Going it Alone

What is your definition of solo travel?

2018 marked the first year I set out on my own to travel the world.

That’s not exactly true. 

I’ve actually been travelling alone since I was in my 20’s, with very few gaps in between.

I suppose that technically, I took my first solo road trip even before then, when I was 16 or maybe 17.  My boyfriend was going to school in western Pennsylvania and I borrowed my mom’s car and drove eight hours to visit him.  I have no idea where she thought I was, but I know she didn’t give me permission to drive all that way, alone.  Boy, I was a bad kid.

Then when I was 18 and in my first year of college I had the entire month of January off. So I drove my best friend, Judith, back to school in Florida.

Somewhere on I-95, January 1977

I had a little two seater convertible sports car—an MG…British Racing Green with a black top, a leather-wrapped steering wheel to accompany the all-cow skin interior tinted a lovely warm, buttery shade of beige. I can still remember the smell of the leather, especially fragrant after a day parked in the hot sun at the beach…and every now and then a tune from the 70’s will pop up on satellite radio (remember the first few bars of Play that Funky Music? or Rita Coolidge singing…”your love….is taking me higher.…”?) and I’m instantly brought back to the woods on a summer night, convertible top pulled open to the pitch black sky (save for the moon and the stars), my headlights cutting through the cool, dark night, the cold air swirling around my sunburned shoulders while the heater warmed my legs.

I think that MGB sat about four inches off the ground and I can also recall the feeling of the cold, crusty snow stinging the bottom of the car, thrown up by the front wheels as we crawled around D.C.’s Beltway in search of our Holiday Inn. A snowstorm in DC during rush hour is never a good thing.

And I remember when, once we got to Jacksonville, we got stuck on the side of an empty secondary road when a belt snapped. We waited along the edge of a canal for a tow truck, wondering what, besides the very loud and very large bugs, was making the gurgling sounds in dark water below.  The garage guy came to pick up us, and we held a pen in our hands in case we had to stab him in the leg, which we didn’t, but you can never be too prepared, I guess.

How did we get in touch with the garage?  We certainly didn’t have cell phones—no one was even thinking about them yet, and I really have no recollection of how we got from the side of the road into the tow truck.  Did we hitch? In the dark, at night…in Florida?   Can you imagine? Clearly a different time.

We made it! Here’s Judith on the beach in Jacksonville

From that trip, I do remember driving on the beach for the first time; heading to the other, rough side of the city to try and get a china doll’s face repaired (a long story in itself); then continuing on to the Gulf Coast to St.Pete and Bradenton.  I remember the smell of elephant poop on my jeans (I sat on a stand at a Ringling Brother’s circus performance), and of suntan oil and orange blossom perfume.  After a quick stop back in Jacksonville, a drive, alone, back to Washington. Met up with my mom and headed back to New York (see, she knew I was on this trip).

Me, DC, January 1977

After that, I moved in to New York City to go to school and the only travelling I did was back and forth to Long Island, the occasional trip to a ski hill or two in the Poconos, a zip down to Florida on Peoples’ Express (anyone remember them?  They came through the plane with one of those credit card slider machines so you could pay your 49.95 for the flight—no wonder they went out of business).

But then I got the bug again, and at 23 I decided to drive from one coast to the other (I think a boyfriend had talked about it, and I figured if he could do it, so could I). I hooked up with a drive-away company –somebody needs to get their car from A to B and contracts with a company to get it done; drivers connect with rides, and it goes from there.

Oh, my driveaway was a gem.

In my case “A” was Newark, New Jersey and “B” was Long Beach, California. I think I had eight days and maybe 3500 or four thousand miles I was allowed to tack on to the car.

That wasn’t enough for this amazing adventure.

I crossed the Mississippi for the very first time, broke down at the edge of a field in Wisconsin (where I learned about tobacco farming after being invited in for a coffee with the farmer and his wife while I waited for the tow truck);  I saw the Badlands and Black Hills of South Dakota, and was disappointed by the size of the profiles on Mount Rushmore (they didn’t look as big as I thought they would, although I am sure they are massive-it’s just when anything is pitted up against a mountain, it’s going to seem less than it is); I walked around the base of Devil’s Tower with a couple of military guys (who, as I recall, were bigots—must’ve been if I still remember it) and gazed across the deep blue of Crater Lake;  I stood quietly among the massive redwoods and drove across the Golden Gate, and wondered why I never applied to go to Berkeley.  I had dinner on the edge of the Pacific at Nepenthe in Big Sur, which is still there, three and a half decades later; I drank with the locals in the bar across from my cabin down the road, and I took the car to its owner after gazing up at the Hollywood sign.

