How can travel help us as we search for a new direction in mid-life? Why does nature offer us insight into ourselves and experiences that go far beyond the physical? Toby Neal talks about her experience of the US National Parks.
Toby Neal is an award-winning USA Today best-selling author of mysteries, thrillers, and romance, as well as travel memoir under T. W. Neal. She’s also a mental health therapist and the author of Open Road: A Midlife Memoir of Travel Through the National Parks of the USA.
- Why mid-life is a time to reassess what you want to do with your life — and how travel can be a catalyst for change
- Some of the beautiful places in the US National Parks
- Spiritual aspects of being in nature when the veil is thin
- The physical and mental challenges of travel — and dealing with fear and anxiety along the way
- The comfort of the familiar when traveling
- Recommended travel books
You can also listen to our discussion about Wild and Beautiful Hawaii in episode 11.
Transcript of the interview
Jo: Toby Neal is an award-winning USA Today best-selling author of mysteries, thrillers, and romance, as well as travel memoir under T. W. Neal. She’s also a mental health therapist. Today we’re talking about Open Road: A Midlife Memoir of Travel Through the National Parks of the USA. Welcome back to the show, Toby.
Toby: So good to be talking with you again, Joanna, thank you.
Jo: I’m very excited. On our last show we talked about Hawaii, and today we’re on the open road, which is very exciting. Before we get into the national parks, I want to dive straight in and ask you, because you open the book with a discussion of midlife.
What is it about midlife that made you want to escape and go on the road? Because I certainly feel this need quite often, at the moment, as I go through this myself.
Toby: The subtitle is A Midlife Memoir of Travel Through the National Parks and I felt that it was tough to follow up my first memoir, Freckled, I needed a reason, in a framework, to talk about how I had reached midlife.
The biggest thing that was happening was that my initial quest to have a ‘normal’ life had resulted in a physical breakdown by the time I was 50.
I talked about that moment in a doctor’s office laying on my back when I was having this physical assessment and looked over and saw this calendar of the national parks of the United States. It was a picture of Bryce Canyon, which is very iconic. And I had this moment of just intense longing to not only be somewhere else than where I was physically but where I was physically, if you know what I mean, on the two levels of taking my body somewhere and getting a different body back.
The body that I had given up in my quest for normal middle-class life, 12 years of achieving all my degrees and working three jobs and finally owning our home and achieving all the things that I wanted to as a child who grew up with an unstable home and in poverty.
So, it was this reckoning point where I could continue going down the road I was, and I knew that my life would be shortened and impacted, or I could live a more risky life and try to fulfill my dreams. And some of them were going to be about having physical experiences, like witnessing Bryce Canyon with my own eyes.
Jo: Do you think that there’s something about moving and something about travel that helps us deal with these difficult times?
Personally, I’m at that point in my midlife where I’m waking up at 2 a.m, thinking ‘I just want to escape, I want to be moving, I want to be somewhere else.’
And, somehow, it feels like that experience of travel might help us shift. Maybe it just breaks the pattern of our daily life. Is that what you were after?
Toby: That’s exactly it, you put your finger on it perfectly, that travel is a metaphor. It’s a metaphor for where we want to be emotionally with our physical body and spiritually and mentally.
While you’re traveling, you’re completely absorbed in that. And I know you mentioned doing some long hikes yourself. I wrote about that in Open Road, that some of the long hikes we took, where you enter this zen-like place where there is nothing but the trail and the breath and the steps and the being in this moment.
I feel like modern life robs us of that. It’s so heady, it’s so distracted, it’s so filled with voices and pulling pulling pulling different obligations.
And there’s a part of us that, especially as we enter a time of really seeing that we are mortal and there’s no escaping that little cliff that we’re all going to drop off, at some point, that we know we want to have fully lived, to have fully lived and have taken that step with no regrets.
So, I think, to me, that’s what travel calls to the most is what we’ve lived long enough to know that we can’t take it with us when we go. All we can take is our memories and our experiences and the connections we made with people. And that’s what travel is about.
Jo: And that being in the moment, I think that’s really important.
