Kate Convissor with Dr. Barb
Kate Convissor is many things: a mother, grandmother, former English professor, writer. She's spent much of the last several decades on the road, both with her family and on her own, traveling with as little as a backpack and as "much" as a tiny camper. She's known for her work for Salon.com, Working Mother, and corporations. She publishes regularly about her adventures on her own blog, WanderingNotLost.org.
Barb: Our guest today is Kate Convissor, a writer and blogger at WanderingNotLost.org. She’s published on Salon.com, Huffington Post, and Working Mother, among other places, as well as a book called Young Widow: Learning to Live Again. Kate has also been a regular contributor on the team here at MiddlesexMD. Welcome, Kate!
Kate: Well, thank you! I’m so glad to be here.
Barb: I’m looking forward to hearing more about what you do when you’re not busy writing or some of the places that you go to do some of your writing. That’s going to be mostly, I think, about your Wandering Not Lost. It’s largely about your travels. You’ve been doing that now for a number of years. Can you tell us a little bit about how you entered this season of your life and how you found yourself downsizing from a house to a trailer?
Kate: Yeah, and what seems to be happening is that after many years of working very hard as a writer, which is the thing I always wanted to do in my life, and which ended up fitting in really well with a large family and having been widowed. I just… This transition to travel, it was just like a passion, something that hit me that I really wanted to go out and see the world. And the way it started initially was that my ex-husband, the two youngest children, and the dog found ourselves downsizing, we sold our house, and that was the first trip in a trailer. We traveled throughout the Western U.S., Canada, Mexico, for a year and a half, and that was absolutely life-changing for all of us. It was a watershed moment. So a few years later when I found myself single and the kids grown, it was like I wanted to take that up again. It was so consuming, it was so magical. So, yeah, then once the kids were out of the house and I felt I could responsibly do that again, I once again downsized and bought a fourteen-foot trailer and hooked myself up and with actually a great deal of fear and trembling I did set out again, and that was the beginning of what has now been about seven years of travel.
Barb: So how much time had elapsed since you had done this adventure with your family and now kind of rediscovering it?
Kate: We initially set out when my son, the number five son, number five child, was eleven. He was just entering middle school, and we just knew that was not going to be good for him. So that’s why we decided to just switch out the whole scene. And that was right at the turn of the century; we left in 2000. And then I took it up again after the kids were grown in 2010. June of 2010 is when I again sold my house and hit the road.
Barb: So what were the biggest adjustments you needed to make? What were some of the losses you’ve noted?
Kate: You know, what’s really funny is that for every—I mean it’s always a balancing act, right? You lose, and you gain, and both are significant. I kind of narrowed it down between a balance between roots and wings. When you uproot yourself that much—most of us are grounded in a community. We have maybe a faith community, or a friend community, and certainly a family community, and when you do what I did, you uproot yourself. It’s—I think the word is “deracinate,” it’s almost a violent thing sometimes.
So, especially the first time—well, every time—to cut those roots is significant. You don’t do that lightly. So I did. I lost roots. I left behind friends and of course you’re still connected to family, and in some ways that has gotten stronger, but that’s one of the things you lose. I didn’t mind losing the things; it was a relief to get rid of the things. But what you gain on the flip side are the wings, and that cannot be underestimated. I guess, you know, when I think back, I’ve seen so many, like in one trip, one year I did ten national parks and spent time in them. I didn’t just go through. I hiked and camped. I’ve been able to camp in super remote places and watch the Milky Way at night and see the coyotes in the desert and watch the desert bloom in the spring—experiences I never would have been able to anticipate. And then, you know, after I left the trailer life for a while I began to travel in other countries and through Mexico and South America and Spain and again, just amazing, amazing pieces of the world and experiences with people. So that can’t be underestimated, either. But I will say the one thing that is a constant is grappling with fear; that’s always that—for me—I grapple with.
Barb: Well, I love that discussion about roots and wings. It’s sort of a lovely image of what this might look like. Can you tell me whether you really anticipated both the losses and the gains of your travels? Or how much of that was a new discovery to you?
