What happens when a woman wanders, alone…

By Caitlin Kelly

Imagine going there alone!
Imagine going there alone!

By now, I may be the only woman who hasn’t yet read “Wild” the best-seller by Cheryl Strayed about her hike of the Pacific Northwest Trail alone; the film, starring Reese Witherspoon, was recently released.

I was intrigued by this piece about it in New York magazine:

Granted, men, too, sometimes seek out extreme environments in response to psychic wounds, in life as well as in literature. But for them, the wound is optional; men are free to undertake an adventure without needing trauma (or anything else) to legitimize it. By contrast, a woman’s decision to detach herself from conventional society always requires justification. Women can, of course, go out exploring for pleasure or work or intellectual curiosity or the good of humanity or just for the hell of it — but we can’t count to ten before someone asks if we miss our family, or accuses us of abandoning our domestic obligations.

I’ll soon be alone in Europe for several weeks, the first time I’ve been there alone in a long time. I’m excited. I love my husband, our home, the college students I teach, but to live untethered! Even for a while…


My mother, now sadly confined to a small room in a nursing home, spent years traveling the world alone — from Afghanistan to India to Peru to the South Pacific. Freed from the need to work for a living or own property, with only one (grown) child and no husband or partner, the world was literally hers for the taking.

She taught me, by example, to behave appropriately when in other cultures (I wore long skirts in Tunisia and a wedding ring in Istanbul); to manage frugally; to tuck a chair beneath the door handle in a dicey hotel.

To  just…go!

It’s a life-changing experience for a girl or woman to travel alone — and yes, I’m very aware, this is a real privilege — having the money to do so, the mobility to do so safely, the freedom from family responsibilities and/or even paid vacation from your job, something Americans still (!) have no legal right to.

(As a full-time freelancer, I make this sort of time off a major priority above any other sort of spending and can take as much time, as often as I want, as I and my business can afford.)

My most precious belonging!
My most precious belonging!

Some women are eager to travel, and some prefer the ease, freedom and solitude of doing it alone. (Others find the notion terrifying and don’t even eat out or go to a movie by themselves when living in their own country.)

Almost every day since I posted them, readers have come to these posts about how to travel safely alone while female. Here’s one — the 10 lessons you’ll learn by traveling alone.

And this, with twelve tips for doing so safely and enjoyably. (I’ve been to 39 countries, many of them alone, including Turkey, Kenya, Mexico.)

I traveled alone for four months when I was 22, after graduating from university. I flew from my home in Toronto into Lisbon in March, spent a few weeks traveling through Evora and Beja, then crossed into Spain at Huelva, meeting a gorgeous young British man standing on the train platform. We spent two weeks on the road together in Spain before I went on to Venice and Florence alone, then back to France, Spain and Lisbon for my return flight.

Such adventures!

The kind one can only have — and allow for — when alone:

The Frenchman who met me aboard a ferry back from Ibiza who invited me back to his family’s apartment for a few days.

The German journalist in Barcelona who lent me her weekend home in Sitges.

The young Portuguese couple heading home to Lisbon who — yes, really — invited me into their Lisbon apartment the week of their wedding and asked me to photograph it. (I did.)

One of my favorite books of all time, recently also made into a film, is “Tracks” by Robyn Davidson, who wandered across the Australian outback in 1977, journeying with her dog and four camels.

Or consider Isabella Bird or Gertrude Bell or Nellie Bly…brave women of much earlier generations who ventured into the world.

It is deeply freeing (in many places, not all!) for a woman to wander, and to wander alone.

Women, in many places, are inevitably bound by social conventions; in some countries, if you’re out in public without a husband, child or parent, you’re considered fair game for sexual approaches, or worse.

But we’re so often judged as valuable solely by our tireless service to others — the woman who wanders off alone is often derided as selfish.

How dare she!?

The very first time Broadside was chosen for Freshly Pressed was this, my defense of Elizabeth Gilbert and her best-seller “Eat, Pray Love” — another paean to a woman’s journey of global and self-exploration.

As I wrote then, I think the chicken-necking and finger-waving was deeply, viciously envious:

Her choice challenges safer, more conventional choices. Instead of demonizing her free spirit, why not celebrate it? We can’t. What if everyone behaved that way?

What indeed?

I loved The Motorcycle Diaries and Easy Rider, two terrific films about two men exploring the world on their motorbikes.

Guys are allowed this freedom. We expect it of them.

Look at Thelma and Louise, a raucous road movie  — until the women have to drive off a cliff to atone for all that independent fun.

Yes, caring for other people is noble, loving, generous, etc.

But so is caring for ourselves.

Have you ever journeyed by yourself?

Dd you enjoy it?

Did it change how you feel or think?

29 thoughts on “What happens when a woman wanders, alone…

  1. I love this post and agree with it completely. There is still a double standard with regard to women traveling solo, but I think it is so important. I read a wonderful book you might enjoy, ‘tales of a female nomad,’ by Rita Golden Gelman. At 48, she changed her life completely and set off to experience and live in the world. Wonderful. Have a fantastic adventure, Caitlin.

    1. Obviously, it depends on your income and sense of adventure…some people (not saying you!) insist on fancy hotels and others would rather just go and stay in a hostel or a tent or couch-surf just to get out on the road.

