Name & Age: Philippa (Pippa) Gunn, 36
Where's home? Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, Canada
What got you started? I’ve always had the desire to be independent and travel. When I was little I used to run away from my family’s home. I would venture off into the woods looking for ‘another land’. I just wanted to go on a journey — it felt very instinctive to me. My older brother earned quite a few scout badges for tracking me and bringing me home. I also remember watching the film Lawrence of Arabia — and falling in love with desserts and the idea of experiencing another culture.
What was/is your last/current trip? In the spring of 2014, I quit a professional job working at a museum to fulfill a decade long dream to thru hike 2,200 miles on the Appalachian Trail. After spending six months living a very simple life in the woods, I found it impossible to return to the traditional working world. Instead, I spent the winter participating in a self-guided artist residency on a farm in rural Nova Scotia. Afterwards, I moved to British Columbia to work on a horse ranch in the Southern Cariboo, which is where I am living now. So in a sense, I am still ‘travelling’, although I see it more as a ‘pilgrimage’ or ‘lifestyle’.
How do you pay the way? I’ve used different strategies at different times in my life. In my early 20's, I made use of Working Holiday Visas to support my travels. These visas allow you to live and work in other countries for a year or more. At first, I used the UK and Ireland as my base, saving the strong British Pound to travel. For example, in 2000, I journeyed overland from Nepal back to England, through Pakistan, up the Khyber Pass to Afghanistan and then through Iran. That was before 9/11, when a brief period of relative political stability in the region made it possible to make such a trip. I also worked as a nanny in Vienna, and picked apples in New Zealand. It was a great lifestyle — I would work for 3-6 months, then travel until money was running low and I found an interesting place to live where I would pick up some work again.
Later, when I returned to University studies, I chose a program that allowed for learning experiences abroad. I spent eight months living in Ecuador, where I worked with an indigenous community development project. Following that, I was an archeological field student in Belize. I studied hard and earned bursaries and scholarships to partially fund these experiences. During grad school, I was awarded a scholarship which freed up some cash to hike the Camino De Santiago — a 1,000-year-old pilgrimage route across northern Spain.
When I started a professional career I still managed to travel by saving up my vacation days—being paid while travelling was definitely a treat!
Today, I approach my current journey as a kind of self-directed experiential learning project. I use savings, and look for interesting jobs or volunteer positions that offer live in accommodations and a built in community of likeminded individuals. I take positions where I can learn something new, challenge myself, and grow as a person.
What's always on your packing list? A dress that is equally appropriate for a day at the beach as it is for dinner at a nice restaurant in Paris.
What’s the last thing that blew your mind? Nearby the ranch where I am living there is a mountain with an abandoned fire warden cabin on the summit. I hiked up there and spent the night alone during the week of summer solstice. The sunset went on for hours until almost midnight and I could see for about 100 miles distance over snow peaked mountains. That was thrilling.
By land, by sea, or by air? By land. I’m a long distance hiker — I love to experience a place at the human scale, to move through landscapes at a natural pace.
Hotel or hostel? Camp or Couchsurf? Camping — there’s something wonderful about being self-sufficient in the wilderness. I have an ultralight one-person tent that I’ve used for over 2,500 miles of backpacking. When I set it up — in a field under the stars, next to a waterfall — I always feel at home. A hotel is a nice luxury — but I’ll probably end up sharing it with three other backpackers/hikers I’ve met that day!
What's your travel pet peeve? The way in which people fetishize the photographic image. These days, it seems people travel to a destination, not to experience the place, but to capture an image that they can then share on social media to gain some kind of status. The image becomes the destination. There’s something to be said for just being. Just looking. Just experiencing by paying attention to your senses.
I do love the creative aspect of photography and documenting experiences to share with others — I try to be mindful and discerning about what I’m documenting and why — I check in to see if my desire to share is genuine or self-promoting. Photographs that are made thoughtfully, and shared out of generosity will always receive an appreciative response.
How do people react to you as a solo female traveler? I am privileged because I am a white, straight, middle class and post-secondary educated female with a Canadian passport — no one finds me threatening. So, in general people respond positively to me, when they may not to someone who is on a similar journey, but who falls into different categories of identity. At the same time, there is some vulnerability associated with being female and alone whether that is hiking in the back country or backpacking through Egypt, sightseeing in Rome.
When I tell stories about travelling alone, most people are inspired and supportive. I suppose it does take a kind of independence and sense of self-reliance to have these experiences. I’ve been generously invited into many people’s homes and offered meals and hospitality. People who may not have the chance to travel or go on a hike across America, still want to connect and share a part of the journey. Some of the most memorable conversations of my life have taken place with strangers who offered to share a table in a café in Istanbul, or while hiking in central France. People are open to sharing their most intimate stories because they know while travelling; there is little consequence or judgement.
What scares you? Waiting until retirement to do the things I love.
Walking along narrow ridgelines with steep drop offs (I have vertigo).