Obviously, you write about the beautiful places, and we’ll talk about that in a minute, but I also love your description of ‘camping woman.’ Which is when you don’t worry about makeup, maybe you don’t even look in the mirror.
Sometimes when you’re camping, for example, having a shower, even in cold water, when you’ve been out in the heat or whatever, coming back to basics that, when you’re at home, you just take these things for granted.
When you’re traveling, the basic things become so precious.
Toby: Absolutely, you’re so right about that. I think that that’s what we’re talking about is living a more conscious life. So, on the one level, it’s about having experiences but it’s about noticing that we’re having experiences. And that’s what travel writing, the most powerful and impactful travel writing is about, sharing that experience with others in a way that deepens our own experience. If that makes sense.
Jo: The noticing, by sharing it with others. And you talk about maybe helping people through your writing and this vicarious experience.
Let’s get into the national parks. I’m in the UK, so, we’re talking about the national parks of the USA. Obviously, you saw this picture of Bryce Canyon.
What were some of the most beautiful places where you were like, ‘Yes, that’s what I wanted’?
Toby: I couldn’t talk about that without mentioning that I lived on the side of Haleakala, which is one of the jewels in the crown of our national parks. And Haleakala on Maui is a absolutely gorgeous volcanic setting at the top of a mountain, 10,000 feet up.
I had lived there for 20 years, Joanna, and never gone into the canyon, never done anything but stand at the rim and take a picture. I felt like I could not embark on some other journey without exploring the national park that I lived literally 2 miles from the edge of it.
So, that’s how the book starts is our very first heavy-duty hike. And, of course, my husband and I are in terrible shape, at that point. I’m 30 pounds overweight and he just had a shoulder replacement. I’ve got a tricky hip and a bad back and we’re carrying 30-pound packs down a 6-mile trek in deep sand. And this is just foolhardy on the one level.
On the other level, as I went on to experience, not only did that hike inspire a suspense book, which I wrote as a result of this encounter we had with these crazy hikers where we were double-booked in this cabin and there’s absolutely no communication, no way to resolve the problem. And they were getting quite aggressive and we were there first…and then I realized, ‘This is the perfect setup for another kind of like crime-level novel.’ I ended up writing a book that was inspired by the hike.
But it wasn’t just that. It was that, when we stay on the easy trail, when we just look out the vista and take a picture like a million tourists before, yes, that’s better than nothing but, when we put on our pack and get down into the place where it’s really uncomfortable, you’re going to have these rewards that are just priceless.
They’re incredible. And something in me, as I get older, just keeps wanting more of that, more of that, more of that. Not less of it.
Jo: I think the healing aspect of nature is so important. And, in fact, my husband and I, we have this rule that, if you want to get away from the crowd, you just need to go more than 500 meters from food.
Toby: That’s so good. I’m going to tell my husband that one because it’s absolutely what we experience in the national parks too. It’s like, wherever the kiosk is for food, that’s where you encounter the human race.
Jo: Exactly. And, if you want to get away, you don’t have to get that far, you just have to get further away so you can’t just grab a snack. Coming back to the various national parks, obviously, you visited quite a lot.
Which places particularly stand out in your mind?
Toby: I have to say that Zion National Park in Utah turned out to be our favorite. And the reason being it was so immediate. So, when you’re going to a bunch of national parks, you notice that some of them can only be fully appreciated by deep hiking or riding a horse.
In Bryce, you have those beautiful views from on top of the canyon. But if you’re going to have anything more than that, you have to do a really steep and rather unpleasant deep hike into the canyon. Or take a horse, which we ended up doing. And then you’re pretty much done. It’s not big.
Zion…the whole park is designed as an experience. I talk about that in the book that it was built in the 1930s after the depression in the United States, as part of a work project. But there were some really fantastic architects that helped design the route through the park and then built items in the park.
And I talk about the female architect Mary Colter, who I was completely unaware of until I saw the structures that she designed. They were so forward-thinking. Okay, I got off track and went to a different national park in my mind.
I’m talking about the Grand Canyon now. But this element of architectural wonder, this marriage of human manifestation around a natural wonder, it’s captured in certain parks really well and they’re super accessible to all levels of fitness. Zion is one such park. So is Yosemite in California.