I did it again three years later—this time a five thousand mile loop through the entire southwestern US in a teeny weeny rental car with summer tires—the sun-baked eastern desert of California (I remember it was 105 degrees in Needles at 7:30 in the morning—hair dries very fast in that climate); Phoenix and Tuscon and Tombstone, cities and saguaros; Hopi and Navajo, and Roswell too; Moab and a night spent under the stars by mistake in Bryce Canyon; a drive through the mountains in Colorado—quick night fall and a heavy spring snow squall brought me to the tiny town of Victor where I accidently crashed the postmistress’ funeral while looking for a way into the only hotel….a hotel that cost $15 and had one other tenant—an old woman with whom I had to share the one bathroom on the second floor. I sat in my room, looking out over the main street as the kids slid through the snow doing the “loop” through town in their pickups.

Then I moved to Canada.  My big drive across the continent from New York included three sedated cats and all my worldly possessions in a 1980 Chevy Citation, in which the electrically operated seat wouldn’t move unless you whacked it—hard—with a big flashlight, or, I suppose, a bat. This was a far better choice than my car at the time, which was a Chevy Malibu convertible—candy apple red with a white top and the road visible from the trunk through the rust—it never would have made it.

The most un-roadworthy car. Ever.

I drove long hours every day on that trip. I skinned both my knees bloody at a Motel 6 in Janesville, Wisconsin, stumbling up the cement steps with the cat cases into a sad little room; I drove across the Milk River as it diverted across a road in Glasgow, Montana during a particularly heavy summer hailstorm (cracked open the bourbon after that one); I saw cats pant for the first time as they waited in the car in the heat at the border.

And then, after four and a half very long days, I crested a hill and saw the Calgary skyline and knew I had made it to the next chapter of my life.

Calgary, Alberta circa 1985

The next few years involved at least two solo trips back and forth to New York once in the winter, where I got stuck in a blizzard in Minnesota, and once in the summer, where I recall staying at a roadside hotel in Pennsylvania that was so gross I didn’t take my socks off and slept on a towel.

And then I got a job that involved a lot of travel.  All over Canada from coast to coast to coast, as they say: Vancouver to Halifax and north to Tuktoyaktuk (look it up); lots of trips to Ottawa; the back roads of Saskatchewan (you haven’t lived until you’ve been to Eyebrow and Elbow…and Climax) and the highways of Manitoba; ring roads and back streets…and then beyond.  Bulgaria, for work; Suriname for fun and to visit a friend, and then September 11th, 2001, alone on a work trip in Vienna.

I took Andy along for the trip to Tuk.

In between all those trips that I did on my own for work or fun were trips all over the world with family—sometimes two adults and a child; more often a mom alone with a young boy in tow—to visit his grandmother in New York, to see the sights of Italy, to climb the Great Wall of China; to catch a show at Levon Helm’s barn in Woodstock and the fireworks from the roof of the American Embassy in Ottawa—we were excellent travel buddies.

So I’m not sure why I’m thinking of this part of my life as my decade of solo travel.

It may be because, in the past, there was always someone or something on the other end, expecting me to do something.  Whether it was my mother on one coast and my husband on the other, or a family at home and a week-long work trip to Winnipeg or Washington—there was always someone or something waiting for me, expecting me to do something.

In essence, none of my trips were ever my own.

So, when I woke up one day, just over a year ago, at 60, a single woman with an adult child, I did what I’d done for years: I made plans to take a trip.

Only this time I was on my own.  Sure, I was expected to return home at some point, and I had to make arrangements for someone to feed and water the cats and the plants…but from the time I left home until I got back, I’d be alone.

For me, at 60, I saw limited time left to do what I call the “difficult” travel—trips that are either physically or culturally or geographically challenging—or maybe all three. And I sat down, looked at a map, and started to make a list.

Now this wasn’t too hard to do, because I love to look at maps.  I picture what the land looks like and then I drop that little yellow man down onto the blue highways.  I stop and do a 360, so that I can see everything—the buildings, the lakes and rivers, the mountains and the flat-as-a-pancake prairie highways that just roll on forever.

Doing this, sometimes when I get to a place, I feel like I’ve already been there.

