“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”
I’ve grown up flipping through weathered pages of my grandparents’ old photo albums documenting their many trips around the world, some from their younger years, and some from even just a year ago. They’ve always traveled, and they always will travel, but what I’ve admired most about their wanderlust over the years is the rugged, boundless nature of it, the true spontaneity of their adventures.
In some of their many photos, I see them not much older than I am, crouching on narrow cliff faces in deep pockets of the Grand Canyon, barreling down rapids with their luggage strapped haphazardly onboard their inflatable canoes, trekking through open fields and miles of empty roads in Europe, and exploring it all with curiosity and the very biggest smiles on their faces.
I’m fortunate to have grown up in a family that has always urged me onward, prodding me about my next adventure, and encouraging every trip and every ounce of my innate fascination with travel. When I decided to study Italian in college, no one batted an eye. They helped me get to Italy, and cheered me on as I went back a second time without them.
My second voyage to Italy was a six week study abroad trip to Reggio Calabria and Sicily, Italy’s two southernmost regions. Hot, dry, and desolate, the south of Italy welcomed me with a steely embrace, and it still hasn’t let go. The land of fire and sea, southern Italy is as harsh as its elements. Its people are gritty and brash, seasoned by adversity in a region overlooked and neglected by its government and by its northern neighbors. Cut off from the rest of its postcard country, the South is just as beautiful, but rough and lawless.
During my first day in Reggio, my professors took our group of nearly a dozen students on a tour of our month-long home. They walked us to the busiest street in the dense city and warned us that each day, we would have to cross quickly and practice extreme caution. Every year, hit-and-run accidents account for a shockingly high number of local deaths. We stared blankly and watched the Fiats fly by. “Welcome to Reggio,” they said nonchalantly as they carried on with the tour.
We were told of the generational poverty afflicting the majority of Reggio Calabria, of the frequent and common nature of domestic violence, and of the region’s climbing crime rates. When we questioned students at the local university, they talked about nothing but getting away. Reggio was rough, reckless, and unapologetic, but it was also mysterious and magnetic, and before we knew it, Italy’s wild west had pulled us in.
We began to refer to our neighborhood of Reggio Calabria as “home” when returning from weekend getaways. We passed by locals with a smile and a “Ciao, come stai?”. We became regulars at nearby restaurants, shook hands with the mayor, and even made the front page of the local paper. We were Calabrians, through and through, or at least it felt like it.
My natural integration into the harsh and uncompromising south of Italy was undoubtedly primed by my upbringing in a ‘middle of nowhere’ town tucked in the southwestern corner of Pennsylvania. Like the rough Calabrese, my neighbors are also no strangers to adversity. Located less than 15 miles from the Mason Dixon line, the culture of my quaint hometown is influenced by the ruggedness of our West Virginia neighbors and their southern counterparts. My closest friends speak with a twang and the entire county cancels school at the start of hunting season, the cold Appalachian forests echoing with gunshots.
That untamed spirit is ingrained into every one of my friends and family members raised on the windy backroads of our sleepy coal town. Inevitably, my childhood off of the main drag has motivated me to go, well, further off of the main drag. I’ve taken trips to touristy cities, dangled a camera from my neck, and stepped in line for the obligatory must-sees and must-dos from Rome to New York City, and I’ve loved every minute of it, but that hereditary wildness still invites me beyond the city walls and into the unknown.
My greatest trips have been accompanied by adventures far off the beaten path in places outside the realm of Yelp reviews or TripAdvisor itineraries. From volcanic islands in the Mediterranean to smoky trails on the edge of Oregon wildfires, I’ve grown to value the places that test the limits of travel and offer experiences I didn’t expect to find.
I hope to create my own stack of photo albums over the years, documenting every one of my future getaways, wherever they may be. I still have many crowded cities and tourist destinations to visit, and I don’t plan on skipping them, but I also don’t intend to pass up potential adventures in the next town over, or in the ‘no man’s land’ beyond. Fall in line with the masses and choose the straight and narrow path, but don’t forget to circle back to take the windy and overgrown one less traveled. Who knows?…It might make all the difference.