I went to say thank you and good-bye to one of the waitresses at my last hotel, and we chatted for a bit.
Then she exclaimed: “But…you’re alone!”
I’d stayed a week at a 23-room historic hotel and I hadn’t seen anyone else there who was traveling solo.
In my time here in Europe, now five weeks, most of the travelers I’ve seen are in couples, or families, or packs of friends, whether teens or seniors.
I’m clearly an outlier, and I’m fine with that; my mother traveled the world alone for years and I spent four months alone traveling through Portugal, Spain, France and Italy at 23.
Here are 10 reasons I enjoy traveling solo, even (yes), while female:
No one dictates my schedule
Unless it’s a travel day, and I have to meet a plane, train or bus on time, it’s no one’s business when I get up or go to bed or do anything. Total freedom is priceless to me.
No one is insisting we must do this or must see that
Again, if I want to retreat to my cool, quiet hotel room at mid-day to escape 90-degree heat, no one is having a (literal) meltdown or tantrum because they want to do something else.
I’ve missed all sorts of must-see’s and must-do’s on this trip, (all those museums! all those famous sites!), because I wanted to just rest and relax and see only what I want to see.
People can be much kinder than you’d expect
This trip has been savaged by a lot of right knee pain and right foot pain. It makes walking slow and painful. It makes stairs slow and painful. I also do poorly in heat, and everywhere people have been very kind, offering to help me with luggage or stairs.
Pauly Saal, the Berlin restaurant where I met two new-to-me friends for lunch
Making new friends is easier
When you travel with others, their wants and needs, of course, matter to their enjoyment of their vacation. If you just want to sit and have a long conversation, sometimes even a short one, that can impede your companions’ progress.
I’ve really savored the long conversations I’ve had along the way, and have learned a lot about the places I’ve been.
I don’t want to just slide past, taking lots of photos.
Silence is truly golden
When traveling solo, you don’t have to talk to anyone beyond the most basic questions. I can go an entire day without conversation, and what a relief that is.
As the waitress agreed, about having to be charming and social: “It’s exhausting!”
You’re present in a way that’s usually impossible when traveling with others
I’ve been amazed at how I just sit, still, for an hour. No book, no magazine or paper. No screens. Whether I’m watching someone in a cafe, or the local cats who shimmy down the garden trees, or admiring kids splashing into the Adriatic at sunset, I can pay all of it my full attention.
I’ve gotten some astounding photos at all times of day and night, able to see clearly without interruption or distraction. I spent one happy afternoon sketching and painting.
I witnessed a furious mother and her mutinous little boy, (and his brother and their fed-up grandparents), at a table near me in Rovinj, a seaside resort in Croatia. It was clear they were all totally annoyed with this kid, and he with them.
Thank heaven it wasn’t me; having had some monumental arguments while very far from home — out alone with my father, my mother, my husband — I know how stressful that is since you all still have to get back into the same hotel or flat and/or the same means of transportation later anyway.
Time to reflect
I’ve had all sorts of new-to-me ideas while away, for more travel, for some different ideas about designing our home, about how to work.
I’ve been reading a lot — books for a change — and loving it.
The trams in Zagreb — fast, cheap, efficient
You (re)-learn to be self-reliant
My favorite French words are “se débrouiller” and “débrouillard”...which means “to figure it out for yourself” and, loosely, “a self-reliant person.”
Solo travel turns you into that person, and quickly!
At 25, I won an EU journalism fellowship based in Paris that required four 10-day independent reporting trips throughout Europe. No one was there to hold my hand or to show me stuff. I loved it!
Whether you’re madly calculating currency differences, (try 276 Hungarian forints to the U.S. dollar!) or trying to read a map in another language or making sure you’ve caught the right bus/train/boat heading in the right direction, it’s all up to you.
If it goes pear-shaped, (as the British would say), everywhere has some sort of medical care and usually someone who speaks English. Absolute worst case, you can contact your consulate or embassy for emergency help.
The Washington, D.C. Metro
The self-confidence solo travel creates is fantastic, lasting and can inspire others to take the leap
I’ve been traveling alone since I was 17 and first crossed the U.S. border by train to attended a photo workshop — although I took my first flight alone, from Toronto to Antigua, at seven.
