The Risk /
Throughout life, your path will lead you down roads peppered with hidden risks and rewards. And although you may choose the direction in which your road winds, are you truly ever capable of plotting out your best days ever? Sometimes, our happiest moments arise when we have surrendered complete control of plans and allowed ourselves to leisurely wade in an auspicious moment.
But allowing our brilliantly constructed blueprints to unravel like woolen yarn-balls before our very own eyes is not easy. We are so attached to our own personal craft fair of ideas that we barely offer creative room for risk. Risk is not-knowing yet persevering, risk is braving the feedback, risk is expressing gratitude when your personal paradigms are asked to shift.
Without risks, there are few rewards. Fewer moments of tearful delight, connection, and genuine surprise. Because the highest mountain of joy stretched out before you is the inverted shadow of lows that you did not know you could possibly feel. And here, life catches you like a fish as it asks, “why reside in the ocean if you are too afraid to swim?”
Flight Jitters /
As I prepared to fly down to Australia in order to visit the man that I had fatefully met in New Orleans two months prior, I thoughtfully packed my suitcase with summer clothes, toiletries, swimsuits, and heaps of whole-hearted naivety. Although I was absolutely guilty of overpacking for this particular trip, it was truly my lack of rational thinking that weighed my luggage down so heavily. It is a small wonder that I did not need to pay extra in order to check my bag. Looking back, I now understand that my optimism fueling this risky adventure was largely born from a wide collection of Disney princess movies which, assure every little girl that as long as they end up with the prince in the end—all of their struggles will finally mean something!
And here, I would love to declare that I am one of those people who freely dips into unadulterated good times with few regrets, fears, or heartaches; but really, I often over-think most of my actions and later wind up feeling depleted after too many fucks were not given. Perhaps, a different woman could have easily participated in a no-strings-attached romantic vacation to Sydney, Australia. But I am not this woman.
It was only after 15-hours of contorting and molding my body into positions vaguely reminiscent of horizontal sleep on an airplane seat, that my easy breezy, “why not?” mentality quickly dissipate. My dreamy fantasy of flying across the world to visit a man I barely knew blinked itself into reality as images of a bright blue Sydney harbor morning poured into my eyes through the plane’s windows.
One Week Later /
Prior to departing for Australia, I had orientated my clothing selection around the idea that I would spend two thrillingly glamorous weeks laying out on Bondi Beach and strutting alongside swarms of night life parading through Darling Harbour. But after just one week of navigating through Sydney streets with the guidance of Alan, the man I was visiting, both my heart and mind grew feeble. Why am I here? The inner-voice camping out inside my brain continuously probed me to consider what the outcome of this vastly temporary-dating situation would be. I didn’t know. The novelty of the arrangement was evaporating as fast as December snow in a hot tub and I was quickly being suffocated by the steam of feeling like a temporary, mail-order girlfriend.
In order to reclaim my lost sense of self, I opted out of my romantic Sydney vacation for a spontaneous two-day trip to Katoomba, in the Blue Mountains. When I shared my brilliantly idea to break up my stay with a few days apart, I had no idea if Alan was relieved or confused by my brief departure from his residence.
So, I found myself traveling alone, again— less than one week after flying into the Sydney international airport in pursuit of a happy ending romance. But this time, my travels were propelled by a different kind of risk- this risk of stepping into the unknown in order to step closer to oneself.
Last Stop: The Blue Mountains /
Hesitantly, I pressed my pre-loaded plastic Opal fare gently against the card-reader at Sydney’s Central Station. A decisive beep erupted from the machine and an automated green check mark immediately popped up onto the screen, approving that I had enough funds available to cross over to the open-air platform and wait for the next train to Katoomba.
Katoomba is a tiny, mountainous town boasting of 8,000 residents and a multitude of entrances that lead into the surrounding Blue Mountains National Park. If Katoomba was your neck, the mountain range would be the scarf that wraps around it. The name Katoomba is a derivative of an Aboriginal word “Kedumba” which so accurately stitches the blanketed definition “shiny, falling waters” into its translation.
I lugged my suitcase across the concrete platform as I mentally flipped through the laughably few articles of outdoor clothing that were stuffed into its bloated zippers. As a born and bred city girl, I wasn’t quite sure what I would need in order to enjoy my time in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. Prior to this trip, I had little experience with day hikes, light-weight waterproof clothing, and ergonomic backpacks. I could not name a time when I took a hike just for hike’s sake. And I definitely did not go stomping around through nature all alone. Mostly, my memories of trekking through woods involved childhood camping trips when my father would lead us along beautiful northern trails as my brother and I would ask if we were almost there yet (In hinds sight, these were some of the greatest childhood memories that I recall).
The Flying Fox Hostel /
The owner of the Flying Fox Hostel, Ross, is intimately familiar with all of the shiny waterfalls of Katoomba and will be the first to push you right back out of his hostel so that you might experience the area’s natural beauty for yourself.
