Last May, I traveled to London solo. Each day I wrote about my adventures in my London Take Two series… and never quite finished it! I still had one last post, about my final day, which sat in my blog folder for these past seven months until I finally brushed it off, polished it up, and decided it was time to publish it. I think it’s taken me that long due to me really needing to soak in my trip. After all, I jumped right back into chaos once I returned from across the pond!
And so without further ado: Day 9 – May 31, 2017 And Beyond.
On the day I woke up knowing my only outing would be to walk down to the Tube and head to the airport, I felt an awful sense of loss.
I was ready to come home and yet I wasn’t.
I wanted to see my family and friends again and yet I wanted one day more.
One more look at Buckingham Palace. One more meal at Pret a Manger. One more walk through the square between Big Ben and Westminster Abbey. One more day of hearing different languages and seeing different people with different faces and different purposes.
The day before, I’d broken records in squeezing into my backpack and suitcase souvenirs I’d bought for friends and heavy books from the British Museum. After I put my final belongings away that morning and made my bed I just stood in my room and looked out my window one last time. I walked out into the kitchen, the living area, gazing out at the London skyline that I knew I wouldn’t see again for a long time.
The first time I left London, I’d written how I knew all good things must come to an end, but that I didn’t know it would be so soon. I think this is the case with all of life, really, which is why – looking back – I’m glad I soaked in every moment and didn’t miss a single thing.
My suitcase was much heavier as I pulled it down the pavement towards the Tube station. I wore my new Stonehenge hat and carried Paddington Bear since he wouldn’t fit into the suitcase or my backpack, which felt like it did when I was in high school and carried textbooks around every day. As I walked I drank in my surroundings of Shoreditch for the last time. The London cars parked on the streets. The narrow roads and old, beautiful buildings towering over them. The grass by the sidewalks. The small cafes on the corners.
I had known all along that this time would come, that eventually my days of wandering the streets of London would be numbered. I had known all along that I only had so much time.
I turned onto Old Street and met the roar of the traffic, the red buses and the gaggle of people carrying on with their lives. Eventually, down the stairs I walked to the Tube, passing the little shops in the station for the last time. Turned the corner to get to the ticket machines for the last time. Pulled out my Oyster card – which I had seen as a rite of passage – to place onto the scanner that would get me into the station for the last time.
For the last time… for the last time…
Every detail was so precious to me. Walking across the station to get to the escalators. Watching the poster advertisements go by on the way down below, many of which were so familiar to me now as I’d spent eight days looking at them at Tube stations.
I boarded the Northern line, got off at King’s Cross to transfer to the Piccadilly line as I had done nearly every day to get everywhere in London… for the last time.
I sat on the train, holding Paddington Bear in my lap, as my first experience in London the week before reversed itself as the Tube brought me closer and closer to the airport. It occurred to me that my very first time in London, a bus had taken me and my fellow students to our dorms; all I’d had to do was show up and I was pointed in the right direction and delivered safely to my destination. This time, I’d navigated everything by myself with no problems.
It’s a 40-minute Tube ride to Heathrow from Kings Cross Station and I savored every minute of it as we ticked off the stations one by one until finally, finally the automated voice announced our arrival at the terminals.
I got off the Tube with my backpack and suitcase and Paddington Bear and stopped to gather myself a bit.
And I paused before moving on to the escalator that would take me up, tears filling my eyes as I heard the roar of my train fade away. It hit me with awful finality that this was it, leaving this underground station at Heathrow was my final break before I entered the world of airports and traveling and going home and ending everything.
I drew up to the side as the platform emptied as my fellow passengers either made their way up to the airport or got on other trains. For a while, I just stood by myself as the trains passed by, Paddington Bear in one hand and my Oyster card in the other, ready for its final use.
I felt like such a little girl. I wanted someone to point me in the right direction then.
And as I stood there on the platform in a foreign country that felt like home, my belongings by my side, I realized with great magnitude that the world is a great, vast, confusing, exhilarating, uplifting, provoking, mysterious place and holds the answers to questions I never knew dwelled inside me. That the answers to those questions could be found in the most unlikely of circumstances.
That nothing can replace being able to walk the same steps of monarchs from centuries past or reach out and touch the stones onto which people had carved messages hundreds of years before, that doing so harkens back to those who came before us and did things that scared them and pushed through their doubts to do the impossible.
That each phase of life will always be met with mixed emotions, that it may be with uncertainty we keep putting one foot in front of the other. But when we move forward, each step of doubt is matched by one of faith.
It was with this knowledge I took a deep breath, gathered my things, and finally walked towards the escalator to let it carry me up to the airport, where the final ticket scanner awaited, where I took my Oyster card and scanned it for the last time.
And the booth doors opened, and I walked through them, towards the terminal and the plane that would take me home.
“Better to see something once than to hear about it a thousand times.” ― Asian Proverb
“The Earth is my sister; I love her daily grace, her silent daring, and how loved I am how we admire this strength in each other, all that we have lost, all that we have suffered, all that we know: we are stunned by this beauty, and I do not forget what she is to me, what I am to her.” ~ Susan Griffin
Last week I made it my personal mission to get out of the Valley for a few days after surviving an extremely busy month.
My destination of choice? Monument Valley again.
I’ll never soak in the beautiful land enough, from its sweeping canyons to the stillness of the rocks that tower to the heavens yet free the observer.
So I booked a hotel for two nights, packed up my RAV4, and started my journey on Wednesday around noon after I was done with work.
