I have been fortunate to see a lot of the world in the last decade of my life. Unfortunately, I haven't explored a lot of the United States that I call home. Although I have accumulated more than 500,000 flight miles, I haven't been on a road trip within the US outside of moving my stuff from San Francisco to Los Angeles. In September, I decided to move out of my Santa Monica apartment to be a full-time nomad while starting my next venture. The original plan was to not travel in October and enjoy my last moments being an LA resident.
Of course, plans change. I didn't expect Jean* (name changed for privacy) to come back into my life. He and I first met through a mutual friend (a.k.a. Coffee Meets Bagel) in San Francisco. Like 99% of Silicon Valley's eligible bachelors, Jean is a software engineer who loves video games and gadgets. Like his Canadian brothers, he plays hockey with a steadfast loyalty to his hometown NHL team. (By the way, we went to a hockey game for our first date.) Many software engineers, especially in Silicon Valley, are typically socially awkward or one-dimensional. He was different. He was logical and reserved; however, his calm exterior masked an incredibly complex sense of humor ranging from self-deprecating to downright silly. At times, I couldn't tell whether he was joking or serious. He was extremely reticent, but he always answered any question I asked. He was an incredibly astute listener, because he seemed to remember every minute detail I've ever told him. As much as he enjoys hockey, he is more obsessed with American football. To this day, I have no idea how a Canadian would support the Chargers.
We went on a few dates, then we went our separate ways. I'm not sure what happened. There was no "Sorry, this isn't working out," or "I'm just not interested." We both disappeared from each others' lives. Three years later, when he reached out to see how things are, I was a little taken aback. A million questions flashed through my mind.
Why is he reaching out now after all this time?
What has changed since we last spoke?
Should I even respond?
If I learned anything from my travels, people enter and leave your life at any given moment whether you like it or not. There is usually a good reason behind it, so it's best to be open without compromising on your safety or happiness. Being vulnerable is very difficult for me. Although I have a lot of "friends" all around the world, there are only a few that have seen me through my darkest times. Outside of my family, very few people have earned my trust, so I deeply care about those people and invest a lot of time in those relationships. Unfortunately, there have been a few instances when people have taken advantage of that trust, and those are people that you should never let back into your life (see this post). I did take this to an extreme, and I eventually didn't give anyone a second chance. I was afraid of getting hurt and looking like a fool.
During my time off, I wanted to learn how to be vulnerable again. I love traveling solo for the freedom, but it also forces me to interact more with strangers. Now when I make eye contact with strangers, I smile instead of staring blankly back. When people say hello, I respond back with a greeting and asked them about their day.
At first, I wasn't sure whether to let Jean come back into my life, but curiosity got the better of me. I didn't really have much to lose. My life is pretty awesome as-is, so I responded back. He ran across my blog and figured out I was in transition. He recently left his employer and doing a funemployment phase of his own. So far, he traveled to Europe, visited his family in Canada, and picked up golf while progressing through his video game backlog.
It didn't take long for a few messages to turn into conversations about life sprinkled with silly GIFs, funny Onion memes, and cute photos of husky puppies. We talked about where we would like to go next during our time off. As much as he enjoyed visiting other countries, he regretted not seeing more of the United States. Laughing (virtually), I noted that I was constantly reminded how lucky I am to call America home even when I'm abroad. I casually mentioned a weekend visit to Portland, and we talked about going together. We eventually lamented over how little of California's parks we've seen even though we've lived here for at least five years. At that moment, a light bulb went off. Instead of a weekend in Portland, how about we drive from LA to Portland while camping along the way?
This is how a weekend trip to Portland turned into a ten-day road trip along the West Coast. Despite my friends' protests (“What if he's a Craigslist killer?!”) and raised eyebrows, I was excited to explore the great outdoors of California and Oregon. This trip was a reboot. It was a second chance for me to get to know someone better in an unfamiliar setting and to allow myself to be vulnerable. Even though there was history, three dates do not give enough time to really get to know someone. What better way to get to know each other than spending ten days in the car and woods together?
Fast forward to the first day of the trip. We decided to take his car. He drove down from San Francisco, so we can start our journey from Santa Monica. When he arrived at my doorstep, I took a quick look in the mirror ("Okay, I don't look like a disaster. Check!") and stopped in front of the door.
Why am I so nervous?
Nothing to lose, remember? Put on a brilliant smile and open the door.
I took a deep breath and calmly opened the door. There he was. Instead of shaggy long hair, he sported a mid-fade with side part and long fringe. He had a few more wrinkles around the eyes, and he was a bit shorter than what I remembered before. Upon entering, he promptly greeted me with a kiss on the cheek. I froze for a split second.
It's just a peck on the cheek.
I regained my composure and asked him about his drive down. Originally, I had dinner plans with a friend. Since she was running behind due to a flight delay, Jean and I ended up having dinner in Koreatown instead. Over dinner, we exchanged stories on what happened in the last three years and how we came to be where we are now. We also chatted about trip logistics, what time we should leave in the morning, and where we should stop first.
Even though we stayed up until 2 am, we somehow got up three hours later and started our drive to our first stop, Mammoth Lakes. He graciously offered to drive first, and I ended up snoozing most of the way there. Concrete buildings and glass windows soon became rolling hills and meadows. When we reached the forests and mountains, the temperatures started to drop rapidly. We stopped at a visitor center to get our backpacking permits. The park ranger warned us about inclement weather and suggested we should go camp somewhere else. We didn't want to backtrack an hour, so we decided stick with our original game plan. (Mistake 1) The park ranger reluctantly gave us the permit and wished us luck.
