In July, I took a trip to Spiral Jetty, Robert Smithson’s monumental earthwork on the Great Salt Lake in Utah. On my way there, I ran into a group of three people at a rest stop. They (a woman and two men, all probably in their 30s or 40s) asked me for directions, which I couldn’t really give, as this was my first time there.
“I’m sorry, but I’m not totally sure where I’m going, either,” I said.
“Oh, you don’t live here?”
“Nope, just passing through. Traveling.”
“By yourself?!” the woman asked, looking truly shocked. She then peered over at my car, as if to make sure there really was no husband or brother behind the wheel.
“Well, I have my dog with me.”
I encounter this attitude a lot when I’m traveling by myself. It bothers me, and my instinct is always to react defensively. “Why is this something I shouldn’t be able to do on my own? Is this seriously still a thing?!” I know better than to take it personally. I know it’s not about me but, rather, an archaic attitude about women and independence. But it confounds me. Why does the idea of a woman traveling alone scare people?
Getting defensive never helps, of course, so the best I can do is to just keep on going as a lady traveler, and to talk about it and try to set some sort of example. Maybe that’s too arrogant – I don’t actually think of myself in those terms, as “setting an example” for anyone. I do the things I do because I want to do them – it’s what makes sense to me. But I do think it’s important to try to talk to people who seem afraid of the world around them, or of taking risks or, especially, of being alone.
Of course, there’s the safety issue. Personal safety should always be a concern, whether you’re a woman or not. I enjoy camping alone in a tent in the wilderness. I’ve lived in a truck, often parking for the night on quiet side streets in random towns. And sure, sometimes I’ll get scared – sometimes I’ll hear a bump in the night that makes me sit up straight for half an hour, eyes wide open, as if that will help me see better in the dark, to find the source of that sound. I am not fearless. But I also don’t live in fear. I’ve never owned a weapon of self defense – no gun, no knife, not even a can of mace. It has honestly never even occurred to me to carry any of these things on me while traveling, or in my bag on a daily basis. Yes, shit happens. Sometimes horrible, senseless shit happens to women (and men) who travel alone, or just dare to walk home by themselves late at night. Sometimes just having street smarts isn’t enough. But I refuse to live my life imagining the worst case scenarios at the expense of missing out on all the good stuff.
the Type Truck at the Salt Flats, UT - 2012
And then there’s the issue of just being alone. For some people, this is even scarier than things that go bump in the night. But for me, my favorite person to hang out with is myself. And that’s not because I think I’m perfect, or even always awesome. I’ve had my periods of darkness and insecurity (basically all of my mid-20s). But I’ve worked through a lot of that stuff, and now I really do think I’m at least mostly awesome. I like seeing how I’ve grown up. Of course, I can still be an asshole to myself sometimes – beating myself up for no good reason. But I always make up with myself, because I know how special my relationship with myself is. All my other relationships will suffer if I don’t first get right with myself. And so I relish the long stretches of silence when I travel alone, those hours and days when I just get really into my own thoughts and then, sometimes, even get past my own thoughts to where I’m not even having any thoughts. It’s the closest I’ve ever gotten to meditation.
I’ve been lucky enough to have found a supportive partner who, for the past ten years, has not only encouraged my independence, but made his own independence a priority. This was something we talked about from the very beginning – how important it was for each of us to have our own lives, while still sharing parts of those lives together. Our time spent apart is one of the defining characteristics of our relationship. It’s not uncommon, when asked of his whereabouts, to say, “oh, he’s in Oregon right now. I think. Maybe Idaho?” We do check in with one another when we’re traveling, but not every day. Sometimes not even every week. Because we’re having our own experiences, we’re taking the time to be ourselves, independent of one another. It makes us stronger as individuals, and it makes our relationship stronger when we come back together again. I know our relationship doesn’t make sense to a lot of people. “Don’t you miss each other, though?” friends ask. Well, of course. Sometimes we do miss each other. But that feeling of longing makes our time together feel precious, even after ten years. He gets home this weekend, after being on the road for most of the past three months. And I can’t wait to see him, and drink whiskey together, and watch movies, and hang out with our dog in the hammock. All simple things. But I don’t take any of them for granted.
amazing pin by Weird Empire
I think there’s a huge difference between being “alone” and being “lonely”. Being lonely is the worst. When you want desperately to be around people, to really know someone, to be known by someone else… but, for whatever reason, you just can’t. I’ve been there, and it was the darkest chapter of my life. It took a lot of work and self-care to get out of that hole, and I learned that “not being lonely anymore” actually had nothing to do with other people. It was about finding the value within myself, and letting that shine through. When you become friends with yourself, you gain confidence and energy, and you start to realize all that you are capable of. And that’s a lot.