I started traveling at 15.
Which isn’t true–I didn’t leave the country until I was 22, and all travels leading up to that were pretty much of the camping and visiting-the-relatives-in-Milwaukee variety. I was a working class kid; international travel was the exotic, unattainable luxury of the privileged, or else something you only did a couple times in your life: your honeymoon, a cruise at retirement, maybe to visit your parents’ hometown in Vietnam. It was completely outside of the realm of what anyone I knew did, an opportunity I never expected and didn’t know I wanted.
But something that happened at 15 that I inextricably link to travel, to the little sparks flashing in that otherwise-dormant part of the mind you use when vagabonding and adventuring around unknown, foreign places–I started riding the bus.
It wasn’t a short ride. I landed a spot in a decent public high school a couple towns away from my house; my mom could drop me off in the mornings, but after school, I had to make the 10-some-mile trek by myself. It took about an hour and a half on at least 2 different buses.
My laminated, cheesy-graphic-ed youth bus pass was my ticket to freedom. My parents had been deservedly hesitant to let me ride the buses alone when I was younger–a skinny white girl, the mean streets of Oakland’s flatlands–they weren’t being unreasonable. But when necessity arose at 15, I was old enough and aware enough to be let loose.
And I loved it.
I listened to my Walkman, stared out the window. Everywhere I went, I noticed the bus stops, took note of the numbers, figured out what lines connected, the most efficient routes. My friends were scattered at high schools all over the East Bay; I got myself to neighborhoods and parts of town I only vaguely knew, learned the streets, how all the places fit together. I only used the overpriced, plush BART system to get across the Bay, choosing instead to rely on the unreliable, infrequently running tangle of AC Transit buses. I started dating a boy in San Francisco, and got to know the heaving electric buses and rattling streetcars of MUNI. I could get myself just about anywhere “worth going” in the inner Bay Area–Gilman, the Cocodrie, Mission Records, Ocean Beach bonfires, a constant sprinkling of house parties. I even transited to an all-night beach party in the North Bay’s Bolinas. I felt unstoppable.
But the cheif benefit about all that transiting wasn’t the freedom; it was learning how to be in the world. I learned, yes, that I could figure logistical things out, but also that I could handle myself. I knew exactly how to respond to cat calls, comments, advances from much-older and very-gross men, a fine line between acknowledging and not encouraging them. I learned what to do when the guy next to you is jerking off through his pants, or when the lady across from you nods out so hard to bashes her head into the pole. I learned how to laugh off the Oakland Tech kids asking me if I was in a cult because I wore all black. I learned what to do when a fight broke out (get out of the way). I grew comfortable with my ability to take care of myself, to just be myself.
I was also forced to slow down, to sit. I noticed little things I’d never seen before, the time the clock had frozen to outside a shut-down storefront (4:20, and I was convinced that it was a front for a weed operation). I discovered little shops and corner stores. I got the experience of watching a neighborhood gentrify, slowly, day-by-day, standing on the same corner waiting for my transfer–a sort of time-lapse photography of incoming punks, then yuppies, then stroller-pushing nannies. I wrote poetry in my head, silently recited my favorite works by my favorite poets. I got time–a lot of time–to just be with myself.
Why does this feel like the beginning of my traveling? In the most practical sense of the term, it is–the getting from point A to point B, the journey involved. But it’s more. It’s way I was thrown into the unknown, the unfamiliar. I get that same sort of tingle when I travel, when I stare at a map or figure out a metro system in a foreign city or try to decipher signs in other languages–this back part of the brain that gets ignited when you’re outside of familiar settings, your everyday life–that grows fat and numb as you drive to work, to the grocery store, the gym. It’s how riding the buses afforded me the time to sit and listen to music and think, about nothing in particular, an almost meditative chunk of time where I had nothing to do but just wait, just slow down. It’s the way I noticed the little things in the world again, instead of letting it be a big blurred rush of color and sound behind me, beside me, but always outside of me.
And it’s the way I loved it.