Again, there’s a reason why they’re very well trafficked and crowded at different times of the year. The trick is to go in the off-season. Our favorite time is September-October. The children are back in school, things are cooling off, and the crowds are not as intense.
We went back to Zion twice because the time that we had spent there wasn’t enough. And another one that I’d like to go to again is Glacier National Park in Montana. It’s full of different features.
So, that’s what draws me to certain parks more than others. They don’t just have one feature like Bryce, where it’s a stunning view in this one canyon with the hoodoos. And that’s pretty much it. Glacier has lakes and hikes and the waterfall wall that goes for miles where glacier melt is pouring out and running down alongside this precipitous road that you can only take in a regular automobile.
It’s so stunning and so different. So, again, the parks with more features and more different kinds of experiences to me are the most intriguing.
Jo: That variety I think is really interesting.
I want to ask you about the spiritual aspects. I’ve definitely had some, what I would call, spiritual moments being out in nature, often alone. And it’s so fascinating because, in Freckled, in the first book, you talk about how you met your husband on a Christian camp. You were a Christian couple and you were, I guess, quite religious, at a point. And yet, in this book, you’re talking more about spirituality in nature.
What were the spiritual aspects of the journey and how has that changed over time?
Toby: I think I’ve just moved away from a more formalized religion where the rules are handed to you, which I needed at one time in my life. I would consider myself always have been a spiritual seeker. And if you read Freckled, my parents were too, they were just always trying out the latest cults or, you know, ‘Guru of the Week.’
I grew up in an environment of spiritual seeking. When I became a young adult, I really wanted black-and-white answers. So Christianity was a fit for that. It gave me a sense of safety, structure, and normality, which I was really looking for.
As I matured, again, as we get into midlife, everything that you might have made assumptions about in your earlier life you come to question and take out and look at. ‘Is this serving me? Is this a fit anymore?’
We actually went all the way to going to a Christian college and serving as a pastor and family in a church and very much building our lives around that community to, eventually, we’ve both broken away from that. Not in any kind of angry way but in more of a, ‘This just isn’t really a fit for us anymore. We feel spiritually renewed in nature and we feel just as close to God there.’
In Open Road I had a completely unexpected very out-of-the-box spiritual encounter at a place called Emerald Pools in Zion where… you just have to read the book to see because it’s too hard to put into words even now.
Jo: I call it a place where the veil is thin. I often recount these things in my novels as memories in my character, or whatever, but a place where you just feel like something more spiritual is going on in this place and you are not alone in this place and someone else could be there and not feel the same thing. You have to be in the right state, the world you’re in has to be in the right state. Natural beauty does play a part, I think, in that.
Toby: Yes. It feels like entering where time is very very thin, the separation between the past and the present. The sense of culture is very thin. In that moment, I had words in Hawaiian to pray. I’m white, although I’m a third-generation person who grew up in Hawaii and had internalized Hawaiian to a level that I didn’t even know.
I was with these other cultures that were the Native Americans, that were there long before us, and their spirits are still suffusing certain areas. So, that all sounds sort of woo-woo but I think everyone knows what I mean when I’m saying that there are certain places that surpass all known boundaries. And just a moment in time, it’s like a little portal. And maybe just for that day and that moment, it was open and you saw in for a second. And then another time it wouldn’t be the same at all.
Jo: As you were talking now, I was trying to put my finger on it. Have you read How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan?
Jo: It’s about psychedelics. I know you come from a hippie background, but this is more psychedelics for mental health and things like this. They talk about using psychedelics for fear of death, when people are dying and they have terminal illness. Some people use particular natural drugs reach a point where they feel at one with the world and they’re not afraid of death anymore. As you say, that sense of time disappears, the sense of you being separate disappears, and you actually feel like, ‘Okay,’ life goes on but in a much more holistic way.
And again, getting woo-woo for people listening, but I feel like this is so important. One of the reasons I love the book and I mentioned to you I talked to Jini Reddy about Wanderland and I think about this all the time.
You can’t chase these experiences because they don’t happen on demand, but when they do happen, they stick in your memory so much.