      I make this my priority (after retirement savings)…we drive an old car and use old technology and live in a one bedroom apt….$$$ = choices…

  2. One of the sad things about being a woman that goes off travelling alone on a number of occasions, is that the majority of people who don’t understand why I want these experiences, and are disapproving and disparaging, are other women. My male friends are always keen to hear about what I’ve done, and what my next plans are, but I have very few female friends that share their enthusiasm.

  3. Such a great post, and one I can really relate to. I love travelling in any and all situations: sometimes I like having the freedom to explore alone, as I did in Amsterdam recently, and at other times it means a lot to have someone share the experience with me, like going on safari in Kenya with my Mum. I’ll look forward to reading about your European adventures – have a wonderful time!

    1. Thanks! I’m still debating where to go with my nine free days…maybe Prague and Budapest (have never been to either country.)

      Kenya on safari is amazing and you are SO lucky! I did it in my 20s and remember it all so vividly. Dying to go back.

  4. Can’t say that I ever journeyed alone, unless exploring my own inner self endlessly counts. Explorations inward are not for the faint of heart, even if done inside the boundaries of one’s own home. But that’s not what you’re talking about, is it?

  5. I love this post. I no longer justify my travel. If someone asks I say “to show that I can”. This year I’ve lived with the last of the reindeer riders in the Mongolian Russian border high in the mountains. Hunted with Eagles in the desert and hung out with wrestlers from Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstn, Tajikstan and Russian to name a few at the first world nomad games in central Asia. I love my travel and adventure is integral to the soul, I feel no less a woman for indulging in it.


    1. Thanks! Good to hear from you again.

      I think everyone with the health, strength, means and curiosity to travel — even only to another neighborhood they don’t know — should do so as often as they can afford to. If you’re polite and respectful of other cultures, you can learn a great deal.

      It really begs the question why anyone needs to “justify” their hunger to be out in the world.

    1. Thanks….Jose seems to find me a congenial traveler. I generally don’t whine and have a pretty good appetite for adventure, as you know.

      First stop — ice skating at the Eiffel Tower. 🙂

  6. Reblogged this on Chloe Phillips Harris and commented:
    I’ve been busy lately, really busy. The kind of busy, where you fall asleep in bed writing emails and wake up before sunrise to finish them. Then go and ride horses all day long, to the point your physically exhausted as well as mentally. However life at the moment is exciting. If I’m exhausted I’m exhausting myself in one of the most beautiful spots on earth, riding horses along beaches and answering emails becuase people actually want to talk to me. I can’t complain to much and it’s just my blog that really feels the neglect.

    In a rare moment I got to go online today, it’s raining outside and I’m drinking my morning tea at quite a leisurely rate. I found this blog and feel inspired to repost it, because it’s relevant to what I do and believe. Women need to travel, because they can. I’m not immune to the occasional pressure and whispers, that I must be runing from something to want to travel to the places I do. The truth is far simpler though, I go because it fascinates me. I go because I can. Opportunity shouldn’t be wasted.

    Here’s a blog that talks about a lot of what I feel.

  7. I used to tack days on to business trips and hike in the Rockies or tour a city. Alone. Always wondering–do I sign in with two names, as if accompanied, at trail head? Is that safer? Things men don’t tend to have to think about much. It was scary, at that young age, but also exhilarating. Didn’t enjoy Wild much, I must say. But love the idea of a courageous adventure. An independent, unaccompanied woman has made men nervous at dinner parties, in workplaces, etc. for eons, it seems. They don’t quite know where to place us. Hope you have a wonderful adventure! And what is with the wedding ring in Istanbul? Enlighten me.

    1. I was then thinner, 25, blond and didn’t want anyone male to approach me. I wore a black, knee-length dress, opaque hose and a wedding ring…mostly all to deflect any unwanted male attention. It worked.

  8. Molly J. Smith

    Always love hearing about your solo travels Caitlin. I, too, haven’t read Wild yet, but I did see the film version of ‘Tracks’ a few weeks ago.

    You know that a lot of this solo travel discussion rings true with me after my adventure through Southeast Asia this summer. I was certainly a little frightened before setting off to Cambodia alone, but found that I enjoyed my own company and the ability to go where ever I wanted without consulting someone else. Wandering through the ruins of Angkor Wat on my own time with just my journal and camera was a lovely solo experience. I even took myself out to dinner at a nice restaurant that night. A few inquisitive looks from the waitstaff and other patrons, but after a while they got used to it!

  9. I have traveled by myself many times. I enjoyed it quite a bit – Italy, Kenya, etc. I researched the culture of where I was going, dropped my American mindset and took off. learning to walk in humility when I did not understand the culture and grace to know it was okay to make mistakes. I adopted an attitude of listening and watching all along the way, a time of adventure and discovery, mostly about myself. There were some moments of fear along the way, being along in a different place but they are mostly felt when facing the unknown. I just kept walking. I also learned wisdom, and more importantly to trust my inner discernment. If it doesn’t feel good, sound good, or look good it’s best to stand back and think and wait.

    1. Thanks for weighing in….all good stuff!

      I think the most important of all is the approach you took — to be respectful of others’ cultures and norms. One of the best aspects of solo travel, for women, is to really learn to listen to your sense of discernment and act accordingly. Glad you saw that.

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