The destination of a road trip – or any trip, really – is never the most important. It’s the journey that really counts. And the five hour drive between Phoenix and Monument Valley is an incredible one. I am forever astonished at the differences in terrain that exist in Arizona. Our state literally has everything from the iconic Sonoran Desert to red, painted canyons, from dipping valleys to grasslands that span to the horizon, from towering mountains to tall, thick forests.
Every time. Exploring this state amazes me every time.
WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 30TH.
The MapQuest, Google Maps, tourist-approved way of getting to Monument Valley is to take the I17 north until it ends at Flagstaff, then the 89 north up to the 160 which veers northeast through Tuba City and a few other smaller towns. Then, around Kayenta, you take the famous Monument Valley road – the 163 – due north.
The Sonoran Desert fades away on the first leg of the trip as you rise in elevation on the way to Sedona and even more on the way to Flagstaff. Once I was past Flagstaff and onto the 89, the forest thinned and the changes in scenery were more drastic.
Before I knew it, I was turning onto the 160. And here’s something weird, but noteworthy:
I’ve traveled a decent amount. A few months ago I went to London solo. I’ve done a lot of driving all over Arizona: to Sedona, to Flagstaff, Tucson, Tombstone, Williams, Kingsman, literally every suburb of Phoenix… but never have I felt as genuinely scared in any area – no matter how remote or new or unfamiliar – than I have in this ten or fifteen mile stretch of land leading into Tuba City where you turn onto the 160 off the 89.
It is unwelcoming, bright red, stark, and – to me – terrifying.
That stretch of land gives me a precarious, bone-chilling, unsettled feeling that I can’t describe or justify. I felt it last year on my way up to Monument Valley for the first time and Wednesday was no different. The moment I turned on that freeway, for ten miles or so onward… I didn’t like it one bit.
It sounds crazy, I know. All I knew is that I couldn’t drive past that stretch of land fast enough. At one point I drove past a sign that read, “Home of the WWII Navajo Code talkers.” I still plan to Google that, and read about it.
I was glad to see grass again.
More driving. At one point my car asked me if I wanted to take a rest. Rest I did not, because by the time I was on the 160 it was late afternoon, and I wanted to reach my hotel before dark.
I passed Kayenta and merged onto the 163 that would take me due north. And finally, as the golden hour began to settle over the plains of grass and high buttes and rocks, I saw the blissfully familiar landscape.
At one point in this area I stopped in the visitor center just outside the official entrance to the park to pee and get a sandwich out of my cooler. I had to laugh because when I pulled in, I was one of maybe two or three cars, one of which could have passed for a legit kidnapper van. I got out of the car, but took my knife – blade out – with me. Far better to be paranoid than sorry! Girls, if you travel alone, carry a weapon at all times.
The 163 is the well known Monument Valley road, and the famous view of Monument Valley is looking south on the 163, from the Utah border looking in. Luckily my destination of Mexican Hat (20 miles north of Monument Valley, population 34) meant I got to drive way out past the monument to take some killer pictures. There were a couple of other tourists parked in the scenic pullouts taking pictures too.
Then, as the sun officially began to set, I headed even further north into Utah to my hotel, the Hat Rock Inn located in the tiny town of Mexican Hat. When I said population 34, I meant it. The town has one gas station, something like four restaurants, two motels and a hotel. And a handful of small houses for the Navajo residents that run the town.
I checked in, unloaded my car, then sat on my bed looking at the Utah brochure on my bedside, wondering if there were any other cool things I’d be able to fit in the next day. I came across Gooseneck, the Rainbow Bridge, then one park called Hovenweep National Monument I’d never heard of before but sparked my interest.
Eventually I slept. I never sleep well away from home, but sleep is overrated anyway.
THURSDAY, AUGUST 31ST.
I started my morning with English breakfast tea, courtesy of my room’s Keurig, which made me think of my many mornings in London while I got ready to drive into the Valley. I have to be at work so early that I am always in a rush to get out the door, so while I had the option of taking my time I was wired to just get outside!
I filled up Adelaide’s (my RAV4) tank at the only gas station in the town before leaving Mexican Hat in the early morning.
And then, that view.
Paddington Bear naturally partook in some of the picture taking.
Later, when I was driving away from Monument Valley in the early afternoon, I pulled over, opened up the hatchback of my car, sat in the back, and just gazed at this view for a long time.
It’s such an iconic American area and I think despite who gazes upon it we all feel the same thing. We feel a sense of adventure; a curiosity to explore what is within the rocks and beyond; the spirit of the American west that was won but not completely tamed. This Navajo tribal park draws people from all over the world – as evidenced by the many languages I heard while out in about within the park’s visitor center – and yet we are all the same in exploration.
Finally, I made it to inside the park. After a quick stop in the gift shop, I turned my car onto the red, dusty road and ventured into the wilderness. And just like last time, I was transformed.
There are little tourist “stations” that follow a map they give you at the toll booth. The Mittens. The Three Sisters. Artist Point Overlook. It’s almost insulting. To cast labels upon such magnificence, such sacredness, seemed otherworldly to me out there.
At the famous John Ford Point, I saw a sign that said for $5 you could get your picture taken on a horse. Uh, sign me up.
It was exhilarating to be on a horse in the middle on Monument Valley and it took a great deal of self control to not just squeeze my heels into Spirit’s sides and gallop off – not that he would have, as the poor boy looked totally bored. Because they had brought Spirit out specifically for me (I had to ask as he was in his nice little stall), a crowd of tourists gathered around us, seemingly interested in getting their pictures taken after me. When I dismounted, one woman clapped her hands and called out in Italian, “Bellissimo!”