Toby: Yes, absolutely. And they can become something that you can hang your hat on. Even if you have a hard time defining what it was or how it fits into a known schema…in mental health, we call it schemas, when we have a framework that we’ve developed around how we understand and interpret life.
As a former therapist, one of the key things to therapy and helping people is helping them change beliefs that are no longer serving them. We internalize beliefs because they helped us at one point in our life. But midlife to me is such a key time because it’s about assessing all of those schemas and saying which ones no longer fit, or, ‘Has my life experience borne out this assumption?’
We test and try and look at things. Again, that process of hiking, that process of traveling, or even as I like to ride along in a car and gaze out the window. There’s this flow of thought that’s happening. It’s a constant assessment of what is still true for me and what can I do to set my life up to be the most meaningful and enjoyable for the time I have left.
Because we truly do reach this point where we’re like, ‘Oh, we’re not immortal.’ We’ve all had enough experiences that we know, ‘Oh, the clock is ticking.’
Jo: Absolutely. And we’re coming back to the body and the physical side. You’ve said you have some health issues. You say in the book you and your husband are middle-aged, semi-fit, art and nature lovers. And it’s like I think sometimes, when people say, ‘Ah, the national parks,’ and they think you have to be some super fit skinny hiker or like really muscly hiker and used to doing all this stuff.
And you also, in the book, talk about some anxieties that you had and some stress, and some challenging aspects. We know we can’t say, ‘This is all beautiful vistas and spiritual moments.’
What were some of the physical and mental challenges that you found on the trip?
Toby: I think the most interesting one that I discovered about myself was that I have a form of anxiety that’s related to agoraphobia. So, it’s this sense of, when things are too vast, too deep, too overwhelming, I get paralyzed almost. It has happened to me at certain key moments. And yet, I was still driven to seek out these settings.
At night, this one time I was laying on my back looking at the starscape over Haleakala. So, it’s, again, 10,000 feet up, the air is very pure and clear. The stars were so immediate, it felt like you could reach up and touch them. I was overwhelmed with the sensation that I was going to fall into space. I literally clung to the rocks next to me. I clung to the rocks and I kept telling myself, ‘This is an illusion what is happening here.’
But repeatedly, throughout the trip, at the edge of the Grand Canyon, I had the same thing. I had to crawl on my belly over to the edge to look off because I was so sure I was going to fall.
And how did I work with it? First of all by being determined to overcome it.
‘I’m going to keep putting myself in these settings because the reward is so great. I’m not going to let my fear keep me from that.’ I think anyone struggling with something that’s holding them back, that has to be your number one like, ‘No, I’m not going to give in to this.’
And then exploring the mystery of it. There was something about it. Another time it happened was as we were going into Alaska on the ferry and I realized the vastness of Alaska. And Jo, as someone from a small country like Britain, which is very self-contained, to be in wilderness that is so epically large that you can travel day after day after day after day and only see the same thing over and over again, there’s something like…I don’t even know how to put it in words. To have that experience is, ‘Well, there really are enough trees in the world. At least at this corner.’
I discovered that about myself. And my hope is that on our next journeys we are bringing along a travel trailer. I seem to be able to recharge from my anxiety by going into a little den on wheels. If humans are animals, and when you think about it, I’m a little den animal and I need to go like, ‘I’ve had too much stimulation, I need to go into my cave now.’ That will help.
Jo: That’s definitely part of being an introvert as well is the sort of overstimulation is very very tiring. When you are on a huge vista and you’re looking around and there’s so much of it. I traveled in Australia, so, I know that sort of massive…
Toby: That feeling. Yes.
Jo: That space feeling. But I don’t have the same anxiety as you. In fact, as you were talking there, I have a different one, which is I’m scared to go close to the edge because I think I might jump off, which is a really weird thing. I have this thing where I won’t drive at night because I have a compulsion about driving into headlights.
Toby: That’s very interesting. Fuel for digging in and finding what is behind that.
Jo: I did write about it in my book Delirium. I find it an interesting behavior that I control by being careful. And it’s not because I have a death wish. I’m very happy with my life, but it’s interesting how we have to feel the feelings, like about the edge of the canyon, which is a very human feeling, not to want to go to the edge of the canyon, but then also kind of understand why. That is fascinating.
