I've always had an obsession with Peter Pan.

Neverland, the Lost Boys, the whole lot. I’m not just talking childhood; I’m talking—with no shame—up until the present.

When I was a kid, the story captivated me. I used to pretend that I was one of the Lost Boys. Their freedom was enchanting; they were dirty, they were brave, they explored every inch of their world. And in my mind, I was one of them. I could fly, I could fight. I could hold my own with a sword (read: stick. Or twig. Or whatever.)

As I got older, this obsession manifested itself a little differently: in the form of a giant crush on the actor from the “live” Peter Pan movie. This can be verified by anyone from my tiny hometown, where as a middle schooler, I had a life-size Peter Pan poster tacked to my wall. Said crush was definitely adolescence at work; but I think the bigger picture was that as a 12 year old, it gave me permission to keep daydreaming—something that wasn’t cool to do anymore at that point. It allowed me, in a different way, to keep pretending that Neverland existed.

I remember, for the first time, identifying with Wendy instead of with the Lost Boys. Wendy didn’t want to become an adult, and neither did I. I didn’t want to think about my future. I didn’t want to grow up.

I’ll get to the point.

As an adult, I’ve just finished up a roadtrip with an awesome partner. (For anyone who’d like to catch up, check out the beginning of our journey here with #1)  A few weeks from the end of our trip, there was a night on which I realized that I was happy, purely happy. Happy in my bones. On this particular night, I remember realizing that, despite being dirty and dusty and all that jazz, that I was smiling at the simplicities. I was smiling because it was dark and because the coyotes were howling and because I was eating a cinnamon roll and because I could smell salt from the Great Salt Lake. I was smiling because the breeze felt nice. I was smiling because the stars were bright. That night, I wasn’t thinking about anything besides the next day’s adventures, and was giddy in knowing that I’d have a partner-in-crime. Those are the reasons that I was smiling. That was when it struck me: we were playing Peter Pan. We were being kids.

Throughout those months on the road, we had no idea where we would sleep each night. We were winging it. Following our instincts, following the wind. We were eating under the stars, or under the beating sun, or in the screaming wind. We were running up and down mountains, just to see if we could. Running up just to see what it would look like from the top, just to see what’d be on the other side. We were basking in the sun and shielding ourselves from pelting rain. We were jumping into lakes, we were going to sleep with dirt under our fingernails and freckles on our noses. Sure, we were carrying bear spray instead of a sword—and granted, there weren’t too many pirates to be found in the good ‘ol West—but we were adventuring and looking out for danger and reveling in the pure earthiness of it all. We were playing. These past few months of adventuring were exactly that: an adventure.

Really, I think this trip reminded me of what it’s like to be a kid. Kids go to bed with their feet dirty. Kids have no idea what they look like, because they don’t look in the mirror before they greet the day. Kids go to sleep with the sun, and wake up with it, too. Kids eat food even when there’s dirt on it and they smile at fireflies just because they’re there. Beauty and simplicity.

I think that’s where this trip was, ultimately, so freeing: in its simplicity. The process of arriving at this point wasn’t easy—it’s not comfortable to cut out the comforts. But once you’re there, you arrive at this point of childlike simplicity. When we strip away most of the extra stuff, we’re still kids. And secretly, that’s what I’ve wanted to be all along.

Peter Pan, dirty bare feet, adventures all day. On to the next one, baby.