When people ask how a nice Mormon girl from a small, conservative college town ended up in New York City, I tell them it was by way of the Western Sahara, a desert wedding and a white camel. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I was trained for a life of adventure. Conceived in a well-traveled uterus (my parents had spent a grueling 12 months traveling the globe the year prior), I had been to 32 countries and visited every one of the United States except Alaska by the time I was 12. I celebrated my third birthday crying over a lost sweater on a Norwegian fjord. My fourth, waiting patiently in our VW camper for my father to be released from a Mexican jail. My fifth, eating couscous from the henna-ed hands of bejeweled women at a Berber wedding in Morocco and begging my parents to let me bring home a very sweet, very tiny white camel. And the year I turned 18, I furtively exchanged blue jeans for Soviet bezdelushki behind the 3,000-room Hotel Rossiya and danced with abandon on a rather precarious table at a military base in Moscow.
To be adventurous, of course, is relative. To one, it could mean leaping out of a plane at 18,000 feet AGL, and to another, it might mean ordering something other than pasta Pomodoro at a favorite Italian joint. It could mean anything from scaling El Cap to trying a new hair color. My brand of adventure is somewhere in between — decidedly more fearless than fearful but far from foolhardy. If you are looking for kidnapping, gun running or OITNB-style drug smuggling, my exploits will surely disappoint. Almost always PG-13 and very rarely death defying, I prefer happy accident to harrowing ordeal and confidence-building to catastrophic. More colorful than calamitous, the experiences of my first 25 years made the next 25 inevitable. My travel-filled childhood gave me a pair of adventure-colored glasses, through which I could see beyond my parochial provenance straight to the center of the universe that I would one day call home.
I celebrated my third birthday crying over a lost sweater on a Norwegian fjord. My fourth, waiting patiently in our VW camper for my father to be released from a Mexican jail.
A highly pragmatic child, I took my parents’ globetrotting in stride, managing to hablar my way through a year of kindergarten in Madrid, earning the coveted title of responsable in my Parisian third grade class and enduring the humiliation of having to use a Tube pass issued to Master Robin Marshall for my commute from Notting Hill Gate to Sir William Collins Secondary School each day in London. (My timely but unfortunate version of a “Lady Di” haircut did not help matters.) In 1976, with a brown-haired baby in a stroller and two blond girls in tow, my mother was approached by a stranger on the streets of Paris who explained (with much hand-gesturing and many overly-emphasized words) that she was a casting director seeking models for a catalog shoot. To this day, I can’t quite get my mother to explain why she took her 8- and 5-year-old daughters to be photographed in matching underwear by a chain-smoking photographer in a foreign country. Nevertheless, several of these episodes ensued — most for various “back-to-school” outfits and none as creepy as the first. And the fact that we did eventually receive the tear sheets from the published catalogs makes me feel a bit better.
I returned to my small town halfway through third grade with some extra cash in my bank account and several pairs of gauchos (or culottes, depending on who you asked) — all the rage in Paris but sadly not yet de rigeur in the Rocky Mountain region. Like a military brat, I got used to picking up partway through the school year and plopping down somewhere new. Leaving good friends behind is always sad, but making new ones gets easier with practice.
Fresh out of high school, I left for a semester abroad in London, spending six months dancing at the Hippodrome and the Limelight; sneaking into concerts at the Hammersmith Odeon (most memorable line-up: Run DMC, Whodini, Grand Master Flash, LL Cool J + The Beastie Boys); screaming “Free Man-DEL-a!” next to safety-pin and plaid-clad lads and lasses at a series of anti-apartheid rallies (the one in Clapham with Billy Bragg and Boy George was particularly spectacular) and, oh yes, studying. The month we spent on a Eurail pass — with homemade hostel sheets stuffed in our backpacks — included one friend losing her passport in Amsterdam (not found; we left her behind at U.S. Consulate to sort that out), another losing her retainer at a McDonalds in Zurich (found; we dug through a dozen bags of revolting fast food trash to avoid her mother’s wrath) and a last loaf of bread ripped out of my sister’s hands as we prepared to eat the only meal we had enough Italian lira to buy before hopping a night train to Paris. With currency exchanges closed and no credit cards of our own, it was a very long and very hungry ride.