Kate: I think it’s really hard to anticipate what this is going to be like. The image that always comes to me is when you enter into this, it’s like you’re struggling, struggling, struggling up this long rocky hillside, you know, you have to sell everything, you have to decide what to buy, where to put your stuff, what to keep, what to give away, what vehicle is going to accommodate your needs, you’re just struggling. And the fear! The fear is there; I mean, you don’t know. And it’s like then you crest the hill, and this vista opens up that you could not have imagined and if you let yourself let go of the fear and if you open your eyes and look around, that’s when the magic happens. So it’s really hard to anticipate, and it’s even really hard to describe, and I don’t want to make it sound like it’s all roses and rainbows, because it’s not. But it’s all just so compelling and so fulfilling and so satisfying that… You know, I don’t think I ever knew what to anticipate, even the second time when I did it again.
Barb: And much of your travel has been solo. So how have you found traveling as a woman all over the world? How have you felt regarding safety and security in interacting and developing relationships and so on?
Kate: Traveling solo and traveling solo as an older woman is its own peculiar animal, that is true. And I was trying to think, you know, I traveled a lot in Hispanic cultures, which has its own kind of relationship among the genders. But I think because I’m older, I kind of fall into the category of a grandmother, which is always kind of a gentle and non-threatening category. I don’t generally attract a lot of attention. But people are always really curious. They always go, sola? Are you traveling sola? And I go, yeah, I’m alone. So I think it evokes a lot of curiosity. I think the thing that you have to come to grips with as a woman traveling is that you have to really be comfortable in your own skin, you know, like I’ve done it so long, I’ve been alone for a long time now, and, you know, going out by myself doesn’t intimidate, doesn’t bother me. I don’t mind eating by myself, I don’t mind going places by myself.
But when you travel alone you’re kind of always having to push yourself, because when you travel with somebody you kind of have a buffer, and you have somebody else to motivate you. Traveling alone, you have to get yourself out of the hotel room, you know, and you have to decide where you’re going to go and figure out how you’re going to get there, because I rarely do tours, so I’m always having to figure out transportation and where to stay, and judging the safety of a place. But I will say you’re also more accessible, as an older woman you’re more accessible. People don’t feel intimidated by you, you’re more able to look around and absorb your surroundings because you’re not being distracted by the presence of someone else.
Barb: Do you often make it your intention to try to establish relationships in a place you’re staying so you’ll have some companionship? Or not necessarily? Are you open to that opportunity? How does that play out?
Kate: Sometimes that’s a bit of a tension, but I generally, because I am content being alone, being solo, I don’t necessarily seek those relationships out. But very often, they happen just kind of organically, so I have had some really interesting and lovely interactions. Sometimes language is a barrier; I do speak enough Spanish to get by but not really enough to establish a relationship or much of a friendship. But those things happen. It’s kind of odd where you find yourself in these situations where you end up just conversing with someone. And I’ve had lovely interactions like on buses with, you know, women with their children and things like that and it doesn’t take much of a vocabulary to establish those relationships. So it’s just been these surprise, these little surprises that pop up, or, you know, usually if I’m finding other English-speaking people, they’re like-minded people, they’re people who are traveling the way I am. So that’s always really fun, too, and then we might take a few hikes or just travel together for a short period of time and, again, it’s pretty organic. You’re together, and then you’re apart, and it feels pretty natural.
Barb: And how has your own family responded to all of the time away? The distance, and wondering about your safety and security… That must be a bit of a tension as well.
Kate: Well, it is a bit of a role reversal. Instead of my worrying about them, they’re worried about me, especially when I go places like Columbia and Mexico, they’re like all freaked out and “Oh, Mom, are you going to be safe?” and “Where are you going now?” I’ve done it enough now that they’ve calmed down and they know that I come back. So it’s been pretty funny to watch my kids go through all this. But I will say, also, that because I’m so unattached, one of the most delightful of my times was when I was able to just park the trailer and go and live in Manhattan with my daughter for about five months when she had her first child and she and her husband had to go back to work, so I was like the granny nanny for five months, and then every weekend I would just go out and travel around New York City. It was just… so I really got to know my daughter and her awesome husband, and the baby, and it was just a fabulous, joyful time. So there’s that, you know? There’s always the two sides of the same coin.
