“You like punk music, right?”
I looked up mildly confused from my pint of cider, mid conversation with some new people who had just moved to my city. It was a grey concrete kind of a place, and so the tradition was to take new folk out and show them that the people make it worth living in.
“I was just speaking to your friend and he said you liked punk. So do I. Do you wanna talk about it?”
I paused, fully confused, and looked harder at the guy who opens conversations like a brick to the face. He was tall, grinning widely, and had laughter lines at the crinkles of his eyes. He was probably the only person I’d seen all week who didn’t have a drink in their hand.
“Sure,” I said eventually, “pull up a chair”
And from then on, Matt and I were friends.
Matt was a geologist. He was loud, full of energy (caffeine induced or otherwise), and relentlessly positive. Over the years we knew one another it became apparent that we shared a lot of other interests rather than punk music alone. But of all of those interests, my favourite was our shared sense of humour that often left us having to stifle laughs in serious public situations, or choking on giggles trying to get to sleep.
It was a wet and windy winter when Matt died. The rain seemed to start on the first day of November and didn’t let up until Spring. I was at the beginning of my PhD, and frankly, struggling with more things than just that. The news found me with a pint of cider, mid conversation with some colleagues; but devoid of his grin. It’s strange how the patterns of life play out like a worn record sometimes.
My positive rock had gone. (He would have grinned at that because he loved puns. Particularly geology puns.)
And with him, a lot of other things went too. I lost the air in my lungs for a long time, as did everyone who was left behind in his wake. We lost the sound of laughter and of music. We lost who we were for a long time, each in our own different ways. And we were left to cope in whatever ways we could. For me, that catalyst became traveling.
The hardest part of his loss was the realisation of just how much positive impact he had had on my life. I knew it when he was around, and I thanked him for it – but I never realised the true measure, and I was never able to truly express my gratitude. How much he cared, how much he believed in me, how much he encouraged me to be the best person I could be. He believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself, and that is a very powerful thing.
These realisations swelled like storm waters in my mind for a while, before eventually I decided to swim through them and seek sunnier skies.
I didn’t need much reason to travel more, having already been bitten by the wanderlust bug many, many years before. Travel already felt like an old friend. Certainly, breaking up with your partner of five years while neither of you has the money to bail out of the housing contract added to the drive of wanting to leave. A house is a small space when it’s filled with two broken hearts and a pile of unpaid bills.
I had to get out of that house, out of the city, and out of my life. I needed to convince myself that there was still some good left in this world. So, I took whatever little money I had and threw myself at every opportunity that arose. Conferences, mainly, were a great way to get around the globe. I’d write a research paper and institutions would publish it, which meant that my university would pay some of the fees for my travels.
In between conferences I would seek other places and other adventures. Sometimes friends would come with me, and other times I’d travel solo. Sometimes I’d make a bunch of friends along the way. This is where a lot of my real travel experiences came from: the crazy ups and downs of life and adventure, that, looking back, saved my mental health and probably my life in general.
Each time I’d live through something, or be floored by an experience, I’d want to tell Matt. I’d want to share this insane beautiful thing that happened in this vast unfathomable universe, because I knew he’d care. And I knew he’d see the wonder in it. And I knew he’d see things about it that I couldn’t. Sometimes in my head I would still try to articulate it to him – it made the void seem less painful that way.
The more traveling I did, the more I enjoyed it. I’d impulsively come up with goals for each year that would test me. This year I would see if I can see all of the European countries. Next year all my trips will be long haul. Then after that I’ll see if I can spend more time abroad than living in my own country. The list went on… and still does, really.
Each year I’d pick places that would challenge me, and my perspectives, and everything I thought that I’d known. Every time I would make a mistake, I taught myself how to learn from it. It ended up being this unhinged learning curve I don’t think I could have experienced through anything else. It taught me to believe in myself the way that Matt did.
I sat on the top of snow-capped mountains and watched the flickering stars and northern lights veil impossibly vast feats of nature. I ran through deserts that seemed older than time itself, where land and sky merge in shimmering golden blurs. I floated in the crystal clear shallows of tropical island beaches, and watched countless blood-orange suns drop behind the horizon in a blazes of fire.
I saw creatures and ecosystems and the intricate balance of life. I walked in places I’d dreamed of going as a kid. I followed paths as they unfolded in front of me without ever needing to think. I learnt to let go and just be. And, in a comforting and ironic kind of a way, I saw that truly it is people that make a place worth living in. Human nature has always had its positives and negatives, but I started to the see the good more than the bad.
Traveling didn’t allow me to breathe again; it just showed me that the air was in my lungs the whole time. It held me close, and gently let me see on my own that I no longer ran because I was trapped. It allowed me to keep a part of my friend with me wherever I went, knowing that he would have loved to be adventuring alongside me, and remembering our old travel plans we made back when we were giggling kids with wanderlust on the mind, adventure in our hearts, and our futures laid at our feet.
Matt isn’t here anymore – but his legacy is. Even absent he still managed to spark a change in me that will keep burning. And, that spark is in you too.
Set your life on fire. Seek others who fan the flames. Never stop traveling.