What few amazing moments in time.
Before long I came to my absolute favorite part of Monument Valley: the Totem Poles.
Last year, a Navajo man and his wife were selling jewelry at this particular stopping point on the map (Navajo sales are very common up there) and he told me about the Yei-Bi-Chei, a sacred dance performed at the foot of these incredible spires to heal the sick.
On Thursday, I stood out on the edge of the risen rock that overlooked the valley leading to the Totem Poles, just gazing at them and imagining such a dance. Such wildness, such undauntedness.
As my thoughts intertwined and roamed freely I thought of my Sonora, who I lost four months ago and for whom my heart aches each and every day. I thought of her galloping through that land – red mane flying, legs kicking out against the ground, tossing her head in eagerness to run free of pain – and smiled.
I made my way through the rest of the loop, drinking in every moment.
At one point I was so acutely taken by the dry, thirsty cracks within the ground.
Finally I found myself making the final stretch and leaving the stillness of the Valley behind me as I joined other tourists on the road.
Then, after a few last looks, it was time to journey onward. As I left, I found myself so grateful for the chance to see such an incredible place again.
And as I turned my car north again towards the open road – full of possibility – I was determined to see even more.
Hovenweep National Monument
I’d decided after Monument Valley, I’d make my way northeast towards the Colorado border to see a monument called Hovenweep.
Honestly, I could have never reached Hovenweep National Monument and I would have still had an amazing time on the road. Just like Arizona’s scenery seems to change with each turn of the road, so did southern Utah’s.
A great deal of the time I was the only one on the road. For all I knew, I was the only one in the world.
About an hour and a half into the journey I came across what is perhaps the best thing I’ve ever seen so close to my car: a herd of wild horses.
They took my breath away. The far left bay stared me down while the rest of the herd kept grazing, looking up to glance at me every so often.
Finally, I continued onward, only to promptly discover a herd of cattle on the side of the road, too!
It couldn’t have been a more incredible drive. I almost never wanted to reach my destination. I wanted to stay on those roads, under that huge sky, roaming forever until there was no horizon left for me to chase.
Eventually, though, I did get to Hovenweep.
Hovenweep was a prehistoric village of Ancient Puebloans – a Native American civilization also called the Anasazi – who lived somewhere less than 1,000 years ago: between 1,200 AD and 1,300 AD. In the brochure I’d read the night before, I’d been so fascinated by the still-standing structures and couldn’t believe I was about to see them with my own eyes.
I checked out the visitor center first, which was a good thing as I got to it ten minutes to 5 and it closed at 5. After picking up a book and some postcards, I set off on the trail, which was open until the sun went down.
There were a few different trail options, but as eager as I was to see everything, I opted for the fifteen minute walk, the shortest one.
Laid out in front of me were the remains of a people who survived almost 1,000 years ago.
I was so deep into the wilderness that the silence was overpowering. It was different from the profound stillness of Monument Valley. There was simply no sound, as though the land itself was remembering those who had once thrived upon it and was waiting forlornly for them to return.
At one point, I thought I heard a woman talking somewhere in the distance. Turned out, it was a bee.
At another, I thought I heard the wind rustling all around me.
It was my breathing.
I was so moved, seeing the little cracks in the stone sealed with clay. Whose hands had built those walls? What people lived within them?
Eventually, after gazing out at what remained of a settlement for what seemed like hours (but was perhaps only ten minutes), I turned to leave.
What greatness it was, to stand on the grounds once walked upon by the Anasazi.
Then, snacking on food from my cooler, I slowly made the two hour drive back to my hotel.
I was tired, but so, so happy I’d gone. Earlier, as I was deciding whether or not I wanted to make the drive to Hovenweep, I wondered if I’d simply be exhausted trying to cram in too much in one day. In the end, I thought of the famous saying:
“It’s better do regret the things you’ve done rather than the things you didn’t do.”
FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 1ST.
Going home is always the hardest part of traveling, but I was determined to make it fun nonetheless.
So on Friday morning, I woke up early, loaded up my car, dropped my hotel keys off at the office, and headed north into Utah up the 163, which curved towards the 191 south that would bring me down into Arizona a different way than how I entered it.
At point point on the 163, the elevation is high enough that you can look behind you and see Monument Valley in the far distance. I kept trying to look, knowing it’d be a long time before I could see it again.
And as I strained to catch every final glimpse I could, I had a realization wash over me.
I’m always going to want to look behind at the amazing experiences I’ve had in life. Why shouldn’t I? I’m lucky to have lived them.
But what I ultimately have to remember is that I’m in a car driving down a windy road and if I’m going to make it to the final destination in one piece, I have to keep my eyes on the path.
What’s ahead – unknown though it may be – must be met.
And it might be better than what I’ve left behind, or I might find myself wishing for what I had before. Both are okay, because they are different. And different experiences mean different opportunities to grow.
So I took one last look at Monument Valley and turned my eyes to the road ahead of me, not knowing what to expect, not knowing what I’d see, but knowing one thing: it was time to keep driving.
I wasn’t sure what to expect as I drove through the Utah/Arizona border into my home state down the 191, but looking back, I should have known I’d be going through Navajo country and that I’d be seeing some very eye-opening things.
There’s no way I would have ever known what the small villages I passed through were called unless they’d shown up on my phone as I took pictures. But each of these little towns – some a handful of small shacks, farms, and abandoned cars and a few boasting a population of 1,000 or more – is populated by the Navajo people.
I found myself wondering a great deal about the communities in each of these little places.