Barb: As I think of writers, I think of them usually as introverts. Obviously, that’s a generalization and not always the case, but do you see yourself as an introvert? And when you’re traveling, do you have to overcome some of those tendencies?
Kate: [laughs] Oh, yes! And because I’ve lived alone and sometimes in remote places for so long I think that whole part has been, sort of—I’ve become more so. So yeah, I do have to push myself. The good part is that I don’t mind being alone and doing things alone, it doesn’t bother me. Yes, I definitely have to push myself just to go out of my comfort zone. I’m always on the edge of my comfort zone. That’s never like a super comfortable place to be, but I think it’s really good. You know, I learn a lot, I experience a lot, and challenge myself a lot, and at this stage of the game, I think that’s really important, and it’s kind of really where I want to be. I do circle around this whole notion of fear, too, and I think I want to go back there because I it is something I do find myself grappling with a lot, and I think it’s unnecessary. I’m not afraid of people so much; I’m afraid of getting lost, I’m afraid of getting hurt. And I think it’s just a completely unnecessary thing and that’s part of my challenge, just to really begin to… I mean, I know this is unnecessary and I’m struggling with how to let go of it when I’m trying to find the right train in a big city or find my way through New Delhi or something. You don’t have to be afraid. And that was one of the lessons I learned long ago, that the world is not a scary place. I think we keep trying to make it a scary place, and it doesn’t have to be that way.
Barb: Oh, that’s a very cool reflection and response that you could discover that.
Kate: I think it’s really important. I think it’s really important for women alone to realize that you don’t have to be afraid. I don’t carry weapons. I don’t think you have to do that. It’s very easy to fall into that, and that can be crippling, and it can keep you from doing things that you want to do. And it should not. I understand that, I mean, I deal with that. I’ve had my “come to Jesus” moments where I’m like, you either have to get a handle on your fear or you’re not going to be able to do this. And I’ve had to do that, and it’s always worth pushing through it.
Barb: How to you make a determination where your path will go next?
Kate: [laughs] That’s a funny one! I don’t know! There are some times, like right now, I really tried for about a year I’ve been deciding whether or not to go to India, because India kind of scares me, but it’s a place that totally calls to me. I think I’m going to go. But you know, I kind of play with these in my mind for a while, for months. For months I’ll play with an idea in my mind and I’m going to do it. I’m to the point in my life now where if I say I’m going to do it, I generally do. And that’s a good place. I like being there, where I’m not just hot air. I’m going to do this. But yeah, I’ll play with it, I’ll think about it. Some places appeal to me and some places don’t. So, yeah, next year: India.
Barb: So in advance of, say, India, do you have a good sense of where exactly you’ll travel once you’re there, or do you really wait for the experience and the process to play out and then kind of follow as it unfolds?
Kate: I think it’s a balance. I think especially a country like India (and other places I’ve gone), it’s been very helpful to do preparation ahead of time to learn about, especially with India I want to learn about the cultures and the history of the place so that when I look at something I understand it. I’ve found that when I don’t do some basic research, I think I just miss out because I don’t know what I’m looking at. And then you make up stories about what you’re looking at. But on the other hand, I hate having to nail down a trip where I’m like, okay, three days here, and then I make a reservation and I’m locked into this reservation. I won’t do that, especially even in India. I’ll make a reservation for like my first day, but then I just will know generally where I want to go, I’ll have a general itinerary, and several places that I might want to stay or I could make reservations a day ahead, but I don’t want to lock myself in too much, because I might want to change it. You just never know. So you do enough research ahead so you’re not flying blind. But I don’t nail myself down so firmly that I can’t make changes.
