Traveling on business in 2006, Kristin Zibell has a little time to browse airport shops. She knows her aunts are fanatical about Brighton Collectibles, but on this particular day, instead of sparkling accessories, she finds herself drawn to a book display at Hudson News. As she stands there, skimming the first chapter of Eat, Pray, Love, she’s compelled to call her best friend, Robin Pasteur, in Chicago.
“You’ve got to read this!” she says to Robin, who has been going through a difficult divorce. Both Kristin and Robin end up reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir over and over as they relate to her marriage breakup and search for self-fulfillment.
Growing up in Green Bay, WI, Kristin encounters life expectations that haven't changed much over the decades. Girls would graduate from high school, get married, have kids and settle down near their parents. Kristin's younger sister, Erika, says, “People here tend not to think outside of the box."
Yet their parents, who are retired teachers, encourage both daughters to be "do-ers". Kristin exceeds expectations by marrying a college friend, who becomes a lawyer, and landing a great job in marketing for Nestlé USA. They move to the big city and seem well on their way to a stable, successful life.
Allison Achter meets Kristin at Nestlé in Los Angeles. She remembers Kristin as a disciplined co-worker, fitting well into a very corporate, conservative world. Over drinks one evening, however, Kristin shocks her friends with the news that she is divorcing her husband and leaving her job to travel.
Though unaware of Kristin's travel dreams, Allison recognizes that people often postpone or give up their secret passions for a more conventional life. "She has the guts to follow what she wants,” says Allison, “and she has the work ethic to make sure things work out."
As in Eat, Pray, Love, best friend Robin goes to Italy for a month after her divorce. Kristin has longer term plans. She travels for the next two years, coming home to work only long enough to finance her next big trip. Her first destination is India, where she bids farewell to her marriage on the Ganges.
For centuries, the Ganges has attracted those seeking spiritual redemption and renewal. As Kristin steps onto a tour boat at sunset, she sees small, shallow bowls made of leaves sitting on the hull. Each dish contains a lit votive candle surrounded by pink rose petals. A guide instructs her group to take a candle and make a wish while placing it on the river. While the boisterous tourists make their frivolous wishes, serenaded by a sitar player, Kristin hovers over her candle to perform a private, solemn ceremony. She reaches into her pocket for a scrap of paper and her wedding ring. On the paper she has written divorce vows -- a combination of wish, prayer and eulogy for a seven-year marriage and entire way of life. She slips on her ring and starts reading softly.
Thank you for our years together.
Thank you for your kindness, your love, and your forgiveness.
Whatever anger you have, please release. Whatever blame I have, I release.
I love you and I let you go.
I love you and I let you go.
I love you.
I let you go.
As she reads, tears start streaming down her face, dropping on the rose petals. She rips up the vows and adds the shredded paper to the petals. Then she takes off her ring for the last time and adds it to the bowl. It seems like a funeral pyre as she sets the bowl on the dark water and watches it disappear down river into the night.
Two years later, during a second trip to India, she experiences another transformational moment. Lying on a hammock, thinking about the next phase of her life, she decides to move to a new home city. After considering all the places in America, she chooses San Francisco for its rich, cultural diversity. In the Bay Area, she can "travel" in all of its various neighborhoods.
She arrives in San Francisco without a job or a plan. Allison happens to be there, having just relocated for Nestlé. So Kristin stays with her for a couple of weeks before finding her own place. Intent on helping others achieve their travel dreams, she speaks at events, writes for travel publications and starts a blog. Her story about “Letting Go on the Ganges” is published in The Best Women’s Travel Writing in 2012.
Also in 2012, she is leading a Meet Plan Go event when she befriends aspiring traveler Jessica Davis. On a weekend rafting trip, Jessie sees how confidently Kristin travels. Halfway up to the Russian River, the girls realize that radiator fluid is spewing from Jessie’s car. Accustomed to travel mishaps, Kristin finds a family-run auto shop that is willing to help them out on a Saturday. While waiting, they discover a pleasant picnic area nearby. Jessie feels bad about the delay, but Kristin takes it all in stride. “Don’t worry about it,” she says. “It’s an adventure. Things will always go wrong. Travel teaches you to trust yourself, your ability to make it through and have fun regardless.”
Inspired by Kristin, Jessie gets the courage to take her first month-long solo trip to South America. "She can do anything,” Jessie says. “She has this mindset that anything is possible. I was contemplating quitting my nine-to-five grind. But she said you don't have to give up your job."
Rather than giving up a job to travel, Kristin now travels as a part of her job and life. She works for GeoEx, a high-end adventure travel company, as a marketing director. Last year, she experiences a safari in Kenya. Later this year, she takes another familiarization trip to Bhutan. Her recent boyfriend also travels and writes.
One night, after a travel event, Kristin and her sister Erika are sitting on her porch with a bottle of old vine Zinfandel. They revel in her wanderings. “She was telling me about all the ways she wanted to share her adventures of rhinos, rickshaws and Ayurvedic baths,” says Erika. “At the end of the conversations and the bottle of Zin, she exclaimed, ‘I want to be the next female Anthony Bourdain!’”
Many new travelers might aspire to be the next Kristin Zibell.