"We are the weirdos, mister." The Craft, 1996
So… fear. For me, fear has always been an order to retreat, to make for safer ground and stay there. It makes me shrink and avoid and feel very small, misdirecting the anger I feel about whatever is happening around me inward at myself for being a coward, rather than outward at the world for dicking me around. As it pertains to travel, fear means I stay home. Or at least I used to.
I was afraid to travel alone for years, sentencing myself to view it as a pathetic last resort, something I had to do "the shitty way" because "the good way" (with a partner) wasn’t an option available to me. I was scared to be pathetic, as if admitting to myself that I "had to" travel alone was also admitting to myself that I’d be alone forever. "If I wait just a few more months I’m sure I’ll meet someone, and then I won’t have to travel alone."
Everyone has a breaking point, a boiling over that forces us to flow toward the decision we’ve been avoiding out of fear, anxiety, shame, or a cocktail of all three. My breaking point was Instagram. I saw one sunset too many, was one picturesque spa over the edge, one afternoon tea beyond what I was capable of dealing with. I got, as I often do, really fucking angry.
Why do they get to travel? Why do they get to have fun? Why do they get to see the world and be on vacation and do things beyond the treadmill of life that exists from my front door to the subway to my desk at the office and back again? Who are these assholes?!
They weren’t assholes, they were just couples. They happened to be partnered while I happened to be single, and there was nothing more inherently worthy of travel in them than in me. I often talk about society pigeonholing single women into places we don’t belong, but never getting on an aeroplane was entirely my fault. My fear and shame were running my life. My anger finally took over.
I love my anger actually. I respect it. I came by it honestly, and I cope and process it in ways that work for me. You’re reading a coping skill right now, did you know that? My anger made me book a train ticket to Washington DC in 2014 for what would become my first solo adventure ever. I am forever grateful that I got pissed off.
New York to DC via train is admittedly nothing Magellan would get out of bed for, but it was a very big deal to me. I was 100% alone on vacation for the first time in my life. I planned activities, made reservations and packed, all without ever consulting another person.
For three days, I was a walking advertisement for anxiety. I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing at any given time of day. As if companionship somehow tethered me to knowing exactly how long to spend at a national monument or the correct side dish to order at a restaurant. I was worried I was doing everything wrong, I was worried people were looking at me, and I was worried I was spending too much energy being worried. I mean, Jesus.
A few impressionist paintings in at the National Gallery of Art, and I started remembering why I left the house in the first place. It was because I wanted to see things, experience things and recharge. It was because I love to travel, and didn’t think it was fair that I had to stop travelling just because I was unpartnered and all my travel buddies had partnered, too. I started forgiving myself for being scared, because it’s okay to be scared, especially while you’re facing your fear.
It’s fine that I spent that first trip terrified of my own insecurities, because at least I didn’t spend it at home. Even if my courage was fuelled by jealousy and anger, at least it got me out of bed that day. I am so grateful that, at the very least, I tried. Because the effort I made that weekend set the groundwork for every solo trip I’ve taken for the last few years. As of today I’m not angry, how can I be? I’m too busy planning and saving for a trip to Rome.
If I’d never gone to DC, I’d never have learned the truth about solo travel, and I’d have missed out on all the solo trips I’ve taken since. I had to show myself that, yes, solo travel can generate a lot of fear, anxiety and shame. But only the first time. By the end of my trip to DC I was less anxious and afraid than when I’d started the trip. I was less confused about how to spend my time. And I knew that no one was looking at me thinking how pathetic I was for travelling alone. That doesn’t actually happen. What does happen is complete freedom to see and explore every curiosity, to indulge in every idea and notion and never to have to run any of those things by someone else.
My first solo trip showed me that the secret to solo travel is to simply go, and the joy of solo travel is doing whatever the fuck you want.
We can read packing lists and take advice all day long, but the emotional components of solo travel are what really need attention, and truly the only way to approach them is on the road. Every time I travel alone I’m more comfortable than I was on the trip before. Solo travel tells me new truths every time, and while I’m still a little embarrassed and angry at the version of myself who thought solo travel was akin to admitting failure, now I just sip coffee on a bench in the Jardin du Luxembourg and forget what I was mad about in the first place. I’m getting good at this coping skill shit.
I know how scary it is to travel alone. I know that the fear is mostly of things you can’t see, such as judgment and pity, not so much in reliving a plot line from Taken. I think it’s okay to admit how emotionally scary it is when someone says "just go by yourself". I know how much courage it takes, how much effort it takes, and how we all have to wait until we find the right time, or the right amount of fed-upness, to actually go. Take your time, but take a trip.