In praise of the power of solo travel
We were lingering over coffee and chocolate cake (Ruth Reichl’s “The Cake that Cures Everything” is my go to) after a Valentine’s Day brunch at my home when a friend made a shocking announcement.
I’ll plan to go to a movie. When a friend hears I’m going solo, they invite themselves along.” She sighed. “But I actually want to be alone!”
Could it be that one of my friends is like me in this regard?
In fact, I was delighted to hear this.
Though I adore activities with my friends and family, I recharge away from others and relish a solid amount of alone time. It turns out my friend is also like this — a fact I hadn’t known before that conversation.
As I’ve grown older, people I know become less afraid of doing things alone — almost as if we’ve become more comfortable with our own company. I know there are some who shy away from doing things solo — venturing abroad alone or even to the next state isn’t appealing to everyone. But perhaps it’s time to step outside of the box you’ve known with this one.
I’ll tell you: the travels I’ve taken by myself have contained the sharpest memories — their sights, sounds, scents, and textures more vivid than trips I’ve taken with others.
When studying abroad in London, our group from Chico State was given a week off for winter break. Rather than tagging along with other students, I opted to travel to Scotland by myself. I remember setting out from my shared student flat in South Kensington early one Monday morning, my backpack filled to the brim, which included at least 5-8 books, and catching the train north. Entering into that adventure felt thrilling but a bit scary too. Its wonders were many. Stepping off the train in Edinburgh, I remember being a bit in awe: “It smells like buttered toast!”
The city was enchanting, but the solitary walking during that trip and so many others has been transformative, rejuvenating, and just plain exciting. I’m an explorer, and who knows what I might discover. The people (or cats) I might meet. The bookstores or bakeries or museums I might wander into.
I ended up taking a three-day tour of the Scottish highlands, and years later I still remember our entry onto the Isle of Skye as something magical that has never been repeated with its vivid and rugged landscape, crisp weather, and unique spiritual atmosphere.
I’ve visited Venice twice, but it’s the trip I took alone that stands out the most. Stepping off the train from Trieste, I briefly consulted my map, but felt led intuitively through the Venetian maze. I never worried I wouldn’t reach my destination. Walking with another person can be wonderful, but there are pathways you might take only by yourself.
The ability to be secure in our own company is significant for our relationships, for there’s a link between loving ourselves and being able to love others well. As author bell hooks writes, “But many of us seek community solely to escape the fear of being alone. Knowing how to be solitary is central to the art of loving. When we can be alone, we can be with others without using them as a means of escape.”
In certain cases, time and space alone can be the perfect ticket for processing what’s happening on the landscape of the heart.
In fact, I write this while on my own solitary retreat with a stack of books and a robust supply of coffee. On the weekend I found myself tunneling out of months of sadness over the loss of a relationship. I thought things were resolving, but something triggered the sharp awareness there was still pain to navigate that I had been ignoring.
My heart needed attention and time and space away was an answer. Even a change in the view out my window helped me as I uncovered the layers of what was going on in my heart’s story — a story that felt a bit stuck.
Yes, it’s true that our close friends can carry us during difficult times, but a piece of the puzzle is sometimes found within the folds of solitude.
Even before today’s trip, a surprise journey to the Amalfi coast in Italy this past summer convinced me of this.
But that’s another story.