You talked there about the trailer, I also wonder about this idea of the comfort zone. You wrote about this particular Hawaiian snack that you had, at one point, and you were so anxious and having the snack just made you feel comforted. And sometimes you just need to do that.
You said, ‘I understand why Americans have McDonald’s overseas.’
Toby: Yes. I finally got it when we went on this road trip. There is this psychic exhaustion that happens when you’re on a long trip because you’re constantly adjusting to something new. And, again, you don’t have to be an introvert, but I am one, so it’s even more taxing to constantly have new surroundings and everywhere you go it’s something new and you’re navigating constantly.
If you’ve ever moved to a new town, everybody’s had that experience, we call it disequilibrium in mental health. It’s a sense of constantly trying to assimilate all of this new information in order to get back to homeostasis.
Homeostasis is our place of comfort where life is predictable, we know what’s happening, and our emotions are in a balance. When you’re on a long journey, there’s this stimulation seeking that most of us who love travel we have that side. I have that side and my husband even more so, he’s much more of a stimulation seeker. He wants to get those adrenaline highs and he wants to constantly have variety. I like that but I also like, ‘I need to go to my cave and recharge.’
One of the things that’s always bothered me is that we had McDonald’s in Paris and things like that. Like why? Why? And now I was like, ‘When you’re traveling, you’re exhausted from everything being new and different.’ At a certain point, you just need something to be familiar. And that’s why you go to Walmart or that’s why you go to McDonald’s. It’s just a human trait.
Jo: I totally agree. And it’ll be interesting about this trailer. Tell us about this because you said your next journey you’ll have this travel trailer.
What are you planning next and what are some of the things you learned that will help you change the way you do it next time?
Toby: One of the key things is that I need to continue my health routine. Since the book Open Road I’ve made major strides in my health and reclaiming my body. I’ve lost 30 pounds, I’ve had some physical changes done surgically to help me regain my mobility.
I now practice yoga, meditation, and eat a very sugar-free diet. Because, again, I want that longevity in my life, I want to keep having experiences and be in optimal health. And that does not happen by accident in modern society. Everything is conspiring against you in the modern world, you really have to carve out a different health routine and eating routine to stay healthy. So, that will come with me on the trip.
Because of my anxiety, our best problem solving was to try trailering. We had an evolution with that, starting with a really small trailer up to now what we’re driving around in, which is a 21-footer. And that’s still considered a small trailer but it’s as big as we want to go. There are ones the size of a city block and they’re just crazy to me. But we have done enough trailering to know that we’re about to embark, right at the end of this month, on what’s going to be my third book, called Passages: Camping in Changing Times.
I plan to encompass climate change, what’s been happening to the world through COVID, and also what it’s like to live on the road for an extended period. We’re going from 4 to 6 months.
We’re not just doing national parks, we’re exploring off the beaten track, what they call the blue roads and back roads of the United States. I’m really looking forward to writing about that. I’m doing a newsletter along the way on the platform Substack, and it’s called ‘Passages.’ You can look it up if you’re interested in following along, there’s a free subscription there.
Jo: I’ll put a link in the show notes. Four to 6 months, to me, that is long-term travel or more digital nomad. Because you’re going to continue with your business, as a writer. Obviously, you write other books, you have readers and all these types of things and your husband as well.
The last trip, this open-road trip, was a shorter time, so, you could be on holiday, where this is almost like you have to juggle work and email. And, so, that’s quite different too, right? I think I would struggle with that; working and traveling.
Toby: We’ve set up as many systems as we could that were automated, all of our bills, we’ve rented our house to minimize the overhead. I just was packing all my office supplies into a little plastic bin.
It’s going to be different. I don’t have all the answers and I don’t know because the longest one we’ve done so far was 1 month in our trailer and we were evacuated from fires, here in California. And that was absolutely terrifying, by the way, that’ll be part of the Passages book is the effects of climate change in some of our more beloved areas. It’s not a good trend.
We were forced into living for a month in our trailer because of evacuation. And that was also just living. How do you get your Wi-Fi? It was always like, ‘Pull up to a restaurant and try to poach some.’ But that’s been written about a lot, and I don’t find it as interesting as the deeper journey of truly experiencing something new and different each day.