Eager to complete my French minor more quickly, I signed up for an internship in Belgium the following summer. Placed in a small town south of Brussels, I lived with a local family and stocked shelves at Delhaize, a supermarket frequented by local villagers. Each evening over the PA, to the delight of my co-workers, I would boldly announce: “Mesdames et Messieurs, l’heure de fermeture est presque arrivé! Prenez vos achats au caissier…” Every now and then, a U.S. military family stationed at nearby SHAPE would stop in, and my French-speaking colleagues would usher me over to assist them. “Your English is sooo good!” they would exclaim. Smiling coyly, I would always respond, “Mais, merci! I’ve been practicing for a long time.”
At 21, I embarked on another three-week whirlwind tour of Europe, which ended up being least favorite adventure for reasons I will not go into here. My appetite temporarily spoiled from that experience and my circumstances constrained, I took an unintentional hiatus from traveling post-college. As an entry-level-salaried retail employee, cash was tight and vacation limited. I dutifully used each of my two weeks per year to visit my family, but, between making schedules and assisting clients, I schemed and dreamed of adventure. The alchemy of a lifetime of travel had made me ferrous, and New York City was the magnetic force. I simply knew I had to live there. Though I flirted briefly with Gotham at 24, my pragmatism (and love for California sunshine) won out. But five years later, I got a call that a position I coveted was open. I didn’t even blink. I just packed my bags and hurtled toward my destiny.
To me, New York was (and is) everything. It is the entire world represented in five boroughs. From the moment I landed at JFK, whisked away by a kindly middle-aged female taxi driver who advised me not to entertain offers of employment at Stringfellows and the like, I felt like Marlo Thomas, Mary Tyler Moore and Mary Cantwell combined. Every day was an adventure — no passport required. Every subway ride offered an array of humans so unlike each other. Every street a new sight, sound and smell. (OK, maybe the smells are not so great.) Living in this magical city at once slaked my thirst for adventure but also made me want to explore the world again. Within a few years, I had supplemented my city thrills with several empowering expat excursions. I traveled solo through Thailand, staying in $12-per-night guest houses and riding a scooter though the bustling streets of Chiang Mai; met up with another intrepid friend in India to ride through Rajastan in the backseat of a very suspect Citroen; and grabbed a last-minute fare to Tokyo so a friend could see Cheap Trick play live at Budokan. For a brief time, the Venn diagram of a decent amount of vacation, a little disposable income and no familial responsibilities aligned, and I’m so grateful that I had the good sense to take advantage of it.
Now, as my métier, marriage and motherhood (plus middle age) all conspire to keep me stateside, I’m considerably less footloose and hardly ever fancy-free. Largely, my feats skew more mental than physical these days — navigating the absurd and patience-testing New York City middle school process for one; juggling work, family and the desire to see any and every live performance for another. And while in the naivety of youth I may have leaned slightly more toward precocious, I have always been grounded by a pragmatism that increases with each passing year. As with retirement funds, one’s tolerance for risk tends to decline with age and experience. (At one point, the idea skydiving held great appeal, but now — though I know the odds are in my favor — I find it difficult to wager an orphaned child on a 90-second thrill.)
Fortunately, adventure isn’t always an overseas excursion as much as a state of mind. It’s being open to experiencing small, serendipitous moments. To encountering new places, people and ideas. Choosing bravery, courage and confidence in the face of the unknown. I’ve been lucky to have a job that has taken me to Russia, Korea, Japan, Germany and Italy (as well as Denver, Des Moines and other domestic locations). And we’ve managed to put a few stamps on my son’s passport: London (twice), Paris, Rome, Venice and several Caribbean beach vacations (which suddenly became super appealing now that we’re so old and tired and February in New York is so miserable). But now when we travel, the worldwide web and a slew of nifty apps have taken the place of my battered Frommer’s and dog-eared editions of Let’s Go or Lonely Planet. It’s a different kind of adventure, considerably more comfortable and well planned than before, but equally enthralling as I see the world through the eyes of my child. And while I’ve adjusted the ratio from time to time, I find the best mix for my adventure cocktail to be one-part risk to three-parts reward with a splash of je ne sais quois — just to keep things interesting. But whether at home or abroad, it is the spirit of adventure that matters more than the physical destination. The experiences we are open to that outweigh external excursions. And the memories we hold rather than the souvenirs we bring back.
Though, 43 years later, I’m still convinced that I could have found a way to smuggle that sweet baby camel home with me.
(Image: Isabella Giancarlo)