a new way and do something you’ve always wanted to do: plan a cross-country road trip with friends or go to a music festival or a sporting event you’ve always wanted to attend. Check something fun off your life list. It can be a big dream, like going to the 2014 World Cup held in Rio de Janeiro. Or you can start on a smaller scale and join a local club or group to do something you’ve been wanting to do for a long time now, like running a triathlon. Whatever it is, I challenge you to start now– to live full out and to invest your time and energy into having experiences in this life. Life is short! The experiences we have are truly the only things we can take with us, so get out there and do something uncharted.

Carpe Diem.

Tuckered after a day in the sunshine at the festival, with the Mr. Bean bear... the Mr. Bean MINI made an appearance!

Tuckered after a day in the sunshine at the festival, with the Mr. Bean bear… the Mr. Bean MINI made an appearance!

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Get Your Motor Running…..My European MINI Road Trip!

My MINI Roadster for the next few days..

My MINI Roadster for the next few days..

I arrive in to Munich after a long night of travel, greeted by a handsome young man working for MINI Cooper named Andy, who loads my bags into a brand new MINI Countryman.  I always intend to sleep on international flights, especially when I’m so fortunate to have a lie-down bed in business class.  But there are always good distractions, and on this particular flight they came in the form of bottomless champagne and Les Miserables.

BMW Welt, Munich

BMW Welt, Munich

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We go straight to BMW Welt (World in German), and it is truly a world of its own.  An architectural feat of massive proportions, BMW Welt is the center of BMW and receives more visits yearly than Germany’s famed Neuschwanstein Castle.  Here, you can peruse the current and future innovations of BMW, MINI Cooper and Rolls Royce.  I take a tour of the mother ship, along with the BMW Museum across the street, showing the rich history of BMW throughout the years.

At the BMW Museum, across the street

At the BMW Museum, across the street

I’ve always wanted a MINI, and that desire is off the charts now.  I meet my MINI Roadster that I’ll be driving (well, riding in—more on that, later) over the next 2 days, and it’s love at first sight.  This car is the adult-style combo of the three cars that were my ‘dream cars’ as a sixteen year old: it has the cool factor of a Mustang, the ‘beach chic’ and adventurous nature of a Jeep Wrangler soft top and the playfulness of a Cabriolet.  I can’t believe I’ll get to cruise in this beauty throughout Europe over the next few days.

Me and my MINI Roadster-- LOVE this car!!

Me and my MINI Roadster– LOVE this car!!

After an authentic German dinner at Munich’s Landersdorfer & Innerhofer and a good night’s sleep, we head back to BMW Welt the next morning to pick up our cars and embark on our European MINI Road Trip.  With a few other journalists, I decide to start off in the passenger’s seat, as I had only learned how to drive a manual transmission 5 days prior.  I don’t mind- it just means more opportunity to enjoy the gorgeous landscape as we drive through Europe.

Dinner at Landersdorder & Innerhofer

Dinner at Landersdorder & Innerhofer

Top down and the wind whipping through my hair, we cruise through Germany’s lush countryside, the vibrant shades of greens and yellows passing us by as we rock out to Justin Timberlake’s new album.

Absolutely love cruising in a convertible... especially on the Autobahn!

Absolutely love cruising in a convertible… especially on the Autobahn!

I realize this is the first time I’ve ever taken a road trip in Europe: all of my other transportation has been via Europe’s efficient train system.  Cruising in a MINI convertible through Germany, Austria and Italy provides an entirely different experience—one that I would highly, highly recommend.  There is a sense of freedom that comes with having your own set of wheels.  I have always been a bit apprehensive about the thought of driving in a foreign country, with the road signs in a foreign language, different driving rules and super-highways like the Autobahn.  After this experience, I’ll surely do it again: with the navigation system and pick-up that our little MINI has, getting around is super easy and you see so much more of the countryside than when on a train.

We parked for a minute along the route to enjoy the incredible view...