Barb: Sounds lovely.
Kate: It is. It’s a good balance. For me, it’s a good balance.
Barb: You refer to your Catholic faith tradition in your writing, because of various places you come across—important symbols or landmarks or festivals. And your last trip I think was most clearly a journey of faith? The Camino de Santiago? Can you share a bit about that trip and how it was you decided to do that?
Kate: That ended up being king of surprise, actually. I thought—I did the same process that I’m doing now for India, where I thought about it for a long time, I had to put it off for a year because my son was getting married and I kept thinking, okay, this is a bucket list item and I’ll tick it off. A little bit of background is that the Camino de Santiago is an ancient pilgrim route; people have been traveling this for a thousand years. It’s not one route, but it’s a web of routes throughout actually much of Europe, and all the routes converge on the city of Santiago de Compostela, which is in the northwest of Spain. The traditional one, the one you always hear about, the one that’s in the movie “The Way” is across the north of Spain from France over the Pyrenees and across the north.
I didn’t want to do that one because being the introvert that I am—it’s very crowded. I didn’t want to have to race people for a bed at night, I didn’t want to… I like having relationships that happen naturally but I didn’t want to be forced into talking, talking on a pilgrimage especially. So I decided to do the via de la Plata, which is the longer and more difficult route from the south of Spain, from Seville to Santiago de Compostela
So it’s six hundred miles. You go from… there’s an infrastructure for the pilgrims in Spain, because it is a very well developed tradition. You go from village to village that tend to have these albergue, which are like pilgrim hostels where you can stay and they’re set up for serving you. It’s very very rustic, sometimes very rustic, but there’s a place to stay, it’s very affordable, and there’s usually places you can eat as well. You basically travel from village to village and on the via de la plata, the stages are longer, there’s not much infrastructure in between, but there’s a well-developed route and it’s all marked by yellow arrows and these monuments. So basically, for six hundred miles I followed yellow arrows and these monuments through pretty rural and remote routes of Spain.
Barb: How long did it take you to do that?
Kate: [laughs] It took me 44 days. I did 44 walking days, several rest days, and I averaged 14 miles a day. I did carry a pack, which was good, I was glad I did that. You carry just what you need. You don’t have to carry food, well except for the day. You don’t have to carry a tent or cooking implements, but yes, I did carry a sleeping bag. So I think what I thought about and played with this idea for a long time. And it was like a bucket list item. But when I finally ended up doing it a year later it became something I was really looking forward to in a spiritual sense. It was something that seemed like my spirit needed to do at that time. My daughter had just gotten pregnant with twins, and the pregnancy wasn’t going well. I had a friend who was dying a very difficult death. And just the whole political situation, divisiveness in the U.S. was just spiritually really draining. So I really looked forward to just being alone and walking a long way and kind of reconnecting with God.
So what was really deeply surprising to me was both the physical difficulty of it and also the spiritual fruit of it, and not in any kind of a fireworks and mountaintop experience, but just something so deep and so substantial that even now, months later, I still can look back on that as sort of a watershed experience. And it’s really even kind of hard to describe because, like I said, it wasn’t a moment, but it was just this sense of every day, getting up, and putting on your pack, and putting on your intentions, and walking that day carrying your intentions, seeking God’s help and guidance every day, and sometimes literally having to say, “help me, because I can’t find the next arrow.”
They say “the Camino provides,” and at the time I would be pretty grumpy sometimes and it would be 90 degrees or it would be raining and 40 degrees and I would be pretty grumpy about “yeah, right, the Camino provides, whatever.” But it did. The Camino just did provide. I was one of the few people that never got lost, and I had no app and no map, I was just simply following arrows. And I will also say that my daughter delivered two six-and-a-half-pound, healthy infants, even though her own doctor thought she was going to lose them at one point along the way. And these babies are incredibly robust. I think there’s a miracle buried in there somewhere.
Barb: What a remarkable story! That’s amazing.
