A first solo jaunt, in the com­pany of anx­i­ety

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY ME­GAN MCDONOUGH me­gan.mcdonough@wash­post.com

Stand­ing alone, fret­ting and per­spir­ing on In­de­pen­dence Mall, I knew it was crunchtime: Did I want to spend my fi­nal hours in Philadel­phia in line wait­ing for a chance to peek at the Lib­erty Bell or did I want to see the world’s first pizza mu­seum?

Many peo­ple, un­der­stand­ably, would have cho­sen the for­mer. His­tory, pa­tri­o­tism, Amer­ica. I get it.

Thank­fully, in that mo­ment, I had only one opin­ion to con­sider — my own.

I flagged down a car and booked it to the primo pizza haven. Brows­ing its food-themed mem­o­ra­bilia col­lec­tion, which in­cluded kitschy goods that in­cluded a pizza-party Bar­bie doll and sil­ver “Star Trek” En­ter­prise pizza cut­ter, I prob­a­bly should have felt guilty for choos­ing a pub­lic shrine to the Ital­ian pie over Amer­ica’s most fa­mous bro­ken bell. And for the two scoops of Lit­tle Baby’s choco­late pome­gran­ate ice cream I de­voured for lunch. And for the fancy, frozen craft cock­tail I splurged on the night be­fore.

But I didn’t. For the first time, I didn’t have to ex­plain, ra­tio­nal­ize or com­pro­mise my travel plans to fit any­one else’s mood, bud­get or sched­ule. The pos­si­bil­i­ties were end­less. And the de­ci­sions — bad, good or in­de­fen­si­ble — were all mine to make.

When I told friends and fam­ily I was go­ing to Philadel­phia for the weekend, their re­sponses were all the same: “With who?” Once I told them I was go­ing alone — and that it was my first foray into solo travel — they perked up. “That’s awe­some!” “How brave of you.” “I’ve al­ways wanted to do that!” But there were some out­liers. “You’re go­ing to a new place, by your­self . . . by choice?” said an ac­quain­tance, with a quizzi­cal ex­pres­sion.

I can’t deny ex­pe­ri­enc­ing some pangs of doubt when my Am­trak train ar­rived at 30th Street Sta­tion. For years, I had viewed solo trav­el­ers’ ac­counts of their jour­neys with awe and ad­mi­ra­tion — also, a smidge of envy. Their pol­ished, glossy posts made solo travel look al­lur­ing and ad­ven­tur­ous. What if my ex­pe­ri­ence fell short? What if I failed mis­er­ably at be­ing a lone ranger?

A day of ex­plor­ing Cen­ter City and Old City helped me get my foot­ing and calm my nerves. It was lib­er­at­ing, al­beit a bit daunt­ing, to know I had noth­ing to con­sider but my own (loose) itin­er­ary. I pro­ceeded each day at my own pace — snap­ping se­cret self­ies at the Na­tional Lib­erty Mu­seum, los­ing my­self in the quaint beauty and peace­ful­ness of tiny El­freth’s Al­ley and re-cre­at­ing Rocky Bal­boa’s fa­mous movie run up the steps of the Philadel­phia Mu­seum of Art.

Solo travel forced me to be­come com­fort­able with the un­com­fort­able. Whether it was nav­i­gat­ing my phone’s GPS sys­tem in a new part of town or fig­ur­ing out how to talk to the per­son in the bar stool next to me, I had to ac­knowl­edge that the feel­ing was new, weird and un­usual. Then push past it. But there were times when trav­el­ing solo chal­lenged me. For ex­am­ple, din­ing.

“The reser­va­tion is un­der McDonough,” I half-whis­pered, half-mimed to the Talula’s Gar­den host­ess. “For one.”

My heart­beat quick­ened, and a wave of anx­i­ety flowed from my flushed cheeks to my grum­bling gut. It was din­ner time and, af­ter de­lay­ing my reser­va­tion twice, I had fi­nally con­jured enough moxie.

While I have eaten many meals by my­self — at home, at my desk and on the run — noth­ing could calm my nerves as I en­tered the beau­ti­fully lit pa­tio alone. At first, I was con­vinced ev­ery­one was watch­ing me, won­der­ing whether I had been re­cently jilted or was sim­ply friend­less. I felt I needed to broad­cast that I was eat­ing alone by choice.

De­spite my ini­tial dis­com­fort, I soon came to ap­pre­ci­ate the ben­e­fits of din­ing alone. Small, sim­ple de­tails of­ten missed in the com­pany of oth­ers — tex­tures, col­ors and mu­sic — were ev­i­dent and im­pres­sive. Sud­denly, my lonely din­ner be­came both man­age­able and en­joy­able.

As the trip pro­gressed, I re­al­ized that al­though I was alone more of­ten than not, I was never lonely. By the last day, my long­ing to share my Philadel­phia ex­pe­ri­ence with oth­ers was dis­si­pat­ing. Af­ter all, it had, in fact, been shared with mul­ti­ple peo­ple — from the whips­mart Talula’s Gar­den bar­tender who of­fered me drink ideas to the friendly Na­tional Lib­erty Mu­seum do­cent who of­fered to charge my phone in the back­room to the jovial Ben Franklin im­per­son­ator who of­fered me di­rec­tions on the street.

Though soli­tary, I had es­tab­lished gen­uine, if fleet­ing, con­nec­tions with an en­tire com­mu­nity of peo­ple I prob­a­bly wouldn’t have oth­er­wise.

And thanks to the City of Brotherly Love, I was in good com­pany.

IL­LUS­TRA­TIONS BY BEE JOHN­SON FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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