I faced travel as my father faced death. It was an experience that helped us both

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In my 20s, I was focused on following a set pathway of expected steps in my career and life. I barely travelled outside of northern Virginia, the area of the US I’d grown up in. And it wouldn’t have occurred to me to step on a plane anywhere without my friends or family. 

In fact, “adventure” to me was something you did mostly within the context of a relationship. The rest of the time, I was in the zone in my career as a software engineer and part-time artist. I was shy at the time, too; I hated speaking to strangers and the discomfort that came from uncharted social situations.

All this changed in 2019, when a series of unexpected events collided at once. First off, I went through a rough breakup with a man I was supposed to go travelling with. Then my dad – who loved to travel himself – was diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer. He then had a stroke as a result of surgery that followed, and would never walk again.

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When I knew dad was sick, I wanted to postpone my travels

At that point, I realised that life can change in an instant – none of us know how much time we have left. There’s no point waiting around for the right time or the right person, or for the things you want to fall into your lap. If there’s something you want to do in life, like travel or adventure, you just have to go ahead and do it. That’s the only way it’ll happen. 

Of course, when I discovered how sick my dad was, my first thought was to postpone any travels. But both he and my mum – who became his primary caregiver – insisted that I continue with my six-month trip (a larger version of the original vacation I’d planned with my ex). They said, “There’s no fun to be had here. We’re going to be in and out of hospital. But this is something you need to do and we’ll be angry if you delay it.”

So, I moved out of my apartment in Washington D.C. to embark on my adventure around the world. I joined volunteer projects and tours across the States, in Chile in South America, and from Iceland to Australia. I ended up trying experiences I could never have imagined signing up to before, like learning to scuba dive in Sydney, and ice-hiking across a remote Icelandic glacier.

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I kept dad updated with snaps of my travels

From his hospital bed, my dad cheered me on every step of the way. He loved photography so I kept him updated with snaps of my travels. Sometimes I would shoot a video of a particular trail I was hiking. My brother, who’s a 3D artist, would convert them so my dad could watch it all immersively on a VR headset. It was super-cool and brought some excitement and escapism to everything he was going through. 

It was during that period that I went skydiving in Seattle. I didn’t tell my parents about it beforehand in case they worried on my behalf. But when I filled my dad in on the adventure afterwards, he couldn’t have been more delighted. He talked about it for days and shared photos with his team of nurses. 

The fact is, adventure is in my blood. My grandmother, Helen Richardson, was a formidable figure who cycled solo around South America in her 20s. It was in 1941 when it was unheard of to do things like that, especially as a woman.

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My dad had many connections from travelling himself

Eventually, because it was war-time, my grandmother ended up spending a fortnight in jail. She was apprehended in Uruguay on suspicion of being a spy. It was an encounter that forced her to cut short adventure her short and return to her native California.

There, she continued to live a very full life on a ranch. She was a phenomenal horsewoman and talented gardener, along with raising six children. 

One of her kids, my dad, ended up travelling all over the world himself, in his role as an economist for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). When I started journeying through South America in 2019, I realised just how many connections my dad had made on his travels. He was constantly saying, “Oh you’re going to Buenos Aires, you must say hello to this person or that person.”

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Doing something extreme was my way of coping

In Chile, I even met up with a woman whose grandmother had met my grandmother back in the 1940s (and subsequently contacted my dad, who then told me). It was quite an amazing encounter.

My dad was also the person who tried to encourage me to go travelling before I went to college as a teenager. But at the time, I was more worried about ticking off life according to the timeline I had in my head. 

Years later, however, the family gene for adventure surfaced just as I was going through one of the most difficult periods in my life. And, somehow, it helped. Doing something extreme and symbolic was my way of coping with my dad’s terminal diagnosis. It felt therapeutic. I was creating my own set of happy memories; something meaningful, inspired by him, to reach for amid the chaos.

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I learnt how to go to places where I didn’t know a single person

When I finally returned home in autumn 2019, I decided to move to New York City. It was a big leap for someone who was once so shy (bearing in mind the only person I knew there was my brother). Luckily, by then, my adventures had forced me to face that discomfort. I learnt how to go to places where I didn’t know a single person and got used to striking up conversations.

Sadly, my dad passed away in January, 2020. Since then, the feeling of grief has hit me in unexpected ways. It’s always new to me and I’m constantly figuring it out. I will go for weeks feeling fine and then I’ll watch a sad TV show and I’ll suddenly be bawling. 

Through it all, I’ve held tight to the concept of adventure. One thing my dad did when he was still well was spend hours painstakingly transcribing my grandmother’s adventure journals. The result became a book about her time in South America, titled Road to Montevideo: A single woman’s one-year bicycle adventure in South America 1941-1942. After he died, I took the journey one step further by publishing the book on Amazon so that my grandmother’s legacy of adventure lives on.

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Nowadays, I embrace adventure at every given opportunity

I’ve vowed to continue my own adventures, too, including a 12-day trip to Japan I signed up to with Flash Pack earlier this year. I had a fantastic time making fancy ramen, spending the night in a Buddhist temple and meeting the friendliest people – both within our own group and Japanese locals. 

As I get older, I realise ticking off goals in life is an illusion. Working day in, day out and never taking a holiday is no way to go. Looking back, you’re not going to remember what you did with those days. 

By learning into adventure and experience, you put down the roots of the things that matter in life; the elements that give it meaning and colour. Nowadays, I have so many friends in New York City and I embrace adventure at every given opportunity. And that life has happened not by chance but because I chose to make it that way. 

Megan Coyle is a software engineer and artist who lives in New York City. She has travelled with Flash Pack on multiple trips, including Iceland and Japan.

Got a story or adventure that could inspire a solo traveller like you? Tag @flashpack on social or email [email protected] to be featured.

Images: courtesy of Megan Coyle

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