Was everyone friendly with one another? Do the residents help out at one another’s farms? Did the kids all visit each other’s houses after school?
Did the townsfolk see white tourists every often, and if they did, what do they think of us?
Did they want for anything? Envy the world beyond their borders? Or were they grateful that they could keep to themselves?
Further south I drove, eventually leaving Apache county, watching the trees become visible then grow.
As I neared Payson, I got the briefest of looks at the greatness of the Mogollon Rim (though I didn’t get that great of a picture!).
Finally, I made it back to the Sonoran Desert. As I entered familiar territory, I knew my trip was over.
After I finally made it home, I sat in memories of sweeping canyons, grasslands that stretched to the horizon, different kinds of trees and ancient ruins and towering red rocks and an enormous sky up above. It’s easy to look back on where you’ve traveled and long to experience it again. I’m certainly guilty of that.
But nothing is ever experienced the same way twice. Nothing remains the same, which is neither good nor bad. It is simply the way of life. And we are never meant to spend our lives traveling the same road.
Around the bend, across the valley, beyond the horizon… there’s always the next one.
You know that feeling you get when you’re trying to grasp at something barely there, how in your half-asleep stage in the morning you’re trying to remember a dream that is fading fast from memory? Or when you have a sudden thought surge through your brain when – just before you can put it into words – it vanishes and you’re left scrambling to describe it?
That’s how I feel now.
I’m holding tight to the feeling of my last day in London – May 30th – the magic that was walking through the city, drinking in everything so acutely and solemnly and joyfully for the last time – and this past week I’ve felt that putting the pen to paper would make it all disappear.
Every minute of my trip is still fresh in my memory, and somehow writing down the last day makes the fact that I have been home for a week final, absolute. It defines my days as nothing more than what they are now: memories.
So it’s not that I haven’t had time to write. I just haven’t been able to. But, if I wait until the day I stop wishing my time in London was still happening, and more than just happy memories in my head, I don’t think my last day there will ever get blogged.
So… here we are.
On my last full day in London, I woke up with both the reality of knowing it was my final day and an eagerness to get out and explore just one last time.
I got out of bed and ate breakfast, taking my time getting ready, then – after getting some tea at Pret – walked to the Old Street Tube station.
My first stop was – of course – Parliament Square, which houses Big Ben (and the rest of the Houses of Parliament), and Westminster Abbey. This day, I walked across Westminster Bridge to look at the Square from the other side of the Thames. I wasn’t disappointed!
Then I went back up to Parliament Square to just sit and look at Big Ben and Westminster Abbey for a while. And, of course, admire the statues they have there.
This shot of Westminster Abbey might be my favorite I took throughout all my trip:
There is nothing like Westminster Abbey. I’ll travel the world in my lifetime and will never find anything that makes my heart skip a beat quite like this place does.
After drinking in every second I could in Parliament Square, I decided to head back towards Buckingham Palace so I could walk the Mall again. Buckingham Palace is about a 15 minute walk from (20 if you’re slow like me) and I thought it was the perfect time to take that walk through the city.
A shortcut is to go through the beautiful St. James’s Park, which naturally I took.
And while I was just stepping into the park, about to get onto the path that would take me towards the Palace, I caught sight of a cool little cottage a few hundred feet away so I turned right to check it out.
And while on this little detour, I came across two families of ducks that absolutely stopped me in my tracks.
The first flock had three babies, with Mama Duck resting and watching them pick around in the grass while Papa Duck strutted between them and kept a lookout for trouble.
The second family was waddling around together, Mama and Papa Duck keeping order while they walked, little ones following and looking around with wonder. One little guy kept lagging behind, curiously picking at the grass every now and then, then hurrying to catch up to his mom and siblings while Dad Duck chided him for being tardy.
It was fascinating. They were fascinating. I couldn’t watch them long enough, couldn’t marvel enough at the perfect little family units that they were.
It was so clear – so clear! – that each little member of the family had a role to play, a different place, a unique personality… and yet they all fit together perfectly.
Finally, I walked away to keep moving towards Buckingham Palace – the ducks, waddling as a unit, perfectly together, and me, headed down my path… but alone.
Knowing it was the final day made everything that much more special.
Knowing I could only wake to the sounds of the city one last time, see new buildings and statues one last time, experience the living, breathing culture of London one last time… it made me wonder just a bit. What things at home would I do if my time there was limited? What every-day occurrences would I experience while thinking, I just did that for the last time?
I had one last place to which I had to say goodbye before leaving. And the sky darkened with rain as I walked closer and closer.
Back on the Tube I went. I explored a few other stops, including Kings Cross Station again, in a quest to find a few more postcards to take home.
Then it was time to head back to the Old Street Tube station, closest to my Airbnb flat, me completely aware of the bitter fact that I would only have one last Tube trip to make tomorrow.
As I packed my things that evening, cramming clothes and books and gifts into my backpack and suitcase and realizing Paddington Bear wouldn’t fit in either… I thought of the duck families again.
And as I reflected on my week of traveling solo – freeing and wonderful as it had been – it occurred to me that for all my wanting to embark on this journey alone, I knew exactly what had been missing the whole time.
When I rolled my suitcase off my plane a week ago and made my way towards the Tube, full of happy anticipation for what lay ahead of me, I knew that it would feel like no time at all had passed before I had to do it again, this time headed the other direction.
Rather than focus too much on the fact that tomorrow is my last day, I’m really trying to just live for each and every moment that I have left in this place!
