Who hasn’t dreamt of abandoning the 9-to-5 and embarking on a life-changing adventure during all these months in lockdown? While we’ve been unable to travel, I’ve been thinking a lot about fearless female explorers like Jeanne Baret, Hester Stanhope, Annie Smith Peck, Bessie Coleman and Mary Kingsley. You may not know their names, but they blazed a trail for modern women like us. And now that freedom is on the horizon, they’ve planted a seed in my brain.
It’s a seed taken up by Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love, the bestselling 2006 memoir in which she travels the world to find herself. And by Patricia C McCairen in Canyon Solitude, as she whitewater-rafts down the Colorado River.
The idea that we could chuck it all in, take off and discover a new and exciting existence, free of the ties that bind us, is a seductive dream for many of us. Imagine being released from the shackles of a life full of domestic duties, work woes and the constant needs of others – particularly after the year we’ve just had… But is it so seductive that you’d really do it? And what’s more, do it in your fifties or later, when traditional stereotypes say that women are winding down to a peaceful retirement?
The answer, for an increasing number of women in midlife, is a resounding yes. In recent years, more and more of us have just packed our rucksack and taken off. And I expect that will only increase post-pandemic. A midlife adventure has almost become a rite of passage.
Why? For one, we’re not scared any more. We’ve had careers, raised families and bought homes – but that’s not enough to fulfil us. We still want adventure and, as we enter our prime, the urge to make life about more than just duty can become positively overwhelming.
I love hearing about those adventurers of old: Jeanne Baret (born 1740), the first woman to circumnavigate the globe – though she had to do it disguised as a man. Hester Stanhope (1776) found her destiny in the Middle East: riding an Arab stallion, she was the first European woman to cross the Syrian desert. Annie Smith Peck (1850), a trailblazing American mountaineer, climbed her last peak, the 5,367ft Mount Madison in New Hampshire, at the age of 82.
Then there’s Bessie Coleman (1892), the world’s first black female pilot: banned from flying schools in her native America, she travelled to France to earn her licence. And at a time when respectable women didn’t walk the streets of London unaccompanied, Mary Kingsley (1862) was exploring West Africa alone.
These women blazed a trail. And now more of us have earned the means, and the right, to take up our own adventures.
We spend so much of our lives nurturing others, putting their needs before our own, why shouldn’t we make ourselves a priority at this point in our evolution? Whether that’s going on a yoga retreat to Bali, climbing a mountain in the Himalayas or just walking the Coast to Coast, we deserve to get out there and explore. Now, where did I put that rucksack?