We arrived at the trailhead to Gem Lake mid-afternoon. Upon arrival, I realized that I forgot to pack my hat and gloves. (Mistake 2) The map indicated that it would only be three miles, so I assumed my layers would suffice. (Mistake 3) We packed the gear we needed for the night in our packs and started the hike up.
It didn't take long for us to realize how serious the park's ranger warning was. The beginning of the hike was pleasant, and I even had to take off a layer to keep cool. It quickly spiraled downhill as we progressed. It started to rain, and the winds reached eighty miles per hour. When the sun started to sink into the horizon, the temperature dropped turning rain into hail. The three-mile hike was on a constant incline without much wind cover. I regretted not having hat and gloves, as my hands started to numb with the biting wind. As we progressed up the trail, Jean looked more concerned and asked how I was doing multiple times. I hid behind my smile saying that everything is okay, but I'm sure he saw right through that. Halfway up, Jean gave me his hat and gloves while he continued the trek with bare hands and only a hood. We eventually made our destination only to realize that the winds were much worse at higher elevations. As the lakes were created by dams, we sought refuge at the bottom of the dam's walls.
With the wind howling around us, it was challenging to pitch the tent and boil water for our food. My body was slowly shutting down from the cold, and I knew we had to seek shelter and warmth soon. I've never felt this cold since ascending Mount Kilimanjaro. In fact, I was much better equipped in Africa than I was in my own backyard.
We finally were able to set up the tent. When we filtered enough water to cook our food and refill our bottles, we crawled inside the tent and huddled in our sleeping bags to warm up. I started to feel my hands again. Exhausted and cold, Jean laid down a moment to rest. He didn't set up his sleeping bag pad, so I let him rest his head on my lap. It was the least I could do given that he risked hypothermia for my sake.
We were both silent. While he shut his eyes, I studied him for signs of hypothermia since I was extremely concerned about his extended exposure to the cold. I couldn't help but touch his hair. Although it was a little shorter, it was just as soft and fine as I remembered three years ago.
What am I doing?
While I was preoccupied with his hair, I felt his hand on top of my right hand that was resting on his chest. He murmured a few words, but I couldn't make out what he said. If we hadn't found this spot at the bottom of the dam, we probably wouldn't have made it through the night.
Eventually, he got up again. He took the bear canister with our food away from our tent, and we brought the rest of our gear inside the tent. It was only 7 pm, but we were exhausted from the hiking against the rain and wind. As we squeezed into our liners and sleeping bags, I joked that mother nature indeed gave us a welcome on our first night. The icing on the cake would be a bear visit which would be most welcome for warmth at this point. After saying good night, I closed my eyes. A few minutes later, I felt an awkward kiss right next to my nose.
Me: I think you missed.
Jean: I know. It's dark.
I tilted my head up and placed a peck on his chin. I lingered for a brief moment, then I felt his lips on mine. At first, the kiss wasn't that much different compared to three years ago. It was just as gentle and playful, but it carried different undertones. It felt like someone was suppressed for a long time, and for a brief moment, he could breathe or eat. Logically, he could just be fulfilling a primal desire for female companionship. Emotionally, he could be searching for a deeper connection that he couldn’t find before. I had no idea which one or where on the spectrum it could be, but that did not matter. Too often I was chained to the expectations and actions of my past. Too often do I worry about a future that hasn’t come to fruition. I wanted to live in that moment. Words could not communicate the gratitude I felt for his actions to keep me warm and laughing that day, so a goodnight kiss was what I can offer at that moment.
We woke up at first light. It was still windy, but sunshine and blue skies welcomed us. We cooked breakfast, and we explored our campsite. Once we had enough, we packed our gear and hiked back down. Going down took 1/3 of the time, and we ran across people who were shocked that we even camped overnight. He was back to his reserved, playful self, but something changed between us.
I guess time would only tell. There was more to him than I even could imagine, and I wasn't sure if ten days would be enough to even scratch the surface. People are complex and capable of doing incredible things if they choose to do so. The ones who seek to experience as many things as possible tend to have more complex and diverse perspectives than others. My innate curiosity and thirst for adventure chose the pursuit of rich experiences instead of stable, tangible wealth.
I only recently began to love this part of myself, but it has taken me a better part of a decade to recognize and embrace my “comfort in uncertainty.” I naturally gravitate to people just as complex, because complexity is beautiful to me. The most complex individuals tend to be introverted because they spend a lot of time observing, listening and reflecting not only about themselves but also in context to the individuals and surrounding environments. Connecting with these individuals come at the highest emotional risk and cost, because connecting, let alone loving, an individual takes a lot of time and effort.
Being vulnerable is not easy. As one gets older, the opportunity cost is greater to make new connections rather than invest in current relationships; thus, many are content with the relationships they currently have. I value quality of my friends versus the quantity, but I learn the most about myself from the people I meet and connect with. The more individuals I meet, the better I understand myself and communicate with others. This is why I continue to reach and engage with individuals with rich experiences and diverse perspectives. To me, this is beautiful. This is worth the risk, and that’s just something I have to be comfortable with.
It's only Day 2. To be continued in next post.