Officially, I booked the long weekend in the Isle of Man — a small, skull-shaped island in the middle of the Irish Sea — because I was researching an idea for a young adult novel, something to do with fairies and folklore. The Isle of Man takes its fairies pretty seriously; there is a bridge called Fairy Bridge where even hardened taxi drivers call out a cheery "Hello, fairies!" as they cross, because to not do so is bad luck. And so, I was there to research. But, what I didn't tell anyone, what I may not have even known myself at the time, is that I was desperate to find real magic; something that would help me cope with the inevitability of my mom dying. From the moment my plane landed, a quest for some sort of magical something colored every decision I made.
I ventured deep into forests. I spent hours sitting alongside the ocean, watching the waves and searching for something. I poked around Castle Rushen, touching the damp walls and haphazardly taking notes. At one point, I even followed a black cat. When it crawled under a car, I half lay on the pavement, coaxing it to come out of its hiding spot, only partly believing the cat could be magic. I knew it was crazy, but I was trying. Desperately. I couldn't really feel anything aside from confused, alone, and guilty that I’d taken a weekend away from mom. Inspired, though? Not even remotely.
Exhausted and disappointed, I headed to a local bar for a beer. I was the youngest patron in the place by a good 35 years, but was welcomed by the five or so men who were clearly regulars. I told them about my quest for magic and, as you might expect, they laughed. But, then they opened up about the legends and folk tales they’d heard growing up on the island. As the night wore on, and more pints were pulled, the five men I’d befriended shared some inexplicable experiences, from stories of mysterious lights far off in the forest, to word that the Fairy Bridge everyone uses isn’t the real one — because the real one is hidden far deeper on the island.
By the end of the night, I had plenty of inspiration for my book, but I also felt relaxed and rooted, surrounded by brand-new friends. As I walked along the pier to my hotel, the sea crashing against the sand, and the moon reflecting on the water, I almost felt happy.
A month later, my mom died. Amidst the flowers and condolence cards from friends back home, I received a care package from my Isle of Man friends. Included in it was a key ring with a small fairy figurine. "Keep hunting for magic, even during sadness," read the handwritten card.
Of course, I realized at that point that I had found magic, just not in any form I’d anticipated. I’d seen strangers turn into friends before my eyes, and found that even in the midst of personal devastation, I had the power to connect with others.
Now, I’m backpacking through the Balkans, making my way through Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia, and Albania. Just the other day, a local explained that in ancient times, the area had been partially populated by the Illyrian tribe.
“The Illyrians?” I repeated, perking up. Illyria is the setting of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, one of my favorite plays and one I can basically quote by heart. My mother and I had loved it together. We’d analyzed scenes and had seen at least five stage productions of it. Hearing the word reminded me of my mom and was just another one of those mini-magical connections that made me realize, yet again, that right here was exactly where I needed to be.
"What place, my friend, is this?" The heroine Viola asks, confused as she wakes up on an unfamiliar rocky shore after a shipwreck.
"This is Illyria, lady," a nearby sea captain answers.
"And what shall I do in Ilyria? My brother, he is in Elysium. Perchance he is not drowned, what say you, good sir?" Viola responds. She is confused, disoriented, convinced her twin is dead and she is alone and friendless in unfamiliar territory — a feeling I know all too well. Just the other day, I’d gone for a long solo hike, finally stopping at a rocky and isolated stretch of beach. I’d quickly taken off my jeans and T-shirt, dropping them in a messy pile as I stretched on the rocks and felt the sun against my skin. I’d lain there for nearly an hour, feeling simultaneously blissful and panicked about where my life was heading.
"It is perchance you yourself were saved," the captain responds.
That response — to the fictional Viola, to me, to any traveler who finds herself in a brand new place with no idea what to do or why she’s there — is the most perfect answer. Because, travel won’t change facts. It won’t change death or grief or confusion or what-ifs or should-have-beens. But, it will save you from your own self-defeat and anger, reminding you that there’s a whole big world out there, and that if you’re looking, there's always magic to find.