“One July morning, as the sun slants prettily and the birds sing in praise of it, while the deer rustle and forage among the wild roses in the field next door to my small bungalow in the North Carolina mountains, a small soft breeze comes to me carrying a message. There is no whispered voice that brings me the news. It is not a message with words.
Rather, it swirls at the nape of my neck, lands on my skin and moves the pale hairs on my arms. It stirs my spirit the way wind ripples the surface of water.
It is an announcement affirming what I already know, what I’ve known for a while: it is time for me to get up and be on my way.”
– Rebecca Gummere, Chasing Light
ARTISTIC ALLEGORY | LE MOT JUSTE
One summer morning, award-winning Essayist, Traveler and Professional Wonderer, Rebecca Gummere, decided to buy an RV, rent her house out and travel for a year around the US by herself. Yes, she did it and she has some lessons for us all in the following interview.
T: Thank you so much for sitting down with me and having a conversation about your incredible adventure.
R: Well, thank you for the invitation.
T: I am here with Rebecca award-winning Essayist, Traveler and Professional Wonderer and today we’re going to talk about an incredible journey that Rebecca has had and has documented in a blog and a soon to be memoir called Chasing Light. Also, full disclosure Rebecca is my Aunt.
R: Lucky me!
T: Aw. Thanks. So Rebecca, the first question: Your blog got its name from your extraordinary journey, when you drove across the United States. Did you start out, specifically with the goal, to find enlightenment with this journey or was there some other reason and then what was the impetus for the trip? What started you on that path?
R: I think to set out and find enlightenment is a loftier goal than I would have been wise enough to think about. The impetus, I’ll start with that question because, the impetus was just feeling a lot of darkness in my life. I had lost both parents and I had worked for seven years for our county’s domestic violence rape crisis agency which was work I was honored to do and also, was just really hard and often disheartening. Then, before that I had served for 14 years as an ordained pastor and just had come to a point where I was really struggling in my own faith. And I just got to a point where I felt like I needed light and I say that with two different meetings. I guess I felt heavy and burdened down. All of a sudden. I got to the point where I just felt like I had too much stuff (I don’t remember if this was before or after Marie Kondo, I read part of her book and did not really take to her practices), but I do remember just thinking how nice it would be not to be in charge of so much stuff.
And so from that standpoint, just feeling like I wanted to be unburdened of a lot–of the weight, of a lot of accumulated sadness, of belongings that I really realized I no longer needed. I don’t need to live like that anymore. You know things from what I now call, “my other lives” and now to be living in rural mountains of North Carolina, in a bungalow about 900 square feet and living alone and thinking I really don’t need twelve place settings of china. I really don’t need all the all the accoutrements that I had moved from place to place (feeling like I had to) and that’s one of the points in time, at least for me, where I think, “well now my stuff owns me” and I’m paying to house it and paying to move it, but I don’t really use it and I don’t really need it and maybe somebody else could.
Also, just having this fire lit inside of me saying, “I need to just get out of town. I need to just get up and go.” So, I guess there was an internal restlessness that probably has to do with all the transitions that come from being in my 60s and having parents die and heading into the next phase or stage of my life. So, yeah, there were a lot of things pushing me. Just the idea of going west, that idea of adventure and needing to see new things. So, the pull and, really, all I knew, at the time I left, was that my life felt heavy and dark and I wanted light. So, that’s really what I set out to just discover. What I might discover.
T: Such a beautiful way to start a trip. Did you have any fear or concerns around traveling?
R: Constant, at the beginning, yes. I’d done all these things. I really committed. I sort of leapt, before I looked. Because I just… I mean, it was that compelling. I rented my house out before I really knew for sure how I was going to travel, what I was going to travel in. I started giving away my stuff. I mean, I was on a first name basis with the thrift shops, because they’d say, “Oh here she comes again. Another carload.” Honestly, I bet other people will say this too, but once you start that process, it sort of becomes addictive and takes on a life of its own.
