"The purpose is not the destination
but the journey itself."
My tent campsite is drenched from continuous rainstorms in this tiny town in a foreign country. Besides the tent, the rain fly, sleeping bag and mat are soaked. More rain is in the forecast. The hostel is full and I’m over 80 miles to the nearest town. The next bus service is in three days and my vacation days are ticking away.
I have to get out of here.
Looking at the one and only road, it slowly becomes apparent to me that my only option is to hitchhike.
I’m 52 years old, raised by a Quaker farming family in the Midwest, and I have no clue as to how to do this. As I stand by the road, musing on this thought, I’m recalling every terrible “death by hitchhiking” story embedded in my memory.
Should I stay here or just “trust” and go for it?
I take a deep breath, close my eyes, trust, and stick my thumb out (just like I’ve seen in the movies)...
RECREATING MY LIFE
Only a few winters earlier as I had been wrapping presents for our family Christmas gathering in Indiana, I heard a knock on our front door. I opened it to see a police officer serving me with divorce papers. My husband of 23 years had--without notice--filed for divorce.
I spiralled into a dark place in the months and years following that police officer’s knock on my door. I’ve no idea where this wisdom came from but I began to repeat these words: “Karen, you can become anyone you want to be.”
Somehow, I knew there must be the possibility of something other than the misery I was feeling. I’ve little memory of those months of darkness, other than saying those words, over and over.
After the legalities had been settled, I made a bold move for someone who’d only known life in the Midwest. At 50 years of age, I sold my property, sold my fitness and dance studio, sold most of my possessions, left my family and loved ones, and drove out to Northern Arizona to take a position with the National Park Service.
I intuited that I needed to re-create myself.
Since I was a little girl, I had been obsessed with Westerns and had always dreamt of having horses and riding across the open expanses of the West. There was nothing holding me back anymore. No marriage, no mortgage, and no business any longer tethering me to my community. I was indeed free to reinvent myself.
I was, literally, stepping into the unknown and numerous fears.
Moving West, taking my life back at 50 years of age after a traumatic divorce, and “recreating myself” ended up becoming one of the greatest blessings of my life.
FROM FARMING TO
FITNESS & DANCE
Growing up in the Midwest, the second oldest of five kids on a family farm, fitness was a natural fit for me after the hard work of growing up hauling 70 pound bags of supplements for cattle, hand weeding fields of soybeans, and forging through the cacophony of a thousand boisterous chickens to collect eggs every day after school. Farming instilled in me a strong sense of self-reliance and confidence and drove home the importance of physical strength.
It wasn’t a surprise that I gravitated towards Physical Education as my major as an undergrad and then later in my Masters studies. Years after earning my Masters and a little after my daughter Rachel was born, I stumbled onto a Middle Eastern dance performance. I became captivated with Turkish Egyptian Dance, a love affair which would continue for the next 5 decades as I became not just a performer but a choreographer, dance instructor, and leader and founder of a dance company as well.
I have now had the privilege of spending the past 50 years joyfully serving the needs of my fitness and dance clients. As someone who has struggled with self-esteem issues both passed down and unintentionally taught to me, I’ve witnessed how fitness and dance have given my students a sense of self worth, confidence, and courage to boldly take on new things in the world. That’s what truly makes my heart sing: witnessing my students feeling good and discovering pride within themselves.
Students who initially came for the exercise stayed on as regular community members because fitness and dance gave them something that was missing in their lives: a hearty sense of self worth, community, confidence, and the capability to courageously take new things on in the world.
That’s been one of my favorite lessons as a teacher, that “when you feel physically strong you feel mentally strong and capable of taking anything on in life!”
CATCHING THE TRAVEL BUG
Growing up in Indiana, my family rarely left our farm. I didn’t leave the state until I was 18 to visit my uncle on the East Coast. I was frightened to death to get on a plane. But some part of me yearned to see the world, in spite of my fears.
Meeting the man whom I would later marry changed and broadened my world in unexpected ways. He was an adventurer, a hunter, and a fisherman. He introduced me to wilderness camping for the first time and together we raised our daughter in the outdoors. I was often left alone as a young mother at base camp in grizzly country or in army tents caring for our infant daughter through blizzards in the American West. I learned how to shoot a bow and arrow, fire guns, and track animals, thereby gaining more confidence as an outdoorswoman over the years.