Today, I spent another morning just sleeping in, writing, and leisurely strolling down to grab a latte and chocolate croissant and pomegranate seeds from Pret a few blocks away from my Airbnb flat. After almost an entire week of blue skies, London weather finally kicked in yesterday afternoon and it was drizzling this morning as I walked.
There is something about London in the rain during the summer (or, technically, late spring) that takes my breath away. The damp smell of the trees and the cobblestone, the old buildings darkened with water… Maybe it’s just the simple fact that I’m there to witness it.
In the afternoon, I took the DLR train down to Greenwich to see the Royal Observatory.
It was so fascinating to learn more of the history of setting longitude and latitude as well as using them to tell time. Plus, I got to stand on the Prime Meridian!
On the way back to the train, I stumbled across the church in which Henry VIII had been baptized. A single red poppy grew next to it – something I thought was amazingly cool.
I had to walk through Cutty Sark to get back to my train station – it was quite a view.
After the Observatory, I stopped by the flat to make myself dinner then headed back out around 6 for a little more exploring. While on the Tube, I decided to get off at Kings Cross station to poke around a little (and of course to see Platform 9¾).
Then, I spent one of the last few hours of daylight going to Green Park and looking at Buckingham Palace again, just because I could.
I’m going to miss that desperately, just going things here because I can. Going anywhere I want, exploring what I want.
A Canadian war memorial is in the park, and I stopped by for a few minutes to stand in silence in honor of Memorial Day and those who gave their lives for their countries.
I still can’t believe it’s been a week since I landed here in London and that the day after tomorrow, I’ll be flying back home to the desert.
Can I have two homes?
Can’t I just go back and forth between here and the desert forever?
When I wake tomorrow morning, I’ll only have two full days left head of me to explore London before I make my way to the airport Wednesday.
Part of me feels like I’ve been here forever. I’m so used to the Tube, the sounds of the city, the traffic, the little eatery places on the corners, being just a few minutes from Big Ben and Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey….
But, all the more reason to just soak in every moment I get in this amazing place.
Today I went to the Tower of London, the famous military fortress and a place of imprisonment that is centuries old and has seen the rise and fall of monarchies. The place has witnessed accusations of treason, actual treason, redemptions, battles, and dire consequences for some. Its most famous prisoner was Anne Boleyn during her final days as Henry VIII’s second wife.
Last time I was there, I only saw the Crown Jewels and the famous scaffold site, but today I spent over four hours wandering around, exploring all the different towers and battlements.
There were the apartments of Edward I and his father, Henry III:
the royal beasts “exhibit”:
the fighting platforms and the extensive armory display in the centered White Tower:
and so much more.
Knowing I might not get another chance, I stood in line to get into the Bloody Tower and see one of the biggest attractions: Torture at the Tower. What I’m sure many people take as a cool touristy room was nothing but completely sickening to me. The torture devices were so awful, I couldn’t take pictures of them. Yet so many people are desensitized and snap their pictures and move on to the next room without comprehending the horror of what they see.
Speaking of desensitization, allow me to have a mini rant here for a second.
Parents took children into this tower; their small, innocent children with no comprehension of the horrifying concept of torture.
While I was eating in the café, I actually overhead a family discussing their next plans and the mother said to her kids, “You want to go see the torture chamber?” And the kids, with all the enthusiasm of those agreeing to go on a ride at Disneyland, responded, “Yeah!”
I firmly believe that if kids are old enough to ask the questions, they’re old enough to know the answers, but that doesn’t mean we should give them the entire truth when they’re so young. Until they’re old enough to understand and fully appreciate the severity of topics like torture, they shouldn’t be exposed to it in the form of being brought in to examine devices that were used to carry out such crimes.
Okay, rant over.
As terrible as the Bloody Tower was, the place that gave me the most chills was the Salt Tower, where prisoners were kept and wrote messages on the walls.
I reached out to touch the messages at one point and was struck with so. many. questions.
Who were those people who lived within these stone walls? What were their stories? How did they come to be imprisoned at the Tower? What happened to them?
What must have run through their heads as they waited in that room, as they ticked the days on the walls and waited for their fates? Did they stick to their truths or redeem themselves in the hopes of being forgiven and released?
Studying history is putting yourself into the shoes of those who came before you and trying to know them, to make sense of their circumstances. I wish everyone around me at the Tower had acted with reverence and respect. Several were the stereotypical loud, self-entitled tourists (sad to say most of these people were my fellow Americans) that blew through each room and got visibly impatient behind me when I was pausing to read the plaques on the walls and let their kids run wild like they were at a theme park.
I moved on to the White Tower after the Salt Tower. I couldn’t take pictures (although I snuck a few) but it was cool to see the armor used by kings of the past! There were plasters of horses on display, too, with their armor, and I found myself automatically looking at their hooves and thinking how they needed to be trimmed differently, or looking at their eyes and laughing at the round pupils (horses have horizontal pupils). Once a rancher, always a rancher!
I grabbed a biscuit and jam at the little cafe before heading over to see the ravens. Legend has it that if the ravens ever leave the Tower, the kingdom will fall!
Finally, there were the Crown Jewels (actually did this before the ravens, but who’s keeping score).
Pictures aren’t allowed inside, but I didn’t care. A photo wouldn’t have done those amazing jewels justice.
Last time I saw the Crown Jewels four years ago, I wrote that if I closed my eyes, I could still see them sparkling. And that remains true today.
Nothing in the world comes close to the brilliance of those crowns and scepter and robes. Nothing.
Then, there was one last thing worth seeing…
Finally, it was time to head home.
Though of course I had to go through the gift shop too. And I saw this display – among many other cool things – which did not help my baby fever….