I got very aggressive in my giving away and then after I’d done all those things, I found the RV that I was looking for. But all along the way, I kept thinking–there was sort of the heart, then the movement and then there was the head. The heart and the gut were just full speed ahead, “Let’s leave tomorrow!” And the head was saying, “Hold on now. Are you sure? Do you know what you’re doing? Are you making a mistake?” You know, that second guessing that, I think, we all do. Those big decisions happen. When I finally moved out of my house and into my 19 foot van, with my two big dogs, I stayed pretty close to home for the first three months. I camped around our little mountain town, in part to sort of test myself out, to see if this wild idea was how I’d romanticized it, and if I’d made a mistake, then I had given myself permission to just sell the vehicle and figure out the next thing. I loved it and I think the first night that I spent in a campground (I mean it was remote and I was waiting for Sasquatch to come out of the woods) I was on a little mountaintop in this little campground and there were maybe two or three other vehicles way far away. I remember that first night, thinking this is the first time I’ve felt normal in I can’t remember when. Just to sleep in this small little cocooned space. It just felt so freeing.
So, I took a couple of short range trips, up to see a friend in Indiana and down to see a friend in the Florida Panhandle, just to see what it was like to drive in the RV and travel in it and get away from this sort of sphere of safety. Both of my adult kids and my son-in-law live here and so it felt like if anything went wrong they were right here to bail me out–haha, their turn. I remember when I really set out, like I was leaving everything familiar behind. And it was when I knew I was not coming back.
I was heading west and I wasn’t coming back for the next eight or nine months and that was when I was leaving the Florida Panhandle and heading to Louisiana and then on to Texas. It just felt like I was crossing this threshold, which I really was, where I was really scared. I remember driving that day and thinking, “Can I do this?” So, I made a deal with myself that day: “You can turn around anytime you want. But, how about if you just go to this next place? Because, you know you want to see what’s there.”
So, by the time I’d done that a couple of times, I was so hooked on the adventure and just seeing the new things and meeting new people, that I lost that fear pretty quickly.
T: Well, it sounds like, from what you’ve said so far, you were always having a conversation with your head and with your heart. The heart was the one that looked before it leapt and started renting your house out and started giving your belongings away and then your head was the one that said, “Let’s just test this out” and then, your heart came along and said, “Okay we’re still going on this adventure.” Did you constantly keep that going? Did anything change about that conversation, as you went on your journey? As you crossed it, well, you crossed many thresholds, but that one threshold you just mentioned where you actually embarked on a journey without your family close by and with somewhat of a plan. What did that conversation change that you’d been having? Or did it change at all? You sort of made a bargain, it sounds like, with your head, where you said, “At any point, you can turn around here if you get too scared. Well my heart got what it wanted and the head…it sounds like you had this constant negotiation.
R: Yes. That’s a good question and I don’t know if anything changed. I think we got better at conversing. So, there’s a difference, I think, between fear and anxiety. I will say that there were moments when I had plenty of anxiety along the trip, that had to do with, “What’s this next part going to be like that I don’t know about? Can I manage this? This next part: where I’m going? This campground I’ve read about. Here are some of the questions people have had. How will I deal with them? I do think there were times when I can remember my heart, my gut, saying to my head, “Okay. Just trust this next part.”
So you know, people have asked me if I had bad experiences along the way or if I was afraid for my safety at any time, being a woman traveling alone, and I really wasn’t. There was only one time that I left a campground a day early, because I felt like…there were some people staying and they were right next to me at the RV park. It was kind of a small–family owned park. They were drinking a lot. The family was fighting with each other and one of the guys was parading around in a jacket that was the Confederate flag. They would wake up early in the morning and start their cursing and shouting and having worked at an agency that dealt with domestic violence, I really understood the concept of escalation. So, I felt like this family’s arguments were escalating and there was again a lot of alcohol and a lot of…who knew if they brought guns, right?
So, I went and talked with the campground managers and they admitted and said, “Well, we didn’t want to let them stay. But then, we relented.” They were concerned initially and I said, “I’m concerned about the escalation that’s happening and do you know if they have firearms?” Well, then I think after that I became sort of a problem complainer. Now, they were like, “Well, everybody has a right to be here,” kind of thing. So I didn’t feel safe. My gut told me I didn’t like how things were going with that group and nobody was going to hold them accountable or ask them to leave and, so, I did [leave].
Then there was one other time where I stayed overnight in a Wal-Mart parking lot, in Montana. There was an interesting mix of people that night, but I did have somebody approach me. It was during the day and I think they were going to ask for money, but my dogs immediately were kind of on guard and they barked and he said, “Oh, never mind. Here’s a flower. Have a nice day.” I didn’t feel vulnerable or afraid, because my dogs were right there and they were like, “Oh, I don’t think so.” I’ve had people say, “Did you have a gun. Did you have an air horn.” I’ve heard people travel. Women travel with their horns.” No, but I did have these two big dogs and there were times, if I was staying at a state park campground at night, I’d have to go to the restroom, I’d take the boys with me. So, I felt pretty secure.