Once you realize how to navigate the world, and see that many people — like us — just want to make a living, help their kids and grandkids thrive, and to enjoy their lives as much as we do — it’s a much less intimidating place.
Yes, some spots are tougher than others, and some truly no-go zones for women alone. But fewer than you’d think.
I know one reason travel moves me emotionally, and why I so enjoy it, is that — 99 percent of the time — it has rewarded my (cautious) trust in the kindness of strangers with what I hoped for. Not robbery or rape or someone out to do me harm, but someone funny and generous and smart who is willing to open their heart and home to me.
Ironically, I’ve only become a crime victim — twice in Canadian cities (break-in, assault) and twice here in suburban New York (auto theft, fraud) — when supposedly safely “at home.”
Many people fear venturing beyond their safe and familiar world, certain that terror and mayhem will ensue.
Not for me and not for my mother, who traveled the world alone in her 40s.
Not for the many women I know who have ventured forth to places like Uganda and Haiti and Nicaragua, alone or with company, for work or for pleasure.
Not for for my many colleagues, male and female, working worldwide in journalism, who often have to rely on local interpreters and fixers and drivers, any one of whom might, in fact, prove to be a kidnaper. Using your smarts, network and instincts, you learn to be discerning.
Not for my young friend, 22-year-old recent Harvard graduate Devi Lockwood, now traveling the globe alone on a post-grad fellowship studying climate change, spending her year surrounded by strangers very, very far away from her Connecticut home; her blog is here.
Here’s a tiny excerpt from her journey:
Sharon retrieves an orange, plastic dreidel from the inside the pocket of her sweater. “With a dreidel, like in life, you have no control. You have to enter into the mystery and take your chances.”
I can’t help but smile at the gesture, the tears of upstairs now dried on my cheeks. Sharon closes her eyes for a moment to bless the object before she passes it into my hands. It is small but larger than itself. She could not have known that orange is my favorite color. I press the object into my own pocket.
It takes an interesting blend of courage, resilience, stamina, self-confidence, and the humility to know and respect local customs of dress and behavior to trust yourself amongst strangers. You need self-reliance and gumption. You need to know how to read a map, (apps don’t always do the trick), and manage in metric and Celsius and other languages.
And — of course — you don’t have to any sort of exotic foreign travel to have this experience. Try a neighborhood in your city you’ve never visited!
I’m in awe at my freshmen writing students’ bravery as so many of them have come from very distant parts of the world, and the U.S., to live, work and study among strangers. I’ve had students from Rome, France, Guam, Hawaii, Mississippi; Canadian college students, in distinct contrast, tend to attend their local universities (partly because there are many fewer of them to choose from and the quality is generally very high.)
You need, in my favorite French verb, to se debrouiller — figure shit out.
My blog posts about how to travel alone as a woman continue to be my best-read.
I’ve finally realized why this sort of unexpected kindness matters so much to me and why it touches me so deeply. Sometimes I’m so thankful it seems overdone, but it’s heartfelt.
I come from a family with plenty of money but one with little time or aptitude for emotional attentiveness. I left my mother’s care at 14 and my father’s home at 19, so have long been accustomed to fending for myself.
As an only child for decades, (step-siblings came later), I simply had to rely on the kindness of strangers in many instances because my own family was nowhere to be found — off traveling the world, long before the Internet or cell phones. Even when they lived nearby, I couldn’t rely on them for emotional or financial support and never, once, had the option of “moving home” back into their houses.
So I discovered that people I had never met before could overwhelm me with their kindness and generosity.
— Gudrun, the wife of a sporting goods executive living in Barcelona, who was then a stringer for Reuters. She welcomed me into her home, left me alone while they went out to dinner, and immediately trusted me. As I did with them. She later let me stay again and even lent me her weekend home.
— Tala, who, hearing we were planning to visit Paris at Christmas, immediately offered us her apartment there.
— Gillian, who invited me to her suburban home there and cooked a lovely meal.
— The young Portuguese couple I met on a train as they headed home to Lisbon to marry. They invited me into their apartment for that week and I ended up becoming their wedding photographer.
It’s instructive to see, also, how sometimes the people with the least to offer materially are so open.
