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Solo Travel as Self-Care with Debbie Carlson-Gould

In this episode of LivingUpp's Conversations with Smart People, I talked with Debbie Carlson-Gould, a self-described Fairy Brand Mother & Intuitive Wayfinder, about a her solo van adventure back in 2019. 

Having taken my own life-changing van trip, I was eager to hear about Debbie's experience and how it has influenced her life since.  

Travel is good medicine. I understand that now. Travel has a way of creating space to process, of putting things into perspective, and of providing answers to questions you didn't even realize you had.

After departing from Washington State, Debbie spent a little over 20 days on the road, traveling through California, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, and Idaho. In that time she had some wonderful experiences and some terrible ones. 

Watch the full interview here.


What made you decide to do the solo van trip? 

"I was at a scary crossroads," she explained. At the time, Debbie was overfunctioning. She was stressed out and had just finished chemotherapy. "It felt like my whole life blew apart," she says.

It was then that she started getting curious about alternative lifestyles--the van lifestyle in particular. After cashing in part of her 401k, she found a used converted Dodge caravan for just $6,000 and started planning her trip.

"I was looking for another place to be," she said. "I was feeling like I didn't belong anymore." That's a feeling that so many of us experience at some point. I describe it as a feeling of restlessness, a knowing that you can't ignore.  

What was your most memorable or rewarding experience?

"Every day I was like 'Oh my God, this is really hard,' but also every single day I was completely overwhelmed with the majesty of everything I saw--the mountains, the red rocks, the beautiful terrain, the layers of colors in the canyons," she said.

"I was blown away every day," she went on. "I felt an ecstatic spiritual connection to existence." 

Some other highlights and unexpected blessings included the amazing people she met along the way. One of the most memorable was getting to celebrate the summer solstice with the camp hosts she met at one park.

Was there a moment when you realized 'This isn't fun anymore'?

"There was a series of events," she explained. Aside from the overwhelming heat that she wasn't prepared for, there were some unsettling experiences, too. 

One night, she had an uninvited visitor at her campsite. "I heard footsteps around my van," she said. Startled and feeling vulnerable, she hit the panic button on her key chain and yelled out to nearby campers for help. But no one came. 

That's when she called 911. When the ranger finally arrived thirty minutes later, he told her it was probably an animal and didn't seem concerned. By then, other campers had gathered around and they suggested she move to a site nearby. She did, and was able to get through the rest of the night.

What was the most unexpected experience you had on that trip?

The next day, she had another traumatic experience. After getting a late start on a solo hike out to the Colorado National Monument, she found herself feeling unwell two hours in. 

"I shouldn't have done it," she admitted. Without cell service, and suspecting she was experiencing altitude sickness and dehydration, she began to panic. 

"I thought I was gonna die there," she said. "I sat down and said, 'I need help'. And I prayed." 

Fortunately, two hikers appeared on the trail soon after and recognized she was struggling. They walked with her the rest of the way to ensure she made it back to her campervan safely. 

What was your greatest lesson?

After the hiking incident, Debbie hoped the trip would get better. But it didn't. She booked a few nights at some local Airbnbs, thinking they would be safer. But that's when things got worse. 

"I was physically and emotionally traumatized," she said. After about four or five days of staying in sketchy rentals, she decided to end her trip and head home. 

But on the last night of her trip, she awoke in the middle of the night with her first ever panic attack. "I even for a moment thought I was going to have to kill myself to stop this from happening," she said.

Luckily, she was able to call a friend and talk through the intense emotions she was experiencing. And that's when she decided to drive home the next day.

Coming Home

The drive home took roughly ten hours, but it offered her the relief she was looking for. "When I started approaching the East side of the cascades, and the trees started appearing and the land began rising up and it started to rain...it just felt like home," she said. 

"And I felt welcomed. And I thought, yes, this is where I belong." In that moment Debbie recommitted to her life and her community and her marriage. It's also when she realized this: "It doesn't matter where you are, it's who you are."

Now, when people ask her what the trip was like she says, "It was wonderful and terrible." Life-changing trips really are both of those things. 

It's one of the reasons travel is so therapeutic. And why I believe it's a form of self-care. Travel helps you understand what you're capable of, and it brings clarity to how you want to experience your life. 

Debbie describes her trip this way now: "It was a profound experience of forgiveness and joy and acceptance and redemption."

So, what words of wisdom does Debbie have for other women considering solo adventure travel? Risk joy. Yes. Risk joy. Risk beauty. Risk adventure. And risk doing now what you might not be able to do later.

Connect with Debbie on Facebook, on her website, or within her private community.  

Have a thought about solo travel? Leave a comment below.

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