As soon as I stumbled into the lodging’s small, family sized living room decorated with classic board games, paged-through books, and a languorous black cat reigning over the top of the worn-in sofa, I was promptly herded together with two other female backpackers who had also arrived that afternoon. Ross pulled out one of the many disposable maps that were as essential as toilet paper on the hostel’s premise and hurriedly scrawled a black line onto its thin surface while explaining directions to the trailhead, the distance of the route, the popular sites to visit on that particular hike, and the exact number of stairs required to climb back up to street level.
Hiking up and down stairs is essential to exploring the Blue Mountains because in Katoomba, your “destination” is reached only when you allow yourself to descend towards the earth. All hikers must start at the top before trekking downwards into the luscious waterfalls and tropical forests. And similar to the guiding intuition gracefully funneled into planet earth by the North Star, the shimmering waterfalls that cascade down towards the next pool of flowing water will guide you in the direction that you seek.
In addition to running the Flying Fox, Ross could have easily sold broken lawn chairs as a side business because somehow, after illustrating the amount of kilometers we would need to walk and despite not being much of a hiker myself, I was absolutely frothing with eagerness to venture out to The Three Sisters, Katoomba Falls, and even “The Giant Stairway,” which is EXACTLY that and still somehow managed to collect a 4.7 star review for itself on Google despite all of its cringy 998 steps cascading against the cliffside at a 60-70 degree angle.
And it was there on that first hike that I, without warning, accidentally began to fall in love.
But unlike many of the ever-so-prevalent rom-coms of the early 2000s and beyond, the affection aching inside of my body was not for the man that I entered Australia’s borders for but instead, for the land of Australia itself. And for myself.
Although I only anticipated sleeping in Katoomba for two nights before shuttling myself back to the uncomfortable agreement awaiting me in Sydney, I ended up staying in the mountains for the entire second week of my journey. Like a passionate lover, I could not allow my muse to slip away so quickly now that I had finally crossed paths with her. As the days passed, I continuously adjusted my plans for her (Katoomba) through a series of awkward Facebook messages exchanged with the guy that I was supposed to be spending my time with:
Me: “Hi Alan- I’m planning to stay one more night but I will be back before Friday.”
Me: “Hi there, sorry to change plans again but I will be staying in the mountains until Friday.”
Me: “Whoops! I’ll be here until Saturday. FOR SURE, I’ll return to Sydney by Saturday.”
Me: “Sunday fun-day sounds like fun but I can’t leave Katoomba just yet.”
Him: “Uh, ok. No worries, Anna.”
Finally, it was Monday, exactly one week later after I arrived in the mountains and the day before I was scheduled to fly out of Sydney and back to the U.S.A. My senses were now completely intoxicated with the lush ferns and vibrant green mosses decorating the cliff sides in addition to the many waterfalls that invited myself and other new backpacker friends into their pools for a cool scenic swim. I caught as many stunning sunsets and sunrises as I did mossy (mosquito) bites on my skin. I stopped looking in the mirror and worrying about looking good because every cell in my body suddenly felt good. And a new quality of bravery swept through my blood after having endeavored on my first solo-hike into the mountainous forests. Completely in love, I easily disregarded any negative undertow naturally built into the landscape of my affection. I embraced every crack, crevice, and sound of my new crush with adoration, even the ear-piercing screeches of the the sulfur-crested white cockatoos.
Leaving Oz /
I returned to Sydney on Monday afternoon and arranged a good-bye/(i’m sorry but thank you?) dinner with Alan at a restaurant near his office. Fortunately, we were seated at a communal table next to two well-dressed men who dominated the conversation—one of whom openly bragged about being wealthy enough to afford checked plane luggage, so as to avoid the lower-class struggles of stuffing his socks into his shoes as a means of conserving suitcase space.
“I mean, can you imagine?!” he shouted at no one in particular—”I will never again sink down to the level of existence that involves stuffing my shoes,” he declared with vindication and certain finality.
At this point in our dinner conversation, my enchantment with city slicker life waned as I realized that I would happily go on stuffing my socks into my shoes for the rest of my life as long as they were hiking boots. And I absolutely stuffed my socks AND my underwear into my shoes while packing for this trip and I would have done it all over again in a heartbeat just to return to the mountains.
Eventually, our eclectic group of four finished eating and disassembled into the night. Alan and I strolled towards a train station in downtown and stumbled through one final conversation before parting ways.
“You’re welcome to come back with me,” he offered.
“No, thank you. I booked a hostel not far from here. This is better for me,” I sincerely replied.
“Ok, well then, goodbye.”
I faintly smiled, “Goodbye.”
On my flight home, I puzzled my way through a feelings-cocktail of sadness, longing, nostalgia, and hope. I sat awake, staring off into literal space as the aircraft’s dimly-lit cabin hummed quietly amidst the silence of passengers completely enamored in the movie screen before them. Perhaps, picking up on my air of discord, the flight attendant walked by and dumped out the last few ounces of her Chardonnay bottle into my half-empty wine cup. And in that moment, I realized, I was heart-broken.
I missed the Blue Mountains, I missed Katoomba, I missed my fellow back-packers at the Flying Fox and I missed Australia.
“Perhaps,” I began to think, “there is more for me to risk.”