I may or may not have bought one of those squishy red buses for my cat.
Overall, it was an amazing day of rediscovering history and exploring and learning. And it also turned into a day where I reflected on how I want to raise my future children to behave around tourist attractions with such grave importance and how I want to take them by the hand and show them everything they can handle given their age.
Tomorrow (or today, which is when I’m finally publishing this) I haven’t decided if I’ll spend just wandering around Piccadilly Circus or Green Park or the Westminster/Big Ben Square or if I’m going to take a bus to Greenwich to see the Royal Observatory. We’ll see what happens!
Today, as per my new plan to slow down a bit rather than pack as much sight-seeing as I can into one day, I chose one main adventure: my favorite place in all of London.
For those of you out there who aren’t history geeks (but I mean, come on, you should be), Westminster Abbey is a huge, gothic church right next to Elizabeth Tower/Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament and it is one of the most famous places of royalty in the world.
Over a thousand years old, the church has seen the coronation of over 20 English monarchs starting with King Harold Godwinson, whom William the Conqueror defeated in 1066, and has chapels and tombs and memorials galore. Elizabeth I is buried there as are many other monarchs of the past: Henry VII (father of Henry VIII), his wife Elizabeth of York and his wife Margaret, Edward the Confessor, Anne of Cleaves (fourth wife of Henry the VIII who got off easy with a divorce and not a beheading!), Queen Mary (Elizabeth I’s sister), Mary, Queen of Scots, her son, James I and Elizabeth I’s successor, Charles II, Mary II….
But monarchs aren’t the only influential beings buried at Westminster Abbey. It is also a burial site for Charles Darwin, Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Dickens, Robert Browning…. And while coronations and funerals have taken place at Westminster, so have the royal weddings, the most recent being Kate Middleton’s marriage to Prince William.
I could go on and on. Westminster Abbey is a conglomeration of all things English history, a fleeting glimpse into the past.
And walking through a place so incredibly rich that has witnessed so much, walking in the steps of monarchs of centuries past, touching the tombs of that hold the bones of the great kings and queens that have shaped history… I mean, there are no words. There are none.
I started off my morning slowly, sleeping in late then going out to grab tea from the little café/organic food take away spot around the corner from my Airbnb flat. I spent the morning relaxing and writing about yesterday before eating lunch, gathering my things, and setting off for the Tube to get to Westminster. And that morning of relaxing was exactly what I needed after the craziness of the past few days!
Because it’s a holiday weekend, things were insane as I made my way through three different Tube lines (Northern, Piccadilly, and District) to what could be called the heart of London. But I loved the feeling of knowing exactly where I was going.
Last time I was at Westminster, the line was very long and there was no security that I remember. Today, there was a shorter line, but several guards checking bags and waving scanners over everyone. The guard who check me asked where I was from. Interestingly, I was asked this upon entering Westminster the first time, too.
“Arizona,” I told him. “U.S.A.”
He nodded. “Say hi to John McCain for me.” And he waved me on my way.
Pictures are not allowed inside the Abbey, and of all things this is something I am actually pleased that they did. When I take pictures I always obsess over getting the perfect shots and don’t focus quite as much as I should on my surroundings. By forbidding pictures I’m forced to soak in every detail with my mind, to remember them always.
The first time I walked into the Abbey I swear heaven and Earth moved as I stood there at the entrance, looking up at the decorated ceiling, framed by gothic architecture, that was so high up it could have very well been part of the sky.
And yesterday was no different.
As I said before, walking in the steps of generations of royalty, seeing the grandness of the detail, walking on stones engraved with the names of those buried beneath, reading the plaques that memorialize so many influencers of history, approaching the high altar where all the monarchs have been crowned (picture here if you’re interested), walking through the quire…
I didn’t take a single second for granted. I walked around in a happy daze for close to two hours and nearly cried when it was time to go. Before I did, I lit a candle and wrote a prayer request for the prayers that are said twice a day in the Shrine of St. Edward the Confessor.
There are a few sections of the Abbey where pictures are permitted – the outdoor areas and the Chapter House that shows some of the history of the Abbey (plus its future).
Then I took the Tube one stop northwest to Green Park, which I strolled through to look at Buckingham Palace again before heading home.
(By the way – I walked by some political pictures and posters on display by Green Park while walking through it at the end of the day. Just so y’all know, this is what the U.K. and much of the rest of the world thinks of us right now. Embarrassing.)
Overall? It was a perfect, perfect day.
Tomorrow (or today, as I finish this blogpost at 9:30am on Sunday – 1:30am Arizona time) I plan on going to the Tower of London! Last time I was there I only saw the Crown Jewels. Today I plan to explore all of it.
This trip is halfway over now and I just know it’s going to be incredibly painful to leave. London has a piece of my heart which it will keep forever.
Be warned: This blogpost – very much like this entire day – is a long one!
I’m beginning this at 10pm London time (2pm Arizona time) while sitting at my Airbnb flat’s dining room table with the terrace door open behind me so I can feel the fresh air and hear the sounds of the city.
It’s amazing because even though it’s dark, there’s still the faintest hint of light near the horizon… London summer days are long! Even though I woke up at 6am (11pm Arizona time), there wasn’t just a faint bit of light – there was tons of it. Sunrise here is before 5am!
(EDIT: I finished this blogpost a little after noon, 4am Arizona time!)
I got to my station at Golden Tours a little ahead of schedule which turned out to be great since it took some time to find the right bus. We headed off around 8:30am to Windsor Castle first, taking the bus out of London completely and heading into the seriously green English countryside.