I am bringing along the things that make me comforted, including my dog. So, my little dog Koa will be traveling with us. And I think that will also help a lot with that sense of being unsettled and exhausted that I struggled with in the past.
Jo: That’s fantastic. We will look forward to that. I like talking about the deeper side of Books and Travel, obviously.
Apart from your own books, what are some travel memoirs or books about the USA that you recommend? And we have recommended books on Hawaii, that we talked about last time, so, do you have some more?
Apart from your own books, what are some travel memoirs or books about the USA that you recommend?
Toby: Yes, I just read an absolutely intense travel memoir called Epic Solitude by Katherine Keith. She’s one of the first women to win the Iditarod, which is a very famous dog-sled race in Alaska. Prior to that, she hiked the Pacific Crest Trail and she was just this woman who was born to try to overcome challenges. This book is so filled with heart and emotion and it just rung tears out of me and I was just in chills the whole time. So, I can’t say enough good things about Epic Solitude.
If you are drawn to adventure travel memoirs, Wild by Cheryl Strayed is an absolutely fascinating memoir about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail but also exploring grief. And that was one of the ones that inspired me in my writing.
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson is a more hilarious funny hiking-national-parks book by a well-known writer. And I really like, lately, Barry Lopez’s writing…
Jo: Oh, I love his writing.
Toby: He is so lyrical and so deep. And his personal memoir About This Life has also inspired me. I talk about a book, that I highly recommend in Open Road, called The Anthropology of Turquoise by Ellen Meloy. When I read this, and I read it on the road trip, and I talk about the experience of reading this book, that was just so well written that it made me stop.
When you read a line and you just stare into space and you go, ‘Holy smokes, that’s art.’ This was this woman’s writing. And I eagerly got to the end of the book to find out more about her because I felt so connected with her and discovered that she had died suddenly of a heart attack soon after the publication of the book. I grieved with tears.
I had this epiphany that that’s the kind of writer I wanted to be. That someone whose writing was so fresh, so immediate, and took you into their experience that it was a form of eternity. And I know that’s a big ask and that’s a big goal. But we get to have big goals, don’t we, as writers?
Jo: Oh, yes.
Toby: We get to have Everests and not just one of them. So, I highly recommend The Anthropology of Turquoise.
And also The Best American Travel Writing anthology comes out every year. I’m reading the 2019 one right now, so, it’s called ‘Best Travel Writing,’ you can just plug that in. And there’s one every year and they’re pulled out of paid, you know, subscription magazines, like ‘The New Yorker’ and ‘National Geographic.’ And it’s an anthology of shorter pieces and it will totally whet your appetite for places all over the world because it’s not just the United States but many wonderful settings.
Jo: There’s some great ones there. This is always a problem, I always go away and order more books, and I’m surrounded by travel books.
Toby: It’s a way to travel when you can’t travel.
Jo: Oh, absolutely, goodness me. I guess you’ll be doing a lot of e-reading in your trailer because you won’t have any room for lots of physical books.
Toby: It’s true.
Jo: Where can people find you and your books online, and also your husband Mike’s gorgeous photographs, which I know you also have a link to?
Toby: tobyneal.net is my website, and I’ve got all my fiction stuff and the memoirs there. You can follow the journey of Passages on Substack. And on the website page for Open Road, if you look for that, there is a link to Mike’s photography.
A lot of the stories in the book are the stories of us trying to get the shot, because my husband’s a photographer. And ‘getting the shot’ I liken it to being married to a hunter who needs to get that piece of big game with his camera in every setting.
It didn’t seem right to just talk about the experience of getting the photos without having some way for people to see the photos. But when we tried to print them in the print book, they just didn’t translate well at all in black-and-white, these little thumbnails. So, we created a $15 magazine with quotes that you can see the gorgeous full-size photos and also a calendar, which is a practical way.
That’s my original inspiration for the trip was a calendar. So, now we have our own calendar of Mike’s photography. And those links are there too for people who love photos.
Jo: Fantastic. Thanks so much for your time, Toby, that was great.
Toby: I totally enjoyed sharing my love of travel and books.