Our first international trip to South Africa in the mid 1980s was life changing. I was enchanted by the allure and magic of Africa: the rugged Drakensberg range towering over the savannah, tasting fresh pineapple and mangoes for the first time, chewing dried biltong jerky and rusk, standing in awe among the towering presence of elephants, listening to the chittering of bee-eaters, and marveling at the silhouettes of acacia trees trimmed by hungry impala. Africa had a feel and an energy to it unlike any other place that I had known. It felt like a spirit home to me, one of a few I would come to discover and explore over the coming years.
On our second trip we took our daughter Rachel--who was a young teenager at the time--to Botswana and South Africa to explore the Kalahari Desert. While navigating the Okavango Swamp by boat, our family stumbled into an almost fatal encounter with a territorial hippo late one night. That trip was immensely impactful for both Rachel and me, not just because of our shared near-death experience but also because of the new worlds that it opened up for us both.
Experiencing other cultures, food, foreign accents, and vistas was amazing to me. I didn’t know at the time that I was developing a taste for more and more and MORE.
Years later after the marriage ended, Rachel and I continued our travels together going on road trips and camping trips across the country, sometimes just picking a random spot on the map and driving there with no plans. We both went on to do solo traveling around the world--which gave us both more confidence, self-reliance, and a stronger sense of independence-- before our next exciting chapter began to take shape….
THE BIRTH OF
A MOTHER-DAUGHTER ADVENTURE:
"AROUND THE WORLD WITH THE THURSTON GIRLS"
In 2001, Rachel and I hatched a plan to go on an epic trip to trek in the Himalayas of Nepal. She had initially invited me so we could visit a mutual friend living in Bangladesh at the time. In all honesty, I had serious hesitations because both of us are Alpha women. I was absolutely convinced we would butt heads and it would be a total disaster. We also had zero clues about what we were getting ourselves into. Rachel now admits that her fantasy of idyllic “tea house trekking” in the Himalayas involving skipping along very flat paths from hostel to hostel through flowing grasslands was shockingly different from the actual reality of what our trip became: a suffer fest of hiking at altitude in frigid, winter temperatures. We found ourselves cursing the sandbagging author of our Nepal guidebook as we huffed and puffed through the six directions in Nepal: East, West, North, South, Up and Down.
That first trip to Nepal was momentous for both of us. I had discovered an unimaginable appreciation and closeness with Rachel; it cemented my respect for her strength and calmness under pressure when we were confronted by some unsettling and precarious times for two women. That first trip was fraught with danger and physical hardship but it began a journey of better appreciating my daughter.
I also found that--after returning home--I couldn’t unpack my backpack. The travel bug had bitten hard. I spent months dreaming about being back in the Himalayas once again.
In fact, that backpack sat in my living room until we returned to Nepal the following year for a second and even more demanding trek to Everest Base Camp. The first trip had hinted of endless adventure possibilities and we both could feel it in our bones. Although we had the occasional mother-daughter spats, we made undeniably well-matched travel partners.
And so began the birth of our “Around The World With the Thurston Girls” odyssey. In the past 20 years we’ve spent an average of a month every year traveling as mother and daughter to mostly developing world countries, independent of groups, and traveling on a shoestring budget. From dodging charging yaks in Tibet to sampling roasted giant ants in South America, our trips aren’t your usual resort bookings. We’ve summited the world’s highest pass in the winter at 17,769 feet, ridden camels across the Sahara with Berbers, and stalked platypuses in the cold streams of Tasmania.
It is our hope with this project to inspire women and men of all ages to get out into the world to explore, to push their comfort zones, and to live life BIG no matter their age, health, or socioeconomic status! You can follow more of our adventures here, on FB and on Instagram
A SURPRISE AWAKENING:
HEALING FROM TRAUMA
Throughout many times in my life including our mother-daughter travels, I became aware of behaviors which troubled me and seemed to follow me wherever I was. I resisted dating in high school and fought my mother’s forcing me to do so. I’ve been on high alert, with alarms going off in my brain, around men of a certain age. I adore cleaning my home and keeping it spotless. My wastebaskets are always empty. My rugs are carefully lined up on the tile or carpet. And for decades, I’ve had both trust issues as well as traumatic anger/rage when I experience disrespect from others or when I see disrespect shown to others.
