Arriving at the airport in Quito, Ecuador, on my way to an adventure on the other side of the world, I was having one of those I-so-don’t-belong-here moments. I’d had plenty over the past five years: at the oncologist’s office, the surgical waiting room, the ICU, the funeral home.
Now, a year after the death of my husband and still in my 40s, I found myself determined to continue leading a fulfilling life, however drastically it might have changed. I’ve always loved traveling and flinging myself into new experiences, but I’d never done it without my strong and capable husband.
Not only was I going solo for the first time, but I had signed up for the most out-there expedition I could find: hiking, snorkeling, and sea kayaking through the Galapagos Islands with 12 strangers and a guide. All I knew about the Galapagos was what I vaguely remembered from high school science: The islands are famously populated with creatures whose ancestors washed ashore and adapted to the islands’ harsh environment. Perhaps they had something to teach me.
It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time, but . . .
What was I thinking? was my first reaction on meeting my fellow travelers. Marcia had run marathons on all seven continents, including Antarctica. Her husband, Greg, had shoveled the snow off the course. Monica had sea kayaked through Papua New Guinea, sleeping on the floors of mud huts. She swam every morning in San Francisco Bay — without a wet suit.
Me? I don’t even belong to a gym. While everyone else wore broken-in, high-performance hiking boots, I showed up with lightweight Puma sneakers and a duffel bag full of action-adventure gear purchased on a frantic last-minute spree. A friend had called it "survival of the fittings." I quickly became the focus of the group’s humor, and it didn’t help when I pointed out, "Hey, I walk a mile in New York all the time in my Prada pumps. How hard can this be?"
Thank goodness I’d once been a competitive swimmer, I thought, even though since my husband’s death, I’d had recurring dreams of him drowning and pulling me under with him. After spending so much time in hospital waiting rooms, I looked thin and frail in my swimsuit.
It was as if I had set myself up to be the misfit. I had been feeling like one a lot lately. All of my friends were still securely married, so I tried joining a support group for widows. At the first meeting, a woman sitting across from me said, "I’m 75, and my husband and I had 50 wonderful years. I feel like my life is over. That young woman over there" — meaning me — "she has it all. Her whole life is ahead of her. She can do whatever she wants. But my life," she repeated, this time in tears, "is over."
Everyone in the group jumped in — to support her. I felt for her too, but I also thought, Hey, 50 wonderful years might have been nice. I didn’t go back.
A month later I signed up for this adventure, too late for my name to be printed on the list of travelers. Someone had scribbled in only this: "New York Woman."
Traveling to the Land of Misfits
Far out in the Pacific Ocean, I couldn’t hide my horror at the prospect of six a.m. wake-up calls. But I told myself that I had become, however improbably, a woman who owned a fanny pack with Velcro closures. It was time to strap it on and use it. Soon I found myself scrambling over jagged lavascapes, struggling to keep my balance.
I also found camaraderie, especially with two other single women, Monica and Barbara. We offered to take one another’s pictures next to whatever oddball birds or reptiles we ran across each day. There was no shortage of photo ops. Three-hundred-pound tortoises lumbered across the land; centuries ago they were among the few species to survive while drifting across the Pacific on rafts of pumice. Then there were the marine iguanas. A terrestrial species everywhere else, they had learned to find food in the sea because the barren volcanic rocks of the islands yielded little to eat. The same dilemma led to the evolution of the flightless cormorant, a bird whose wings had withered to useless stubs.