Weathering Life: What Tests You Makes You Stronger.
The iridescent glow of my phone screen revealed it was half an hour to midnight. My second day in Mendocino, CA was fading to a close.
The date was October 8th 2017, three days later would mark a full year since I, a 23-year-old female with limited upper body strength, began solo-backpacking around the world.
I reflected on the past 362 days as if each one was a rosary bead marking my challenges and celebrations. When strung together, the act of remembering these sacred days invoked inner strength and increased my blessed devotion to the road.
Some days were marked by personal triumph and unparalleled freedom while others were hard-earned, shaped by duress and tribulation. Such as, the day I fled from a pair of corrupt cops on a pedal bicycle as they followed me in their car along a busy road in Malaysia.
Despite the stressful moments, each day was precious because together they told the story of the most empowering year of my life.
At the time of reflection, I was a rubber tramp, which is someone who travels and lives out of their vehicle. My shelter/mobile exploration station was a 2006 Toyota Camry dubbed Pepe. Pepe delivered me from my childhood home in North Carolina to northern California with 10,000 miles of pin-balling in between.
During the interim of South Dakota and Idaho, I convinced my best friend Brooke to quit her service industry job, fly to the West Coast, and join me in spontaneous adventure.
The goal was to acquire jobs trimming cannabis to fund our shared dream of traveling around Africa. Four weeks and a daisy chain of cosmic connections later, Brooke and I had found a farm where we could camp and work that was owned by a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend. We were rolling with life, and so far, it had been a smooth ride.
Little did I know, October 8th and 9th would be forged in fire.
Sitting in Pepe, I basked in the serendipity of completing our first day on the farm. Gravity’s force strengthened its grip on my eyelids, so I decided to retire to the tent where Brooke was already asleep.
I opened the car door and the feeling of tired contentment was replaced with indigestible apprehension, as I became astutely aware of two things — the contrast of a light golden-orange haze against, what should have been, an all-black night sky, and my abdomen coiling itself into a knot.
Something was off, I could feel it. I needed a second opinion, so I walked the few hundred yards up to the house. Nearing the top of the property, I heard the farm owner, John, let out a flat “Oh, shit” that was passive to the point of haunting. The control in his voice indicated that this was a moment in life when the surrounding circumstances are so extreme, they stunt your emotional response system.
I whirled around and saw the horizontal expanse of the mountain ridge glowing in a deep shade of pumpkin.
I woke Brooke, and together we sat with John on a picnic table and watched the onyx-smoke billow into the night. The glow of the ridge transformed from pumpkin to crimson as the fire charged forward.
John estimated it was four miles away. For a born and raised beach baby, a beach where the chances of a wildfire are next to nil, I was dismayed by this number, but he assured us that it takes a magnitude of power for a wildfire to jump the ridge.
After an hour, we witnessed an act of Murphy’s Law as the fire jumped the ridge and descended towards the farm. Without hesitation, John implored, “You two need to get out of here.”
Panic drove my heart like a jackhammer against my chest cavity, and then I had a devastating realization: my car was on E. I let this fact be known and John asked if the car could make it 12 miles to seek shelter with his friends whom we had briefly met the night before.
He told us the closest gas stations were located a mile in the direction towards the fire, or in the town to where he was sending us. Our best bet was the latter, so we took the hand-drawn map from John and headed in the direction of his friend’s house.
My hands gripped the wheel while one eye fluttered between the pale E light radiating from the dashboard and the flames, slowly lessening, in my rearview mirror. Forcing myself to remain calm while evacuating from a wildfire along unfamiliar, rural roads in the middle of the night, my other eye focused on the unadulterated blackness ahead.
The laborious nature of the situation caused us to exchange few words as we flew down the road, with senses heightened, like a pair of bats out of Hell.
12 miles later, the door of refuge swung open and we were welcomed into a den of safety. Days later, we learned the farm was safe, so Brooke and I returned to work and earned the funds to travel around Africa.
I continued to backpack around the globe, sometimes off grid, often solo.
During my two-and-a-half years of traveling, I suffered monkey bites to the head and shoulder in Indonesia, gained a concussion from rolling four times in a car along a rural road in Mozambique, was forced to shout “Leave me alone” to multiple men, and hightailed it out of New Orleans while a tumultuous rainstorm dealt flash floods and tornados upon the city.
In July 2019, California became my new home where I began the life of a farmer with my boyfriend Brennan, one of the people Brooke and I met during our wildfire experience. Between traveling and a career in an industry that is inundated with uncertainty, I was halfway prepared to handle the unpredictability of 2020.
As humans, we will never possess the power to regulate the world or even our own lives with omnipotence. It’s inevitable that everyone will find themselves in a stressful situation steeped in the unknown at some point in life.
The way to overcome the fear associated with unforeseen circumstances is survival-based research and planning. Learn how to change a flat tire, jump a dead battery, and practical tips for driving in snow or heavy rain. With knowledge comes the peace of mind that you have the ability to regain control when life puts you to the test.
During my nomadic days, I was often my own rescuer and was forced to draw upon inner strength to rise above the challenges the road posed. In the process of doing so, I gained invaluable knowledge and various skills making me mentally stronger and more physically capable to overcome life’s future curveballs.
Take it from my gas tank faux pas and never wait to adequately prepare for the possible worst-case scenario.
Brennan and I have a bag packed with the essentials that we can grab at a moment’s notice if we must evacuate. It could be nerve-racking to see that bag every day and be reminded of the threat of wildfire, but I find it empowering. We have taken the necessary precautions to ensure our future safety and mental wellbeing.
The ultimate way to manage uncertainty is to accept that life comes with duress, or cosmic tests of will. Pretending that nothing life-threatening will ever happen only keeps you imprisoned by fear. Pandemic is in the air, weather is getting more severe, and social unrest is vehement. This trifecta has proven that the fabric of our lives is as delicate as centuries-old lace. No person nor industry is safe from uncertainty.
I believe in the universal principle of yin and yang, a balance of opposites that results in a positive for every negative. Yes, 2020 has been a foundation-shaking year, but it is also an invitation to become more self-reliant on all levels — physical, emotional/spiritual and mental. Trials and tribulations are necessary facets of life. Through the act of overcoming them, we gain grit.
The only way to develop problem-solving skills is by navigating through unpredictable situations.
This year has been a dutiful reminder that life is an adventure, and that life with no clamor is not actually life at all.
Rita Serra graduated from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill with a degree in US history with a special interest in the social and political moments of 21st century America. She then backpacked around the world on a quest for human connection, cultural enlightenment, historical intrigue and nature’s wonderment. Rita currently spends her days crafting poetry, writing prose, photographing nature, and digging in the dirt. Some of Rita’s other work has been featured by The Manifest Station, Flying Ketchup Press, Train River Publishing, and Tiny Seed Literary Journal.