Often on our mother-daughter trips together, I would inevitably be triggered by something I perceived as “disrespectful” and my rage unleashed itself much to the dismay of my daughter and all bystanders.
After counseling with me around this dynamic for years, my daughter suggested seeing a therapist who specializes in treating sexual trauma. This talented professional helped me recall memories of being sexually assaulted as a young girl that I’d subconsciously repressed for six decades. As a young child, I didn’t know what sexual assault was, nor, I imagine, did I have the words to explain to anyone. I reckon I chose to say nothing because I didn’t have the words. Subconsciously keeping my secret meant that I had to find my own path and create behaviors to survive such shocking memories through those following decades.
My therapist helped me understand that I was also dealing with emotional and physical trauma from two men in my adult life. Because I loved both men, I was terribly confused trying to cope and function. A few years later I discovered yet another invaluable tool in healing from trauma. I began to study a program called the Dynamic Neural Retraining System, created by Annie Hopper. Rachel had asked me to join her in studying this program (as she focuses on healing from her own traumas), which educates how to retrain the brain’s neural pathways to heal limbic system related disorders like: PTSD, trauma, anxiety, depression, pain, Chronic Fatigue, Multiple Chemical Sensitivites, Lyme, Mold Illness, and many other chronic illnesses.
DNRS is helping me become my best possible self.
The trauma therapy and DNRS have both saved my life and soul in many ways. I learned that my situation was not unique and that I am one of millions of people who are learning to survive sexual, emotional and physical abuse.
I’m sharing these personal details so that I can highlight this: I wouldn’t be on this fascinating and enlightening journey were it not for the life challenges I’ve experienced and the consequent healing I have been achieving thanks to trauma healing and DNRS.
LOOKING TOWARDS A BLAZINGLY BRIGHT FUTURE
AS "THE WOMAN ON FIRE!"
At 74 years of age, this life journey continues to guide me towards being the best possible person, the best teacher, the best mother, the best sister, and the best friend I can be.
Just as fire can be a force of creation and destruction, so can trauma in our lives. And just as the gorgeous black obsidian is birthed from a volcanic eruption, given enough time and intention, we can choose to make ourselves stronger and more beautiful from seismic disruptions to our lives.
My life has been transformed by many moments and challenges like these. I have had to face my fears and step into the unknown. I have had countless situations where I did not know where to turn or how to save myself. Despite those dark times, I have also learned that the greatest challenges, the greatest pain, the most alarming fears and traumas have broken open my life, birthing the greatest joys, experiences, and confidence I’ve ever felt.
Despite being at an age which is often dismissed by society as being “past my prime,” and in spite of the challenges and traumas I have experienced, I can proudly say that I am feeling happier and more fulfilled at this age than I have ever felt in my life!
ANYTHING and EVERYTHING SEEMS POSSIBLE.
It is my hope and my mission--as The Woman On Fire-- to inspire women and men to live boldly and joyfully and to create a meaningful life of purpose and passion, no matter their age, circumstances, or life history.
Join me for this exciting new chapter and adventure!
Copyright 2020 Karen Custer Thurston and Rachel Sarah Thurston
Karen In Red: Rachel Sarah Thurston
Desert Highway: Lucas Davies/Unsplash
Karen and her Mama Bettie Ann: unknown
Elephant: Jason Briscoe/Unsplash
Giraffes: Pieter Van Noorden/Unsplash
Nepal: Rachel Sarah Thurston
Karen as a little girl: unknown
Lotus Flower: Saffu/Unsplash
Karen In Doorway: Rachel Sarah Thurston
A young pre-teen Karen helps steady her Mom who's wearing stilts for the annual corn detassling on their family farm in Indiana.
Rachel and Karen warming up in a cafe
after a rainy day of exploring...
Karen and a fellow backpacker trekking the Annapurna Circuit just below Mustang Valley, Nepal
Karen's 1st Grade School Photo
from Northern Indiana