If we attempted to pare down our description of 2017 to “tough,” it would be a bit like saying that the Queen of the Night's Aria from Die Zauberflöte is “a song.” Or that your local gourmet shop’s La Tur is just a “cheese.” No, my friend. La Tur is a carefully curated concoction made from the delightful introduction of bacteria to the milks of happy goats, sheep and cows that feast on the grassy splendor of the foothills of the Alps in Northern Italy. Okay, the point is: this has been a tremendously difficult year for many people as we face a jarring political scene and natural disasters worldwide... amongst countless other challenges. Personally, I also experienced the slow and painful death of a job that had promised huge professional growth and financial gain. Oh, and I found a really amazing guy that managed to break my heart into a million tiny pieces. How do I deal with a year like this? Too many times it was the easy approach of a few beers, often alone while binging television shows that perpetuate and enhance my internal shitty feeling.
I would guess that the typical Hulu subscriber might admit that the schadenfreude associated with back to back episodes of (insert title of show you love showcasing the trials and tribulations of characters that are constantly screwing up their lives) is not always lovely. Right, so what is the healthy way to work through those moments? Therapy is a good start. But here’s the secret sauce: Adventure.
A Tuesday night of tequila and tacos with a couple of good friends got me through the first few hours after being dumped. This all in the same day I realized I was going to have to find another way to make money. What was I even doing? While licking the salty rim of my glass, I half-laughed through tears as I told my friends that I might as well just fly to Europe and walk the Camino de Santiago, an 800 kilometer pilgrimage from the French Pyrenees Mountains to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Five days later I was sitting on a Paris-bound plane with all my necessities for eight weeks carefully stowed in the overhead bin. I could hardly breath, sleep or eat for three days. Until the next Wednesday morning, when I finally took my first steps on a journey that would change my life. More on that later.
It occurred to me this afternoon that I've been living in New York City for over a decade and have never been to Tick Tock Diner. Or Madison Square Garden, or up the Statue of Liberty, or the Top of the Rock, or the... the list could go on and on. And every December I have that same thought: “I really should see the Nutcracker this year.” I mean, ten years living here and I’ve never seen the Nutcracker while it’s gently snowing outside. And you know you want that too. The perfect, dreamy, romantic New York that Carrie Bradshaw promised to us all as we contemplated what happens after college. The subtle admiration of fans who pass us on Ninth Avenue. The Mr. Big. The SHOES. But no one ever warned us that our shoes would be destroyed on the rough pavement of this city and that taking as many cabs as Carrie was just not plausible. But that first year of the Big Apple, in a tiny Upper East Side apartment shared with a fellow musical theater actor and a new kitten [and the occasional cockroach], was constantly filled with adventure. Almost every weekend I would find a new neighborhood to explore and limited myself to a budget of $10 for a day of fun. I called this project “Know York.” It was a great way to get bearings on my new city and claim an ownership stake in my surroundings. Move over, Carrie.
But somewhere along the way, the city started to wear me down. Break my spirit. Long lines at an audition where I felt invisible challenged my self-worth. Subway delays became utterly unnerving to me. A person hitting me with their shopping bag on the sidewalk was the equivalent of being spat on. Oh, and when a homeless person actually spat on me... yeah, that sucked. I was reaching a point this year where I was feeling like just another cog in the machine. Someone lost in the shuffle but always putting on a smile for everyone elses’ triumphs and successes. At the risk of sounding like a psychopath, the mask was slipping. But you most likely know what that feels like. You live in New York. But can that really be an excuse? I realized this year that it was up to me to change my own circumstances if I was unhappy.
And so I started with an idea of how to abandon this unhappiness. For years, I have been a walker. I love to put on headphones and walk around my city, observing its people and its visitors. When I’m feeling sad, I walk. When I’m feeling celebratory, I walk. When I need to get the creative juices flowing, I walk. So I made two trips to REI and a quickly formatted website and email sent out to my family and friends. I booked a one-way ticket to Europe. At the age of 33, I was leaving for a solo 33-day trek across the Camino de Santiago, for which I would budget $33 per day. Knowing there was no way I could afford to do this adventure, I asked those closest to me if they would kindly consider sponsoring a day of “The 33 Project.” That first day of walking, a fifteen mile day with an ascent of 4,500 feet, I glanced at the notifications on my phone while taking a water break and realized that my people were there for me. It became clear to me that I would actually complete my journey without going into massive debt. I remember looking out to a fog-filled verdant valley below a bright blue sky, and gasping for air in between heavy exhales while tears streamed out of my eyes. I was actually there. I was actually doing it. I had actually changed my circumstances for the better. For more on the ins and outs of my life on the Camino, feel free to check out my website where I blogged every couple days along the way. My time on the trail taught me so much about myself, from my strengths and my weaknesses to the realization of my indefatigable spirit. I have a lot to work on but the Camino was an incredible start in the right direction. And as the Camino pilgrims taught me, after you reach the cathedral in Santiago, that Camino ends, but the next one is just beginning.
I’m thrilled to be a contributing writer to the B-Side Feed and looking forward to experiencing many more adventures in 2018. I’ve committed to resuming that adventurous Ashley spirit and regaining control of my happiness. Finding that 2007 version of myself that marveled at the vibrancy and culture of the many neighborhoods of New York City. Today I had the chocolate egg cream from Tick Tock Diner. What’s next? We shall see. Suggestions welcome! Check in here each month where I will feature a story surrounding a new #Ashventure.
Ashley Harrell is a singing, candle-making, beer-brewing, ukulele-playing adventurous artist based in Astoria, NYC. She can frequently be found obsessing over ambitious DIY projects, craft beer and artisanal cheese, and baby goats. Ashley enjoys long walks on the beach (or anywhere else for that matter).