When I visited Nicaragua for work in March 2014 with WaterAid, the second-poorest Western Hemisphere nation after Haiti, I was struck by how genuinely welcoming people were. Yes, we were introduced by locals they know and respect, but I expected little beyond civility. Warmth and genuine connection were a joy, whether in Miskitu through a translator or Spanish, which I speak.
I sat one afternoon, lazing in the blistering heat on a shady verandah chatting with a woman. Marly, a little girl of five, came and sat with me, and let me braid her hair, a sort of easy intimacy I can’t imagine any American child allowing with a stranger, or their fearful parents allowing.
Here’s a sobering/sad New York Times story about Lenore Skenazy, a former colleague of mine at the New York Daily News, who has become (!?) an expert in telling terrified Americans that it’s OK to let their children play outside alone:
A second result is the Free Range Kids Project and a 13-part series, starting Thursday on Discovery Life Channel, called “World’s Worst Mom.” In it, Ms. Skenazy intervenes to rescue bubble-wrapped kids from their overprotective parents by guiding the children safely through a sequence of once-forbidden activities and showing their anxious parents how well the children perform and how proud they are of what they accomplished.
The term “helicopter parents” applies to far more than those who hover relentlessly over their children’s academic and musical development. As depicted in the first episode of the series, it applies to 10-year-old Sam’s very loving mother who wouldn’t let him ride a bike (“she’s afraid I’ll fall and get hurt”), cut up his own meat (“Mom thinks I’ll cut my fingers off”), or play “rough sports” like skating. The plea from a stressed-out, thwarted Sam: “I just want to do things by myself.”
In an interview, Ms. Skenazy said, “Having been brainwashed by all the stories we hear, there’s a prevailing fear that any time you’re not directly supervising your child, you’re putting the child in danger.” The widespread publicity now given to crimes has created an exaggerated fear of the dangers children face if left to navigate and play on their own.
I’m simply sad for these children and the cringing, world-fearing adults they might become.
How will they successfully navigate the many steps toward full economic and emotional independence?
The only way to discover the potential kindness of strangers is to allow for its very real possibility.
A month away from home, from work, from normal life — I will very much miss Europe and my friends there.
It’s not just being away from the tedium of home life or a long break from the grinding pace of work, but savoring a culture that more deeply values the things I care most about — not money or work or power, but food, beauty, intelligence, conversation, friends and family.
I need to flee the United States a few times a year; a native Canadian who moved to the U.S. in 1989, I’m burned out on its stalled and vicious partisan politics, growing income inequality and fervent attention to pop culture.
One of the reasons I’ve stayed freelance — which costs me income but allows me time — is to take as much time off as my budget allows. The world is too large and filled with adventures for me to sit still in one place for very long; some places I’m eager to get to in the next few years include Morocco, Turkey and Greece. (I’ve been to 39 countries so far.)
Why so long a break?
We were loaned a free Paris apartment for two weeks, which made it affordable given the cost of Christmas-boosted airfares. I stayed with friends in London for the next week, so the only housing cost was $1,200 for the rental of a large studio apartment for my final 8 nights; (hotels on the same street are charging about $190/night for a small single room, about $1,400/week.)
Plus meals, shopping, trainfare to/from London, transfers, taxis/subway.
I hadn’t crossed the Atlantic in five years on my last visit to Paris where, as we did here, we had rented an apartment, also on the Ile St. Louis, the small, quiet island in the middle of the Seine, and settled in for two weeks.
My definition of luxury is not owning a shiny new car or huge house, (and have never owned either one), but the time to really get to know another place for a while.
To sloooooooooow down and savor where I am.
I ate lunch in a favorite restaurant across the street from our 2009 apartment and bought a dress from a favorite shop in the Marais.
It’s a luxury to reconnect with the familiar in a foreign country.
In my final week in Paris, I dithered…should I rush around seeing museums, shop the sales and/or sleep late and lounge around my rental apartment, which is large and comfortable? (I did all of them.)
I also joined in the Unity March, the largest in France’s history, thrilled that I was here for it.
One very powerful memory I’m bringing home to New York?
How vivid and present, even today in 2015, war still is in Paris.
Every street, it seems, has a plaque — often with a bunch of flowers attached to it — honoring Resistance heroes of WWII, their bravery now many decades past. Many schools, heartbreakingly, have a large plaque by their front door numbering how many of their children were taken away by the Nazis.