Oddly enough I didn’t expect that.
T: What is the most unexpected takeaway or occurrence that happened? I guess, before we talk about the takeaway, let’s talk about the most unexpected thing that happened.
R: Honestly, that happened on a weekly basis. I really have to think about that.
T: What’s interesting about your answer, is that, maybe, it’s about getting comfortable with the unexpected. So many of us get comfortable with our routine and what we do and who were around. What you did was completely up ended that. My question is less about safety. Of course, that issue is definitely important. But, once you put that aside, it sounds like you really took care of yourself with having your dogs there.
My next thought is, what happens in that place of freedom and safety. You could go anywhere you wanted. Which, is both positive and negative. I’m sure you had a lot of discovery around that and maybe you can talk a little bit about what that discovery was like and what you came away with. Now, you’re two years out. You’ve had some time to settle and look back and you’ve been writing about this experience. You blogged about it throughout the whole process and that experience is on your, Chasing Lightblog, right?
T: Okay, we will have a link to that and you’re creating a memoir, as well, about your travels. Was there anything surprising about chasing your light? First of all, it’s not like you embarked and said I’m going to go chase some light…
R: Yes, and find “x, y, z…”
T: I do I do remember having conversations with you along the way.
T: Like the dawn the sun comes up. It’s a gradual realization that that’s really what you were looking for. Is there anything past that that you said, now that you have two years on this trip, that you could talk about.
R: Yes. Well, initially, I felt in a lot of ways, that at the core of this search was this lost faith. To serve for 14 years as a pastor and have lived, really, inside faith communities and walked with people and their faith journeys and my own faith journey–to feel like that just disappeared, was pretty devastating. And so, there were moments where, I thought, “You know, I’m seeking the divine again. It’s funny because you’re talking about the sun rising, but in a way, I was heading west toward the sun setting. There were moments when I thought, “I’ll just keep chasing the setting sun.” The other thing is, the fact of aging and when people have asked about the book, I say, “Well it’s a coming of age, but it’s a coming of this age.” Like, it’s me in this next phase and a lot of us baby boomers, it’s like, “Okay, what’s this next part of my life going to look like?” I think one of the surprises was, I didn’t know I would take to it so well and that I would love it so much. Every time I’d get on the highway and head to the next place, my heart would just soar.
I love this so much. And what a privilege to be able to do it. That was not lost on me, for a moment. And that’s not to say, there weren’t times…you know, because I would call you. You were on my–one of four people, I’d rotate around when I was just feeling overwhelmed, when I was tired, because it was fatiguing to do it by myself–the mental capacity required of planning for where was I going go next. How was I going to get there and all of those things–I did get tired.
But, to realize that I was chasing my own light–that was a discovery. I might have been around Northern California or Portland, when I discovered that. That I thought that I was chasing this spark of the divine, that was ahead of me or some place I’d discover. There were many times when I believe I did step into that place of “There you are! There’s the spark!” But really, what I’d lost was my own light and not just lost, but maybe given away too much of it–allowed too much of my own light to dissipate. And so–I won’t give away too much, but there was a real turning point for me in Mount Shasta, California on the summer solstice. That was another interesting threshold and I’m writing a new chapter about that, right now.
T: Well good. I can’t wait to read it! I can’t wait for other people to read it and tell other people about it, too!. One thing I want to recognize you for, are the tremendous challenges you faced, along the way. I mean, not only were you constantly pushing and battling the limits of your RV Roadcinante…
R: …Roadcinante. Noble Beast.
T: You named her and she did so well for you. I was there having conversations with you along the way. Happy to hear you check in.
R: You got to travel in her.
T: I did. You’re right. My daughter and I spent the night with Rebecca in Santa Barbara. So fun to be a part of that experience. The nice thing about that was, then I was able to really imagine when you talked to me about your journey and what was going on with you. There were some wildfires that ended up making it necessary to change your course. And the weather was a challenge, too.
R: Triple digits.
T: Your journey of pushing up against, testing the limits and then moving through these tremendous challenges is commendable. I want to acknowledge you for that. And now that you’re through that you’re able to look back and see that you accomplished something that took tremendous courage and bravery.