And before I talk about Windsor… let me just get real here for a minute.
Even in the early morning today after a good night’s sleep, I was tired.
And to me it was finally a wakeup call about the reality of packing so many adventures into each day, or selecting quantity of quality, if you will.
Honestly, it was a wakeup call about who I am as a human being.
I’m sure there’s a little jet lag I’m getting over but really just the excitement of being here has been pushing me to walk miles each day, to travel literally all over the city via the Tube, to see everything my eyes could soak in before it’s time for me to go home. The excitement is still there and it will always be there – and not just about London, but about life in general, I think – but now the tiredness is sinking in.
And this trip has taught me more about a side of myself I think I have always known: that I am always trying to do more and I tend to think that no matter what I do in life, it’s not enough. I strive for perfection, which as we all know is a fruitless path as it just doesn’t exist. And while it’s good to want to be the best and do the most… there have to be limits. There has to be a time where you stop and say, “I’ve done all I can do, and it’s enough!” There has to be a time where you stop and say, “I am who I am, and I am good enough!”
So for the rest of my trip, I’m slowing down. And part of that starts tonight, where I can debrief and write about the whirlwind trip that was Windsor and Bath and – my favorite – Stonehenge. Where I can reflect and savor every moment that made today so amazing without hurriedly planning what I’m going to do tomorrow.
On the way to Windsor Castle our guide told us a little bit about its history. As a lover of English history, this was heaven for me. Apparently, Windsor Castle was built along with nine (?) other castles around the Tower of London so that if the Tower needed troops, they could be sent for within a day. He talked a bit about William the Conqueror’s defeat of the Anglo-Saxon King Harold during the Battle of Hastings (by “cheating” a bit, apparently) and how the new king set up the site for Windsor. It’s one of the oldest castles in England and apparently is still the summer home of Her Majesty the Queen Elizabeth. Apparently, in 1992, a fire broke out in the castle and her own son, Prince Andrew, was among the heroes who dashed through the flames to save invaluable paintings and furniture.
That, by the way, is a leader to me. It got me thinking of the days kings rode into battle, leading their troops rather than command the forces from behind a desk. Someone who risks his or her life as much as – and even more than – those who follow.
We pulled up to Windsor and I was abruptly reminded of the touristy side of exploring when it took over an hour to get into the castle. My guide handed out our tickets and maps and we waited to get through the hefty security measures that many sites are imposing after the bombing in Manchester.
Another random thought that hit me as I stood in line: I think I’ve heard just about every language possible here (though I know I’m sure I haven’t yet heard hundreds)! It’s amazing to me how nearly everyone speaks at least two languages fluently. My tour group was so diverse – Chinese, Korean, German, Hindi, and other European dialects I didn’t recognize (probably Slovakian).
Then, finally, we made it inside.
It was absolutely stunning. I am always blown away by the fact that I get to walk in the steps of thousands before me, many of them such incredible influencers of history. And Windsor Castle is a thousand years old.
I loved seeing Windsor but I do wish it hadn’t been so touristy. Parts of the castle were blocked off that I would have loved to explore.
I couldn’t take pictures inside, where the state and private apartments were, but it was absolutely stunning and rich with detail from the paintings to the carpets to the cushioned seats to the engraved, painted ceilings. But again, there was a walkway tourists were to stick to and I was among hundreds of others listening to their audio guides.
There was the king’s bedchamber, his closet, his dressing room, the queen’s bedchamber and dressing rooms, the receiving rooms, the king’s writing room (adjacent to his bedroom), royal halls… My favorite was the long, narrow great room, with a thick red carpet and the walls lined with saluting suit of arms and the ceilings full of sigils that probably go back a thousand years. (I found a picture of it here if you’re curious!)
One thing I didn’t have time for was to make the Long Walk. But, another time!
We were told to get back to the bus by 11:40, so I was slightly stressed keeping an eye on the time. Again, I like to take my time with something as splendid like Windsor Castle.
Once we were back on the bus we started the hour-and-a-half long trek to Bath. I was so tired I fell asleep for a while. Then of course when I woke up I was even more tired and – unfortunately for me – slightly carsick. But, I powered through it and was happy when we drove through more gorgeous English countryside and into the historic town of Bath.
The Roman Baths plus the museum were interesting. When I’d selected the tour I did so because of Stonehenge and Windsor and honestly was not that excited about seeing the city of Bath, but it turned out to be intriguing. The Baths were built as a public bathing place on natural hot springs, and to this day the original architecture and aqueducts stand.
Our guide made it a point to tell us a) to be careful on centuries-old cobblestone uneven surfaces near the baths, and b) not to touch the water! I found it amusing that he immediately followed with, “But if you care to drink it, they sell small cups for 50 pence at the back of the restaurant.” (I didn’t spend 50 pence on a cup of gross, murky, god-knows-what’s-in-it water but I did make a wish on 50 pence and offer it to one of the fountains.)
Then again, by this point I still wasn’t feeling all that great (something I found ironic, because thousands of people would travel to Bath with diseases like leprosy or other ailments to be cured!), so I didn’t enjoy them as much as I could have. Plus, it was actually hot!
But then we got on the bus again and began another hour-and-a-half trek to our last destination (while I munched on some almonds to get something on my stomach – worked like a charm!). And this one, I’d been waiting to see for so, so long.
Let me have another moment of what I call getting real to explain how meaningful seeing Stonehenge was for me. And this time, this is a little more personal. But it’s relevant.
It was assumed by everyone I knew that my fiancé would be making this trip to London with me, and most were astonished when I said I’d insisted on going by myself. Because I quite honestly see this trip as a pilgrimage, if you will.
