(CW) It took me six years to graduate college with a bachelor’s degree in psychology that was so hard-won that I couldn’t bear to deal with more school to get an advanced degree. I had been working in my father’s real estate company and when I graduated, he offered to make me his assistant. Two years later, I was still living with my parents, working for dad and feeling completely stuck at 26.

Family vacations paired with road trips had been a way of life since I was a baby. I’d seen so many states by my early 20’s, I figured why not make it a goal to see all 50 by the time I turned 30? I only had a small handful left in the Northeast to complete the goal; I wasn’t tied down by a spouse, kids or a demanding career, so it seemed like a worthwhile challenge.

Traveling was something I loved to do and I’d already done a solo road trip to the check off some of the Midwest and Northern border states. It gave me a task I could easily accomplish on my own.

I drove from Arkansas to Delaware, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire, revisiting Maine and New York with a final stop in Kentucky before coming home. I did it all in a week or so in the first part of September, so the weather was great and I saw a lot of fall foliage that the NE is well known for.

Returning to Maine was like coming home. My soul felt settled and peaceful. I ate clam chowder overlooking hundreds of fishing boats, walking the boardwalks of a quaint little village and digging my toes in the sand along the ocean’s edge.

I took a walk through the Flume Gorge in New Hampshire that felt like I was stepping back into time before steel and metal took over the landscape. Driving through the highways of green, orange and red and finding myself unexpectedly passing Dartmouth College in a little town that looked like a blink-you-miss-it sort of place. The whole trip seemed idyllic, but what I’ve never shared is what I really did that week.

Oh, I did drive by myself and I did complete my goal. The problem was that I tore myself down to a place I had fought hard to come back from nearly four years before. My self-esteem in high school and college took a few hard knocks from trying to find love and acceptance in the wrong places: a man’s bed. I had worked really hard to get past that view and build up my confidence about who I was again.

Yet, as I started planning this road trip, a little devil wiggled into my thoughts.  Craigslist. The personal playground for anyone seeking comfort for an evening.

When I realized that I could find a guy in just about every place I was visiting to hang out for a night, I devised this romantic fairytale movie in my head. He could show me around, make me feel special, make me feel needed and wanted. In return, I’d warm his bed for the evening.

It wasn’t always directly spoken to, but it was definitely hinted at. I was pretty careful in screening candidates, posting two weeks ahead, asking questions aimed at finding things in common and determining how he might treat a woman. Any sort of rude behavior, text language, poor grammar or unsolicited pictures of genitalia were immediately deleted. It was my fantasy, so I wanted the whole package: smart, good-looking, and romantic.

I found a handful who were charming, polite, funny, and intelligent; I got I what asked for, and so easily. Unfortunately, what I didn’t ask for was to be raped in crappy motel near Rochester, New York.

After an amazing evening of conversation and laughter over dinner (like the perfect first date), he allowed me to save some money by crashing in his hotel room. The sex was consensual until the second round–included anal.

I remember saying no, but he was a man; taller, broader, stronger. I remember his laughter as he pulled out his flip phone to take pictures to show his friends, he said. I remember being too shocked to fight back. I remember the brutal pain and the tears that dripped to the sheets.

I remember waiting for him to fall asleep so that at 3 am I could carefully grab my things and leave.

I never reported him. I was so ashamed and angry at myself for retreating into that dark place inside me, seeking validation where it would never come. What’s worse is the fact that my rapist kept my phone number and pictures of me and contacted me a few years later, having no clue that he had raped me.

He apologized and seemed upset by it, but apparently not upset enough. He texted me again last summer, nine years after it had happened and he didn’t seem as apologetic this time around. He was more flirtatious and complimentary, stroking my ego about the impact I’d had on him.

There was a split second where I wondered… what if I really did make that much of an impact and there was actually something between us? I was still single and still searching for the right man. Thankfully, I came to my senses and blocked him.

My reasons for traveling has only grown since I first made that goal. There is so much to see and experience in different people, cultures, food, music, dancing, and clothing. It’s allowed me to be more appreciative of my own life. I won’t let one bad decision change my love of travel and seeing the world (17 countries and counting). That negative experience has helped me be smarter, safer, and more self-aware.

I’ve also come to learn to love myself for me and all my flaws. I may not always like myself, but I will always love my independent, outspoken, thoughtful self.

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