What advice do you have for people who are facing an unknown. People who have set on a course, but they’re facing some kind of unknown, in their lives, and they are concerned about bumping up against obstacles. Not only did you bump up against things, you managed to get through them.
R: Yes. I think a lot of this journey, for me also was, I wanted to know what I was made of. I wanted to know if I could do it. So I think, somewhere, I knew I was or I wouldn’t have done it. So I guess, trust that you are stronger than you know and that you have more resources than you know. You’re resourceful and resilient. And then, a big part of my journey’s challenge was loneliness and the things that I didn’t know how to do by myself.
Ask for help. Just because I did a solo journey, didn’t mean I couldn’t ask for help. There were no rules around that. So, I was grateful for the times when I could pick up the phone and just say, “Okay, I need you to brainstorm with me. I have this issue about where I’m going next. What do you think?” I have one friend I called. I think I was pretty despairing and feeling fatigued, at the time, and she said, “Honey, you have set up an ambitious pace.”
I hadn’t even thought about it. I’d been like three days here, two days there, three days here, and I was worn out. All of a sudden, I thought, “Oh, I can slow down. I can realize I have limitations. It’s okay to reach out, to ask for help and to say, “I don’t know how to do this. Can you help me?”
To say, “I need you to listen to me. I need to just sit with you.” Or there are times when what we’re trying, feels like we’re completely on our own. Just to remember, there are a whole lot of people with you.
I traveled solo, but man, I had a lot of people with me and that was pretty spectacular and pretty humbling. Also, what got me through. It’s that reminder that, everybody has help–we all need it and it’s okay to ask for it, and support…and to stay curious. I just finished reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s, “Big Magic.” I know I’m really late to that party, because that book has been out a while, but I really like what she says, and a whole lot of others say this too: don’t let your fear have the last word.
Be reasonable and smart and then, let your curiosity bring you to that next place, where you’ll discover wonders and new things–not just in front of you, but also about yourself.
T: That’s beautiful. What came up, as you were talking, is one piece of advice that you’ve given me in the past which is, when your fear comes up and you start having doubts, you are famous for saying: “Yet.” It has not happened, yet. When, this isn’t happening and this isn’t happening, your addition is: This hasn’t happened, yet.
R: Someone else, gave me that as a gift, when I was feeling despairing or I’d hit a dead end–to always put “yet” on the end of that to understand that, the word, kind of opens it up again. Oh, the story’s not over.
T: Well thank you. I appreciate you sharing your wisdom. Do you have any last bit of wisdom you’d like to share?
R: Oh, yes. I think that, that old saying: life is not a dress rehearsal–this is the real deal, right here. This is your life. And if there is some burning thing that you’ve always wanted to do and you can figure out how to do it in some fashion, I say do it. This cost me more money than I wanted it to. I mean, I acknowledge the privilege of being able to do it, at all, and also from a fiduciary standpoint, it was not a wise thing to do. I don’t care, because I’m so grateful that I was able to do it. It was life changing and I knew, every once in a while, when I would get really tired (right during that triple digits) and I’m thinking, “I have to deal with all of this, right now,” Then, I would also look at myself in the mirror and say, “You do remember, this is the trip of a lifetime, right?”
Even with the uncertainties and the fears and the anxiety, created by that heatwave with something else and worrying about my animals and worrying about the vehicle and the time when I lost my brakes on the mountain in California and all of those things–I wouldn’t change any of it. I have to be honest, a lot of people that I love live right where I’m living, right now, including, as I said earlier, my two kids and my son-in-law. I remember, when I started heading back home and I did not want to come home. I wasn’t done yet. I was just like, “I could keep doing this.” I just say, if there’s that thing, that keeps visiting you, pay attention to it and let something unfold. That might be your next adventure.
T: Well, I’m sure you’re speaking to more than just one person. I so appreciate you taking the time to have this conversation.
R: Thank you.
T: I can’t wait to read your memoir which will be out sometime soon.
R: I’m hoping by next year. I’m working on and revising my first draft, right now. We’ll see what’s next. But, it’s so fun to revisit that whole journey, just to say again what a wonder and how fortunate I was to be able to do it and how blessed to meet the people along the way that I did.
T: Well, again, thank you so much. Hopefully, in the future, you can fill us in with the next installment–your next adventure.
R: I know. I feel like there’s one brewing. I don’t know what it is yet, but I do feel like one is brewing.
T: Thank you so much Rebecca Gummere. Until the next time.