My friend from the ranch – who also recently got engaged and went through some of the same feelings I went through – recently lent me a book called The Conscious Bride. I’m not done with it yet but what I read on the plane really put things into perspective about what Western civilization has done to the life transition of getting married.
We’ve de-ritualized it. Weddings are no longer seen as a rite of passage but as large, expensive, detail-oriented parties that perfectly display the correct emotions of love and happiness and utter bliss.
Seriously though. From the moment a bride-to-be gets a ring on her finger, she is expected to be SO. BLISSFULLY. HAPPY. LIKE OMG OMG GONNA BE A MRS 4EVER!!!!!1 Everything has to be perfect, and any negative thought or concept that comes with a wedding is immediately combatted with, “Well then are you sure you’re meant to marry him/her??”
But the reality is, as this amazing book puts it, weddings are a rite of passage, and “all rites of passage – adolescence, the wedding, the birth of a child, a geographic move, a job change, midlife, old age – involve a transformation of identity as the initiate sheds the old way of like and makes way for the new role” (p. 12).
Women (and men) go through a separation phase, a transition phase, and an incorporation phase during their engagements because “If a rite of passage is to be complete, it must involve a letting go, a shedding, a separation, indeed, the death of the old identity before the new identity and the new life can take hold” (p. 17).
And now I understand the deeper complexity of my anxiety that returned with a vengeance upon getting engaged. The separation had begun. The Conscious Bride calls it the transition from ‘maiden’ to ‘wife’ and it’s one all brides must make if they so choose. And believe me, I so choose.
So this trip is a bit of a ritual for me. A time of transition and reflection and welcoming the new phase of life that is to occur.
As it happens, Stonehenge was a place of rituals, thousands and thousands of years ago. It was a place of many things. Maybe this was why as our bus got closer and closer to the site, I was filled with an anticipation that I couldn’t quite explain.
As our bus got closer and closer to the site, our tour guide talked briefly about the mystery of Stonehenge, and someone asked if it was ever truly known why it was created and for what purpose it was used.
“Ah,” the guide said. “Was it used to lay out the winter and summer solstices? To tell the stories of the stars? Aliens may look down at us today and wonder why humans are grouped around a bunch of rocks in the English countryside. No one knows.” And he smiled. “It can be whatever you want it to be.”
The countryside grew – if possible – even more magnificent as we drove closer. I was amazed by something so simple as the horizon between earth and sky. Such a stark, stunning contrast.
We parked the bus by the other coaches carrying tourists and our guide turned us loose, telling us to be back at 5:40. The parking site and visitor center/café/shop is a mile away from the actual site as so not to disturb such a sacred place, and free shuttle buses carried people back and forth.
I boarded a shuttle and watched the greenery go by, completely filled with anticipation and something else I couldn’t explain.
There are more than 80 rocks in the famous ring (you can see a map here). There’s also the Heel Stone about 250 feet away, which marks the spot on the horizon where the sun rises on the summer solstice. But the Stonehenge site isn’t just the main circle we see in pictures – it extends many meters around it. Recently, it was discovered that the mounds of earth around Stonehenge were actually burial sites, so the men and women who came before us must have found it important to have them buried in sight of the stones. But past being a burial site, the purpose of Stonehenge is not really known.
But as I eventually climbed off the shuttle bus and began my walk towards the stones, I realized that the possibilities were endless.
And that’s what makes them so magical.
It was more than awe I felt, looking at them, seeing something that thousands have seen and experienced and flocked to and have felt drawn to.
It was the energy of our ancestors who might have danced and sang and celebrated and mourned and birthed and died and healed around them. It was the possibility of miracles very much like somehow creating such a structure with impossibly heavy stone. It was the wildness of the human spirit that has sustained for over thousands of years, the wildness that still lives within us all.
I could have stayed there for forever and a day, and it wouldn’t have been enough time.
I wanted to soak up that magic forever. The wind – something I have long associated with the universe speaking to me – was blowing fiercely, and I wanted to stand and listen until Time ended.
It almost hurt to walk away from them. In the end, I took a few blades of grass from the earth next to the stones, then on the bus back to London I was struck with a horrible thought, which was what if it hadn’t been right to take something from such a sacred site for the selfish purpose of wanting something for myself?
I wondered for a long time, then I thought perhaps that those that came before me had taken roots and herbs and other plants from the grounds for selfless reasons like to cure the sick or to feed their families. So I am resolving to use those few blades of grass to keep as a reminder of the wild, mystical energy I felt at Stonehenge, to inspire it in others – perhaps myself most of all.
I think in our society we try too hard to focus on the good and push away the bad. Be positive, and wave away anything negative. Celebrate birth with enthusiasm, and grow quiet when it comes time to grieve death. Plan the big, fancy wedding, and push away the emotional roller coaster that comes with it. Begin the next chapter of your life, and don’t take time to let go of the last one.
Transitions in life come with joy and responsibility and sacrifice. Seeing Stonehenge in person was somehow a reminder that life events – birth, early adulthood, marriage, children, old age, death – are gifts life has been giving mankind since the dawn of time. Deep down, I think we all understand this – only in our rush from phase to phase, we lose sight of the importance of slowing down and taking it all in, both the good and the bad.
But we are made of stronger stuff than we realize. And it took staring at a bunch of rocks in the middle of the English countryside for me to realize it.
Was that the purpose of Stonehenge, to make hundreds of generations of humans reflect on their lives and the lives of those to come after them? Who knows.