A few days ago, I got word that a fellow traveler, Stephanie Simpson from the UK, had gone missing. Her body was found on Valentine’s Day (after a five-day search) by New Zealand’s Search and Rescue teams. Stephanie was 32.
I had connected with Stephanie two years ago through my Workaway family in Australia and had given her advice about house sitting and budget travel. She was happy and bubbly, strikingly beautiful, and made friends wherever she went. She followed my Instagram page and reached out now and then; the last time was when I was in Africa. She was a runner, a traveler, and a seeker- and she reminded me of me; she volunteered, but also worked along the way so she could afford to move to the next place.
Her shocking ending was a wakeup call in more ways than one. I had to sit down when I heard the news and take a deep breath. I felt disturbed and sad… even slightly sick. It’s scary to think that a decision I could easily have made myself resulted in the demise of someone in my circle, even if she wasn’t a close friend.
She was hiking alone at the time, living in the beautiful town of Wanaka, New Zealand (where I’ve been), and she was working for a landscaper… that sounds like something I’d do, too. She had taken her boots and pack off and waded into a river. The current and water level increases dramatically in the afternoon where she was (Mount Aspiring National Park) and I’ve heard there’s no way she could have fought that strong of a current on her own. Stephanie’s parents and siblings flew down from England and arrived the day they found her body. I can’t even imagine what they must have gone through.
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If we’re nomads and adventure seekers, should a shocking accident like this keep us from traveling? Similarly, if we drive (which the majority of us do), should a senseless but common fatal car crash keep us from driving? If we travel for work, should the Coronavirus keep us from getting on airplanes or from shaking someone’s hand? There are no easy answers for these questions, which will undoubtedly morph over time with new information. Yes, it’s crucial to wash our hands, wear a seatbelt, look both ways when crossing a street, be cautious and use common sense, and to learn from our (and other’s) mistakes. It’s one of the ways we grow.
First and foremost, Stephanie’s tragic accident made me deeply saddened for her family and close friends- in particular, my friends who had hosted her for months in Australia and kept in touch with her.
Maybe I didn’t know Stephanie well, but she was more than an acquaintance, she and I had shared ideas with one another and were fellow travelers- fellow solo female travelers. Her accident made me question whether I should continue my own journey.
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I haven’t talked about death on my blog because it’s a difficult topic. I haven’t wanted to disrespect the living or the dead in a public forum. But speaking about difficult topics is an important practice for all of us, and instead of breezing by this subject out of fear, I’m willing to share my thoughts on a few special people who I’ve lost in the recent past.
I lost a very good childhood friend last April who I had reconnected with over sobriety about five years ago. His name was Cas Silver and I’m still very close to his mother Anne, who I’ve always referred to as my mother’s best friend, but who is also one of mine.
Cas came down with cancer almost immediately after his divorce was finalized. From an outsider, that relationship had tormented him for decades and was an addiction on its own. With 4 years of sobriety and mentorship under his belt, he was ready to start a new life. He talked about traveling- maybe meeting me in Switzerland to ski, or up in Alaska to hike, but never did. I think about him waiting to start his life for a very long time. And then he was sick, and just six months later, was gone. I could be wrong, but fear seemed to hold him back from making changes. And yet, when we were younger, he seemed to be the most courageous person I knew. He was four or five years older than me and seemed worldly. My first car was a SAAB 900 Turbo, a used one that ended up breaking down every chance it got, but I loved it through its problems primarily because Cas had driven one- which meant it was a cool car. I listened to a mixed tape he made for me hundreds (if not thousands) of times throughout high school, college, and even in New York- especially when I ran in the mornings. It outlasted numerous Walkmans I owned (remember those?). He introduced me to the Pixies, the Grateful Dead, and 10,000 Maniacs. He impressed me with his fearless but concise skiing ability and I helped introduce him to people at Monarch, a ski area outside of Salida, Colorado where he later ran the Ski Patrol program.
He was an eloquent speaker and I always enjoyed listening to him carefully pick his words. When he kicked his drinking habit, he was able to relate to people with dependency struggles. There was no ego, only curiosity and understanding. He was a real inspiration and saved a lot of people during his journey. Like my cousin JD, he was taken from us too young.
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My cousin JD passed away after turning 40, just after he and his wife Tatiana had their second child. He was the picture of health: good looking, athletic, full of life and adventure and he constantly made people laugh. His impersonations were uncanny, delivered straight-faced and with impeccable timing. Those jokes always took me off guard with their delivery, but before I knew it I was laughing from deep down in my belly, a sound I didn’t make that often unless someone really tapped into my soul. He had so much more to see and do and people to touch that it’s impossible to understand why he was taken away so young. I think I lived in denial for years, unable to talk or think about it and blamed myself for not being more present as a cousin while he was alive.
Last fall, I reconnected with JD’s wife and children who now live in Switzerland. I had a house sit, which randomly was only two blocks from their apartment in Zurich. It was my first time in the city and the morning after I arrived, I went to Tatiana’s Bikram yoga class. It was the first time we had seen each other since mid-2009 and we quickly hit it off. Immediately, we made plans for lunches, dinners, and afternoons with the kids post-school. Every day that I see this woman and learn more about her, I realize how alike we are, with the same core beliefs and values. I thought seeing his children, Felipa and Tiago, would be too hard for me, bringing back too many memories. Instead, they light me up and make me remember the best qualities JD had. I get to tell them mannerisms they have that remind me of their dad, or a song on the radio that he liked, or the story of how he taught me how to drive stick shift at age 12: me stalling our green ranch truck out in the field every 30 seconds, he patiently giving pointers and making me laugh. If I hadn’t gone to Switzerland to rekindle this relationship, I never would have found this side of my family that I connect with so strongly. In their apartment, photos of JD hang on the walls, are taped to refrigerators or in picture frames. The children live with their father as a story and an image, never remembering him ever physically being with them, but talking about him daily. How would I have created this connection if I hadn’t made the decision to change my own life, giving myself time to live abroad? I’m sure it could have happened in other ways, but I’m glad I had the time to make it happen now.
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Most days, I have a moment where I have to remind myself what hemisphere, what country, and what month I’m in. It’s a half-second puzzle, a reminder that I’m not living a routine, and it always makes me smile.
Four years ago, in New York, I was unhappy with how my life was going. Now, despite people wearing masks on the streets in Europe and in airports (like all the employees of Air Serbia today) due to fear of the Coronavirus, a brimming uncertainty rumbling, I’m still happy I made the change from the person I thought I needed to be to the traveler I am today: someone who can bring inspiration and views of the world to others, even if it’s just to a handful of people.
I’ve been thinking about each of these individuals a lot lately. In Stephanie’s case, I think about what she was doing before she was swept away, how if I were there to help, what I could have done. Likewise, if I had put myself in that situation, what would I have done for myself? It’s a scary thought, and unfortunately we can’t always predict accidents before they occur. But I also think about the light that Stephanie brought to others during her travels and the people she inspired around the world. She lived a life she wanted and was always curious to see and do more, and I commend her for that and aspire to do the same. With Cas and my cousin JD, things remind me of them every day, how they brought comedy and intellect to everything, and I feel as though they’re with me every step of the way.
It’s important to remember those who have passed, to honor the life they lived and to keep them in our thoughts. I think one way of honoring them is to improve our lives with the lessons they taught us, and not to shy away from dreams by living in fear. Every moment and interaction we have are opportunities to learn something new, and every person in our life is there for a reason, however long they’re with us. Our time here is finite, but we can choose how much we learn during that time, and how much we want to be open to new experiences. Here’s to the people that improve our lives with the light they spread and let us never take their lessons for granted.