How do you overcome fear / anxiety / doubt? In the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Audrey Hepburn’s character described her feelings of fear and anxiety as the “Mean Reds”—whenever she felt the “Mean Reds” she would go the Tiffany’s store and surround herself with beauty and luxury. I think the sense of abundance calmed her down. Whenever I doubt my life choices — I go to the woods — nature is real and solid — and this helps me to see things as they truly are. Most of the expectations placed on us by our contemporary society are social constructs — an illusion — being in nature brings me back to reality and reminds me that I am forging my own path based on my own understanding of truth.
Canoeing, or 'Aqua blazing', 120 miles down the Shenandoah River in Virginia, was a highlight of my journey on the Appalachian Trail. We had no guide book and there were no blazes or sign posts to follow. We camped in a farmer's field under a full moon, drinking wine and watching fire flies light up the trees like christmas, portaged 5 dams, ( once with the help of a tractor), navigated Rapids and sighted eagles and osprey. Sometimes when the water was calm, we tied our canoes together and drifted, lazing in the sun and humidity, dragging our hands in the water, listening to the world hum. #aquablaze #backcountrybeauty #getoutside #outdoorbella
Worst memory: While hiking the Appalachian Trail a friend fell off of a cliff. It took about 5 hours for him to be airlifted out, and there were moments before we were able to ascertain the injuries when it was possible to think he could be paralysed or possibly die. The rescue workers were amazing and afterwards, with time, he recovered from his injuries. But for days after the accident I had post-traumatic stress — I would see a log in the woods and think it was his body lying on the ground. Or hear him moaning in the woods — I had to get off trail and hide away in a motel room for a few days by myself before I could continue with the hike. It gave me much respect and understanding for rescue workers and war veterans who deal with difficult situations like this all the time and suffer from long-term post-traumatic stress disorder.
One unforgettable memory: Sleeping in the Sinai dessert with my Austrian friends and our Bedouin guide and camels. The earth was red sand and we were in a canyon, blankets and cooking posts spread out around a fire. There were so many stars they formed clouds, and smell of oil in the wool blankets and lamps made me feel I had found a portal and travelled back in time.
Bravest memory: Surviving a flash flood in Egypt. It’s a looooonnnnng story.
Culture shock moment: As the special guest invited to a community gathering of an indigenous community in the Sierras of Ecuador I was offered an entire guinea pig that had been roasted on a spit. I could see the details of its face, teeth and tail. I had been a vegetarian for three years up to this point, but I couldn’t be ungracious, so I ate the whole animal. And you know what? It was delicious.
Best reason to talk to strangers: Strangers are gatekeepers to knowledge and experiences. Being open to connect with new people, is what forms an adventure. The person you chat with — in a café, or by a Wharf, outside the gas station — may turn into an invitation to a 3-day journey on sail boat, information about a vineyard you can work on, a hitch back to the trail head, a lifelong friend.
How are you different while traveling? My life becomes simple. I don’t think about accomplishing career or material goals. My needs are few so my attention goes towards what really matters — I become a better listener, time slows down, I regain my natural curiosity and energy. I would like to think I’ve come to a place in my life where I am now always my authentic self—but I am still working on this—and I suppose that’s one of the motivations for travel — it creates a situation — a “liminal space” — where I step to the periphery of cultural norms that define a consumerist society — here, on that edge, I feel at ease and happy.
Is it harder to leave or to stay put? They are both challenging. I follow my heart — and sometimes that means stay, and often it means go. I long to travel, but I enjoy deep and committed friendships and a sense of community too.
Three things you learned on the road:
- Most feelings of fear are unfounded and self-created.
- There is a great deal of inequality, violence and poverty in the world—and also a great deal of joy, generosity and hope.
- Education isn’t the equivalent of intelligence. Some of the smartest, creative and ingenious people I’ve ever met couldn’t read, but they could build a house, lead a community and demonstrate compassion to strangers.
What keeps you going? The innate desire to see more, to know more. To feel free. To find a spiritual home .
What's next? This October I’ll be living on Cortes Island, British Columbia, volunteering at a retreat centre situated by the ocean. I’ll be working to help harvest the garden and supporting their program staff in exchange for room and board, daily yoga and meditation and the chance to experience this beautiful part of the Canadian Pacific Northwest.
In 2016, I plan to thru-hike 2,600 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail.
What would you be doing if you’d never left home? I suppose I would be working on some interesting museum projects, upcoming exhibitions and doing community outreach—maybe I would have a garden and host a dinner party.
What advice do you have for wanna-be Wild Hearts? Not everyone will choose or are able to walk out of their established and settled lives to travel far for long periods of time. At the heart of travel, is the journey of personal transformation. To cultivate a wild heart, ask yourself: What can you do today that will bring you joy? What behaviours and attitudes can you identify as habitual rather than authentic expressions of who you truly are and your real longings and desires? What are you holding onto (identity, role, relationship, story, obligations) that aren’t good for you — can you let them go? Can you gently and inquisitively adjust these habits to open space for the emergence of new possibilities?
Last question: What would make you stop traveling? Love. Love that anchors and inspires the desire to see subtle changes of seasons and years unfold across a landscape, community, relationship and family. That’s another sort of journey all together—just as powerful and absolutely transformative.
Follow Pippa: @walking_with_bliss