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Outdoors/Adventure

A travel dress is versatile and durable, and it symbolizes the freedom to move and explore

  • Author: Alli Harvey
    | Alaska Outdoors
  • Updated: January 17
  • Published January 17

Alli Harvey, right, wears her travel dress on a 2012 adventure with a friend at Runyon Canyon in Los Angeles, California. (Photo provided by Alli Harvey)

Ah, my first heartbreak. I was in my late teens and I met the guy in college. When he broke it off — I know, right?! How could he?! Thanks for being on my side — I decided it was time to take a year off from school and hit the road.

I’m not known for my temperance when it comes to big life events.

Initially, some friends and I planned a road trip from my home state of Massachusetts all the way down to Key West, Florida. One friend had the wheels and I had — well, the broken heart. I think she had enough of my sniveling and decided to withdraw from the road trip because perhaps being stuck in a car with me for days wouldn’t have actually been that much fun.

But car or no car, I was set on going to Key West. So I purchased a series of Greyhound bus tickets. Solo.

I had my priorities lined up for the trip: a couple of full bags of trail mix from the bulk section at the grocery store and a full jar of peanut butter to sustain me, an adopted smoking habit picked up exclusively for the trip as a way of meeting people along the way — I don’t need anyone to tell me how dumb that was; lucky for me I had as easy a time dropping the habit as I’d had picking it up — and, most importantly, a travel dress.

I was very specific on what a travel dress is: wrinkle-free, durable, pairs well with most anything, impervious to body odor, doesn’t pick up lint or other weird detritus, and makes me feel like a million bucks even when on a Greyhound bus for what ended up being a full month of travel.

I found it at TJ Maxx. It was black, some kind of stretchy synthetic material and kind of swishy. It was probably meant to be a cocktail dress, but I bought it, tested it, and dubbed it my official travel dress.

I wore that dress under my giant backpack that carried all of my worldly possessions for the better part of four weeks. I stopped in New York City for five glorious days of trekking around the city, then Washington D.C., followed by Asheville, North Carolina, for a beautiful and thrilling mountain adventure, Charleston, South Carolina, for the beach and Gainesville, Florida, for a sense of the college town, before finally arriving in Key West.

What the trip taught me is that my life was destined to be bigger than my breakup. There were opportunities to expand myself and my connections all up and down the Eastern Seaboard and beyond, and I learned I could rely on myself to get through the hard knocks of life’s ups and downs. I found joy in that trip, and comfort in always being able to retreat into my own head when I felt done with the random pods of people I met along the way in various bus terminals and youth hostels.

What the trip taught me is that my life was destined to be bigger than my breakup. There were opportunities to expand myself and my connections all up and down the eastern seaboard and beyond, and I could rely on myself to get through the hard knocks of life’s emotional ups and downs. I found joy in that trip, and comfort in always being able to retreat back into my own head when I felt done with the random pods of people I met along the way in various bus terminals and youth hostels.

My travel dress reinforced my confidence. More than a simple garment of clothing, it represented freedom, adaptability and style. My style.

In retrospect, I am still stunned what my Type A, East Coast parents permitted me to do when I was young. I suppose I was older than 18 at this point, so I don’t think they had much choice, but I remember they were not so keen on my idea. That’s probably with good reason. Looking back, there are moments when I’m proud of myself for having my wits about me, but also many moments where, had I been unlucky or carried a different identity in this world, things could easily have gone horribly wrong. It’s not the brightest idea to be a young woman traveling solo on a series of Greyhound buses on overnight rides, stopping in deserted corners of cities and towns for hours at a time.

Then again, I don’t regret it and what it taught me. That’s the paradox: it’s not something I would ever, ever recommend to my stepdaughter, but it’s also something I would never give up from my life.

And the symbol of that travel dress endured. I’ve had many iterations of that first dress, which has long since bit the dust.

I’ve hiked, biked and backpacked in travel dresses — and, sure, I’ve gone to fancy occasions in them too. That’s the beauty. A good travel dress is mutable; it shape-shifts according to the event. It wicks sweat even as it falls in just the right places. It’s athletic, but not too thin or skimpy.

If you need to hop on a bike, you can use a quarter and a hair tie to make shorts. Pay attention, ladies, for this amazing life hack someone else taught me: You hold the quarter on the back of your dress below your butt, push it through your legs, taking the fabric with it to the front of the dress. Use a hair to wrap the back and front folds of your dress together tightly around the quarter. Voila! Shorts! When you take out the quarter the dress smooths out instantly. You go to your event, you drink your cocktail, you celebrate your whatever, and then you’re ready for the next thing.

A good travel dress doesn’t constrict your breathing or hamper your movements. You’re not worried about how you look because you feel covered, and you feel great.

I need a new travel dress — and a reason to wear it. Right now my closet is filled with piles of athleisure-esque technical gear starting to wear out and items from an online personal-shopping service — because other than select missions such as looking for a travel dress, I can’t be bothered to care about dressing myself, but I also don’t want to look like a schlump.

I need to find that dress that allows me to fulfill my need for freedom and adaptability. It should be stretchy, simple and well-designed so I don’t need to worry about it. It should be with me everywhere — on the trail, in the city, to a party. This is the mood I’m bringing to thread through 2020: this travel dress, and my renewed mission to find it and all that it represents.

Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska.

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