Kate: Well, it was a remarkable experience. More than I had anticipated and it’s something that grows on me the more I think about it. So it was almost like it reset my relationship with God in sort of a very quiet way where I feel like… It’s almost like Eve walking in the cool of the morning with the Lord in a sort of a simple, easy companionship like that. And I don’t want to overstate it because, you know, faith is a difficult thing. But it did kind of reset. Something shifted, and when I finally reached Santiago de la Compostela, the beautiful city at the end of this, I was completely overwhelmed, to have made it here, to be standing in that plaza and looking at that beautiful cathedral that pilgrims have come to for a thousand years, and watching all the other pilgrims who stream in there every single day, all of us limping, it was truly a humbling and overwhelming experience.
Barb: And I assume that in some way will change your future travels.
Kate: It may change my attitude toward my future travels. That’s probably a really growing point. If I could bring that attitude with me probably would have a lot to do with how I would approach my future travels. Because, again, I don’t need to be afraid. I can say “help” in the middle of a city.
Barb: What about the physical preparation for that? Was that an intimidating or a daunting task to think about what it might take to prepare for a long trek?
Kate: Yes, I wasn’t sure I could do it. The whole thought of walking fourteen miles the first day was pretty… It was kind of scary. I mean I did train, but it was February. I left the States in March; I left in the middle of a snowstorm. So I did go out with my pack, and I did try to train, but I never got up to fourteen miles. I’m a pretty good walker, but what I found—the first day you’re so full of adrenaline I think I ended up walking 20 miles because I had to do a detour. So I did it. But every day, I guess you fall into this rhythm at some point. I had taken a few rest days early on and at some point I just set my mind to this. I said, no more rest days, you have to do this. And then I did. Every day, I got up at first light with all the other pilgrims—I mean, there were always between three and fifteen to twenty other pilgrims in these albergue. Every day you get up at first light and like bats flying out of the cave, you all leave and everybody walks his own pace. Most of the time I wouldn’t see anybody during the day. But I just did it. Honestly, it never really got easy. I only once ended up at the end of the day with energy to spare. By the end of the day, I was usually tired. But, you know, you get in at mid-afternoon and you take a shower and wash your clothes and go and get something to eat and you’re fine. So the next day you get up and do it again, and just the fact that I could do that was—I think what changed for me was to realize that I could carry a pack and do that kind of thing.
I plan to walk across Isle Royale this summer. I can do this now. I can walk several miles. A bunch of miles in a day with a pack. That’s pretty cool. I’m excited about this.
Barb: That’s very cool. Yes. So I’d like to close by asking you what I often ask guests: Where do you find the richness in your life right now?
Kate: Well, I think the answer probably most of us would give that was only really reinforced for me when I was walking on the Camino, that was one of the little nudges that I got was, you know, my family. My kids and grandkids. I get a tremendous amount of joy from being with my family, being with my kids and grandkids, watching them grow, seeing how they thrive. So, you know, that’s something I don’t think you ever take for granted. Or I never take it for granted. I think that the other piece that’s always been there and has only been reinforced especially on the Camino was just this sense of being in nature. It’s kind of like all of your cells align. It’s kind of like in these beautiful natural places I just am so grateful, and I feel so quiet inside. So I think that was another piece that was reinforced and that I do find the fullness of life is just getting outside and being in the natural world. And sort of the red thread running through all this I think is just that sense of grace. This is all just grace and I am so grateful for the gifts of my family and the physical ability to be able to walk in the natural world. So I think—I guess that’s it! I think that’s where my fullness of life lies!
Barb: I appreciate your sharing, and it makes me want to slow down and make space for discovery of some of these joys that you have discovered. And I envy what you have found for this phase in your life and I think it’s so inspiring that you can follow these passions.
Kate: Well, it’s all there, in front of every one of us. It’s just right there.
Barb: Thanks again, Kate, and hopefully our listeners can learn more about where you’ve been and where you’ll be going at your blog at Wandering Not Lost.
Kate: Thank you. It’s been really fun to think about this and to talk about it. I really appreciate it.