I hear a rustle from the bushes and I immediately stop moving. It takes a minute for my mind to process what’s happening in front of me. My eyes widen and the blurry figure becomes clear: a small black bear with a tan snout is on all-fours in the middle of my route.
It’s 40 feet from me and looks stressed as we make eye contact. It starts pacing back and forth across the trail, not coming towards or away from me. I start talking, trying to sound calm the way guidebooks recommend.
“Okay, yep, that’s a bear,” I say to myself. “And I’m not going to run because then it’ll chase me. And it’s pretty small, so it’s probably scared, but it might have a Mama bear close. Oh shit, no, that is a Mama bear.”
With that thought piercing through my brain, I noticed a tiny black mushy blob on a tree 10 feet away from the trail, it scampers down towards its Mama and they take off running. I stay in place, talking louder and louder as the minutes go by hoping that there isn’t another one coming for me.
I cautiously resume my hike.
This is the beginning of my new queer brown girl travel nurse life. I abruptly moved from New York City to Anchorage, Alaska, to work for a hospital that has a short-term need for experienced specialty nurses. I work three days a week for twelve hours a day.
As a twenty-something with no mortgage or family to support I have the opportunity to spend my four days off experiencing, adventuring, and playing in my new locale. Housing and transportation are taken care of by the employer. And, this is my first travel assignment outside of New York City, so I’m learning to proactively explore a place that is new to me, ask questions about cultural differences, and learn what is, for me, literally a new way of life in a completely new place.
Travel nursing is a path that allows me to live in any area of the country, using almost any specialty. It’s incredibly flexible, challenging, and personally rewarding.
Yet, when I was asked what I “do” at a party a few years ago, I was literally told:
“Oh, really playing into the Indian nurse stereotype, huh.”
I have been asked by countless aunties and uncles why I haven’t become a doctor or why I’m not planning on going back to school. I’ve even been asked this by other Indian nurses and respiratory therapists, whose idea of nursing is an easy way to make money and get out of India. Ultimately, though, travel nursing has allowed me to shatter stereotypes about my career and identity simultaneously.
First of all, let me clear one thing up: I became a nurse because I wanted to.
Not because my parents told me to. Not because I wasn’t able to become a doctor, financially, intellectually, physically, or otherwise. Truthfully, I love being a nurse. I get the honor of taking care of people and being the calm voice that explains a complex situation. I literally get to monitor people’s lives. I am able to advocate for what’s most important for patients and help manage the person’s holistic care.
And, overall, I love to and need to travel. When I was younger, my mother’s travels enthralled me. She coins her travels with the word immigration. In her journey, she flew from a small, rainforest village in India to a freezing, Michigan winter—alone. Her courage inspires my own expeditions.
I love going on adventures to new places, meeting new people, and learning about different lifestyles. I also love hiking, an activity that many people in India just call walking, especially when homes are found in deep forests. Hiking in the U.S. is not associated with people of color, in fact, only 22 percent of National Parks visitors are people of color.
I move to places I’ve never been before and often have no immediate support system because I don’t know anyone, so I hike alone.
And, even though some have discouraged my choices and the life I choose to lead, I’ve learned one definite lesson, so far:
Always be ready for the bears.
Only you know what steps you need to take to truly be happy with your life, so be ready for the unexpected and be fearless in your choices. You never know, the bear might just be more scared than you are.
Mary Ann Thomas is a New Jersey-born-and-raised travel nurse, who biked across the country in 2014. She now works as a travel nurse in various Intensive Care Units across the country. She writes about her adventures, as a traveler, bicyclist, and nurse. Follow her on Instagram and at her blog.