And there are at least four concurrent exhibitions in Paris devoted to aspects of WWII and WWI, from the Liberation of Paris (an astounding show) to one exploring collaboration with the Nazis. Having watched a 31-minute film there, from 1944, of the liberation, I’ll never again see Paris the same way — its lovely streets then filled with dead bodies and burning tanks, barricaded with trees and sewer gratings, women being dragged into the street for public shaving of their heads for collaborating with the Nazis.
A few things I’ve realized in my time away:
— Social capital can replace financial capital
Jose and I do OK for New York, but so much of it disappears in taxes, retirement savings and life in a costly place. So we’re very fortunate to have generous friends around the world who lend us and/or welcome us into their homes. I spent a week with Cadence and Jeff in London in their flat, whose total square footage is about 300 sf, the size of our living room and dining room at home. I don’t know how we managed it, but we did! While I’ve been here, Jose welcomed our young friend from Chicago, Alex, for a week and introduced him to several important new mentors and our friend Molly, from Arizona, has spent many happy nights on our sofa.
What goes around comes around, even globally!
— Travel can be tiring
Exploring big, busy cities on a budget, (i.e. taxis are a rare treat), means hours of walking and many subway stairs. I get tired and dehydrated and needed a coffee or a glass of wine to just rest.
You also have to pay attention to danger, from subway pickpockets to forgetting your address or house entry code.
— I missed my husband!
My best friend. My confidant. My sweetie. He was here for a week. I’ve missed his company and laughter terribly and we Skyped a few times.
— Routines serve a useful purpose
At home in New York, I normally take a jazz dance class every Monday and Friday morning and go for an hour’s brisk walk in the woods with my friend Pam on Wednesday mornings. Every weekend I read three newspapers, in print. I enjoy my little routines; as a full-time freelancer with no regular schedule, they ground me.
— But it felt so good to get away from them
I usually watch the nightly news at 6:30, but also hate how U.S.-centric and sentimental it is. In my time away, my only news sources were Twitter and the occasional newspaper — I didn’t turn on the TV once, didn’t miss it a bit and read three non-fiction books instead.
I’ve also loved spending 90% of my time in the real world and not glued to social media on the computer. I really loved not driving a car for an entire month; we live in the suburbs and I spend my NY life behind the wheel, tracking the price of gas. Tedious! A city vacation meant lots of walking, buses, trains and cabs. Healthier and much more fun.
— Less is plenty
I wore the same few clothes for a month, doing laundry once a week and it was eye-opening to see how little I really need.
Same for food. I bought fresh fruit and vegetables, cheese, soup and yogurt; that plus a fresh baguette every two days supplied my cheap/delicious breakfasts and light suppers at home.
— Experiences beat stuff
— riding the Ferris wheel high above Les Tuileries on a warm and sunny Christmas Day in Paris
— staying in a 15th century country inn in England, eating short ribs by the fire
— meeting a snappy young British journo I follow on Twitter who took me to a secret members-only club above a Soho restaurant. The room was dim, had two small dogs snoozing in lined wooden boxes and fragrant hyacinths on every table. Heaven!
— a cup of tea at the Ritz in London and the (!) $30 cocktails Cadence, Jeff and I shared in its spectacular Art Deco bar. Worth it!
— spending a cold gray Sunday afternoon in a hammam, a Paris spa with a Middle Eastern flavor
— We are who we are, no matter where in the world our body is
At home, I need a lot of sleep, minimally 8 to 10 hours a night. Just because there are a gazillion things to do and see while visiting Europe, I didn’t force myself to do asmuchashumanlypossible. I now have a painful arthritic left knee, so by day’s end I really needed to rest.
My final week in Paris I took long, lazy mornings listening to music, reading, eating breakfast, then headed out around noon for a big French lunch, (cheaper than dinner), errands and explorations.
— Cosy beats grand/ambitious, at least some of the time
It was so nice to come “home” to our rented flats and settle in for the evening with a glass of wine and my new favorite radio station, TSFjazz; check it out online! Our Christmas dinner was roast chicken at home at the kitchen table and it was perfect. On a rainy, windy day in Paris, I was almost at the museum door, but was just exhausted. I said the hell with it, cabbed home and instead of being a dutiful/weary tourist took a nap and did laundry. Much happier choice!