We parked for a minute along the route to enjoy the incredible view…

Of course you can rent a MINI, but the option to design your own from top to bottom and pick it up in Europe, is really an incredible one that I would recommend looking in to when you’re in the market for a new car.  You can pick up your MINI from BMW Welt, drive it around Europe and ship it back to the U.S. as a ‘used car,’ which changes the taxes on the vehicle and pretty much gives you a European road trip at no expense.  Not too bad!

Getting these kinds of views is what makes taking a European road trip really worth it-- and, having the freedom to stop off at incredible places along the way.

Getting these kinds of views is what makes taking a European road trip really worth it– and, having the freedom to stop off at incredible places along the way.

We drive on and land at Italy’s exquisite Lake Garda for lunch at Costa D’Oro.  The beauty of this place is indescribable: it is pure perfection.  After putting the top up on my new set of wheels, I stroll through a tunnel of Cyprus trees that leads up to this elegant Italian villa that is right on the water.  Through a bricked arch, I see people clinking glasses of sparkling white as they sit overlooking the emerald water, enjoying the beauty of this place.  Boats lazily meander up and park along the restaurant’s outdoor seating, the waves of Lake Garda gently lapping up and birds singing their chansons in the sunshine.

The row of Cyprus trees leading up to Lake Garda

The row of Cyprus trees leading up to Lake Garda

Breathtaking view

Breathtaking view

Lake Garda's Ristorante Costa D'Oro

Lake Garda’s Ristorante Costa D’Oro

We head in to the Villa, a comfortably elegant space that makes me feel like I’m in some distant Italian relative’s country home.  Her really, really nice lakeside country home.  I daydream for a minute about living here.  Maybe I do have an Italian relative linked to this place??  After all my last name really is Casteluccio?? ….

Feeling perhaps a bit too at home at Lake Garda....

Feeling perhaps a bit too at home at Lake Garda….

My wandering thoughts are interrupted by mozzerella.  Bowls and bowls of fresh, milky mozzerella balls.  I love Eataly in New York City—but this is the real thing.  The spread set before us is a colorful tapestry of deep green arugula, warm red and yellow olive oil-soaked peppers, golden pastas and aubergine eggplant. I don’t know where to start.

The food at Costa D'Oro was as exquisite as the view!

The food at Costa D’Oro was as exquisite as the view!

I sit by the window, listening to the soothing sounds of the water, drinking an Aperol Fizz and reveling in each and every bite of the Tuscan feast on my plate.

One of the many desserts we had to choose from...

One of the many desserts we had to choose from…

When lunch ends, we hop back in our MINI’s and hit the road.  300 km until we reach our resort in Mugello, a small town just outside of Florence (Firenze), where the MINI International Meeting is being held.

Our caravan of MINI’s makes me feel like I’m on an exciting adventure amongst friends.  We wind through the mountains and twisting roads of Italy, and I stick my arms up roller-coaster style, as if to say, I am all in—in life, in this moment, in this amazing experience.

Through the beautiful Italian countryside...

Through the beautiful Italian countryside…

We pull over to a roadside stop to take in the view and to get me behind the wheel.  Lets just say that my driving skills still need some work.  I had done extremely well in my driving lesson the week prior with my friend George’s mustang, an American ‘muscle car,’ so I thought I’d have this in the bag.  Perhaps it was nerves – or maybe it was just the mozzarella and strawberry tart lingering happily in my stomach—but after stalling out 5 times in a row, we all agree that I’m not quite ready to hit the European highways.  I don’t mind- the thirst to learn how to drive a manual transmission has begun, and I’m happy to be a passenger on this incredible experience.

We make it safely and happily to Mugello that evening, and I enjoy more pasta, bread and custard dessert before happily walking upstairs and drawing a warm bath.  Tomorrow will be a big day, with around 4,000 classic MINI’s at the International MINI Meetup.  Plus, I want to start the day with a run through the Italian countryside.  Not a bad life at all…..

Carpe Diem.

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