The Joys of Traveling Alone

You can just hear the syrupy taint of pity in their voices when they repeat “Alone?” when you tell them you’re going to take a trip alone. May be fine for college kids, but when you’re in your thirties they think you’re either a sex tourist or you’ve got another secret family stashed away somewhere.

But what they don’t understand is that not all great experiences need be shared.

Now, I enjoy spending quality time away from it all with my significant other just as much as the next guy. But sometimes you just have to be alone. Solitude cleanses the soul.

If you can’t stand to be alone, there’s something deeply wrong with you.

You’ve got to do it right, though. One thing you definitely should not do is take a trip predicated on dining out, drinking, and/or shopping. There is no lonelier experience than eating alone at a nice restaurant, nothing more desperate than trying to strike up small talk with strangers at a bar, nothing more wasteful of precious time abroad than shopping.

What you must do is give some long, hard thought to how you’re going to keep yourself occupied. First of all, you have to be able to stand being by yourself. That’s the chief prerequisite. And if you can’t stand to be alone, there’s something deeply wrong with you.

I personally need to have some sort of historical and/or sociological interest in the place I’m headed to. In the past few years, I’ve made multiple trips to Greece alone, and I’ve always had some roughly-sketched plan in mind about what places—all tied to ancient texts—I wanted to visit.

Troy. Mycenae. Corinth. Sparta. Delphi. Thermopylae. Mount Helicon. Mount Cithaeron. The gods visited these places, immortal poetry was spawned in these places, earthly empires struggled for these places. Carrying ancient authors like Ovid and Homer and Sophocles and Euripides and Hesiod with me, I’ve been impressed both with the rugged beauty and the human-sizedness of the various locations which were but names to me before. A feast for the eyes, a feast for the mind.

Here in America, did the same thing with Lewis and Clark, more or less following their route west and east whilst reading their journals: a month-long, blurred, ecstatic vision populated by plains, trees, rivers, roads, mountains, deer, beaches, and a dead whale.

In short, your intellect should be fully engaged in your destination. And you’ve got to keep physically busy. The best idea is to feel so exhausted by the end of the day that you don’t even have the luxury of giving any thought to being lonely.

And Nature with a capital N needs must play a part. I love the city and all its contingent energy, but there’s something to the cliché that the loneliest place is in a crowd. Wandering the streets, going to museums, eating at outdoor cafes all by your lonesome loses its charm after one or two days.

One of the main delights of my life is being at the top of a mountain or in the middle of a forest and nobody knowing where I am. It’s a Romantic ideal, a poetic conceit, a philosophical stance, a simple physical sensation, that appeals to me immensely.

This love of solitude and adventure goes against nearly everything our ever-advancing civilization of technology and interconnection and über-efficiency values. Two somewhat-recent films, Into the Wild and 127 Hours, which are ostensibly about this same thrill of venturing out into the wilderness, betray our society’s uneasiness with the Romantic ideal of independence.

In the former, we’re treated to a bathetic, fictionalized final scene in which the protagonist is dying all alone out in the wilds of Alaska and has a hallucination of him and his family participating in a group hug just as he gives up the ghost. In the latter, the young daredevil whose hand is sandwiched between rocks anguishingly bemoans his choice to not tell anybody where he was headed and vociferously regrets not calling his Mom more often.

This cloying sentimentality, this domesticated, familial, ever-connected feeling is just what the solitary sojourner seeks to flee. For there is a tangible rush of joy when one realizes that one is out in the middle of nowhere, no one having any idea where you are.

My parents still fret. Despite my repeated trips abroad alone, their anxiety grows rather than shrinks each time. My trips involve no cell phone service, no Internet, no constant updates about my whereabouts—and if I were a parent, I’d probably fret just as much. In order to travel solo, though,  you have to allow yourself to be selfish.

This is a lot harder than it sounds. As individualistic as we profess to be, we’re deathly afraid of being seen as egotistical. Especially if you’re in a relationship.

Couplehood demands compromise. My long-suffering girlfriend graciously allows me to take these solo trips because I humor her in other ways. And I staked my ground from the very beginning. She knows I have a hard-headed propensity to do what I want to do, and she’s learned to deal with it. Like Hank Williams sang:

I love you, baby
But you gotta understand
When the Lord made me
He made a ramblin’ man

  • January 06, 2016