I figure that there’ll be enough time to sit on a beach when I’m 70 and travel insurance costs too much to do anything crazy.  I figure my knees will hold up for most of this list—at least I hope they will (they just started chronically hurting and kind of crunching when I sit—what is that?!  And as I write this, I’m dealing with a bad case of bursitis in both knees, which I hope will pass soon).

So, two days after my 60th birthday, I took a domestic test run, and headed to Newfoundland.  Took ten days and travelled from one end of the island to the other, top to bottom.  It was exhausting, but exhilarating. I’ll write about that soon enough.

I remember sitting in my cute little rental apartment in one of the brightly colored “jelly bean” houses that line the streets of St. John’s on my first night there. There was a cold, heavy fog blanketing the streets as dusk went dark, and I had plans to head out for fish and chips in a place where I’d heard the dish was as good as you’ll ever find; my suitcase, which got to “the Rock” a half a day behind me after spending the afternoon in Montreal, had arrived and I had everything I’d packed (which was too much). I was warm, and it was comfy, and I was still adjusting to Newfoundland time (a half hour ahead of everybody else), and I considered staying in; after all, my host had left me some super cold, super good Iceberg beer (“made with real iceberg ice!”) and heading out to a pub, alone, in a new town…..?

And then it hit me.  I didn’t come all this way to sit in a house, stare at the TV, and skip the world outside.

So I got off my ass and I went down to that pub, and damn, if they weren’t right.  Those were some of the best fish and chips I’ve had (although I still can’t really figure out the dressing on the fries—gravy? Sure, but dressing…I’m stumped).  Anyway, the service was fine, the people were pleasant, and as I meandered my way back up the hill to the house (after a couple of beers, it was definitely a meander), I knew I could do this. And love it.

So here’s the thing—if you’re someone who would have chosen to stay on the couch, this isn’t for you.  But if you’re like me, and you know you’ll never forgive yourself if you’re still deeply asleep when the sun comes up in the eastern most part of the continent, and you miss the chance to see it peek above the horizon, then take the ride–see what’s out there.

And do it on your own…or at the very least, on your own terms.

Question: what does solo travel mean to you? For me, this could be a solo drive….or it could be a few days on my own in a new place and then joining a tour group, like I did last year in Peru….or just last month in Iceland.

But what does it mean to you?

4 thoughts on “Going it Alone

  1. Kim Lawrence

    Solo travel for me was always the most freeing and terrifying thing. Freeing because I could go where I wanted, when I wanted and change my mind six times a day if I wanted. Going where the breezes blew me or staying put for weeks, and not having any structured days at all. Terrifying because I was a young blonde woman traveling solo through some rather ‘charged’ and unusual areas…and hitchhiking in some places, which was unbelievably stupid in retrospect. I got to reinvent myself in each hostel, trying on different personas like clothes and then connecting with different visitors for local food and entertainment adventures. It meant complete and utter independence, the good and the bad…being so sick and isolated that I thought I’d never survive and never be found. Having to deal with bedbugs and other creepy-crawlies alone. Squeezing the budget for that next rickety train ride. Finally figuring out the remote bus routes and feeling like a local. Successfully communicating in a complex tonal language and getting the thing I wanted at the market. Loosing myself in short-term intercultural dalliances from time to time. Those memories are mine and mine alone…like precious shells or stones that I keep in a little velvet bag in ‘mom’s box of old stuff’. Remnants of a previous life that come out to add flavour to late-night conversations with other solo sojourners! Thanks for resurrecting them!

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    1. Thanks for sharing such incredible insights,Kim….don’t you think those rather terrifying (yet somehow exhilarating) experience have in large part fueled who you are today? Knowing this about you know explains a lot about your strength, sense of humour, approachability, quick thinking, support for others, and apparent ease in all situations.

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  2. Myrna

    Solo travel means being on my own schedule. Staying as long as I like and never feeling bad that someone is waiting or that we have to meet at x time. It’s excillerating and empowering. And sometimes also just a bit sad when I don’t have anyone to share memories of the adventure with later.

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    1. Totally agree with all of that, Myrna! That’s why I’ve discovered a short time with a tour/tour group is good–you have the company when you want it, but still have the luxury of finding some time for yourself. Plus–if you’re on a good tour–with a good group (my two experiences so far have both been good), you learn so much more about where you are, where are others are coming from, and also about yourself. Thanks for commenting!

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