— Solitude is relaxing
My life in New York requires chasing people down for work and/or payment, teaching two college classes, maintaining a happy marriage — and paying close attention to everyone’s emotional state. Whew! Raised as an only child, I savor quiet time alone, at home or out in the world exploring on my own. It recharges me.
My independence is a muscle. It needs exercise!
— But social media has been a godsend
So many blogging blind dates!
In Paris, Mallory, Catherine and Juliet — all followers of this blog, once virtual strangers now friends — invited me to meet; Catherine en francais. I also met Gillian and Ruth, fellow American writers my age. In London, I met Josh and in Paris my oldest friend from my Toronto childhood, also visiting. I had a busier social life while alone overseas than I ever do at home.
— I’m increasingly ready to leave the U.S. and its brutally industrial work culture
One of my hosts’s many books is “La Seduction”, by New York Times journalist Elaine Sciolino, who sums up my feelings well:
“The French are proud masters of le plaisir; [pleasure], for their own gratification and as a useful tool to seduce others. They have created and perfected pleasurable ways to pass the time: perfumes to sniff, gardens to wander in, wines to drink, objects of beauty to observe, conversations to carry on. They give themselves permission to fulfill a need for pleasure and and leisure that America’s hard-working, supercapitalist, abstinent culture often does not allow.”
I’ve come to loathe Americans’ fetish for “productivity” and self-denial. Pleasure and leisure are seen there with the same sort of suspicion as a felony offense. I hate that and always have.
Jose and I hope to retire to France, even part-time. Every visit back there confirms why…and I loved this recent post by Chelsea Fuss, a stylist from Portland, Oregon who sold all her things and has been on the road ever since, alone.
Does your trip have a point?It seems like you are aimlessly wandering around?
Seeing the world enlightens me. This trip was about facing the nagging wanderlust that had been bugging me for years and getting back to gardening, hence the farm stays. I have a blurry picture of what it is I want to do at the end of this and am figuring it out along the way. I’ve told myself it’s ok not to be overly ambitious right now. I keep busy with work, creative projects, and soaking up my environment but it’s definitely a slower pace than I lived at home and I think that’s ok for me right now. Slowly but surely this vision is getting clearer. I have days when I feel like I am going backwards and I should be climbing the career ladder, but that’s usually when I am comparing myself to other people. For me, this is right, right now.
I enjoyed this column in The New York Times about the distinction between tourist (arguably incurious) and traveler (insatiably so):
For the most fortunate among us, our travels are now routine, devoted mainly to entertainment and personal enrichment. We have turned travel into something ordinary, deprived it of allegorical grandeur…Whatever impels us to travel, it is no longer the oracle, the pilgrimage or the gods…We urgently need to reclaim the etymology of restlessness — “stirring constantly, desirous of action” — to signal our curiosity toward what isn’t us, to explore outside the confines of our own environment. Getting lost isn’t a curse. Not knowing where we are, what to eat, how to speak the language can certainly make us anxious and uneasy. But anxiety is part of any person’s quest to find the parameters of life’s possibilities.
I’m intrigued that every single day — for three years or so — readers of Broadside seek out my post about women traveling alone and whether X place is actually safe.
Kids, nowhere is safe if you’re stupid or careless! If you insist on drinking heavily/drugging/wandering off with total strangers to their (lockable!) home or vehicle and/or at night and/or dressing sluttily, seriously...
Would you take those risks in your home neighborhood?
It’s provincial and dumb to assume X is dangerous only because it’s unknown to you, and “foreign.” You’re missing a whole pile o’ world out there!
I took my first solo flight, from Toronto to Antigua, when I was about seven. I traveled alone through Portugal, Italy, France and Spain for four months when I was 22. Since then, I’ve chosen to be alone in places as far-flung as Istanbul, Tanzania, Thailand, Tunisia — and Los Angeles.
Ironically, I’ve only been the victim of crime at home, in Toronto, Montreal and suburban New York.
Some lessons I’ve learned you might find helpful as well:
A passport is a mini magic carpet
Once you have it in hand, literally, you can go almost anywhere. I’m still awed by the power of one small document to open the world. Which is maybe one reason I so love (yes) all the Bourne movies, where Jason Bourne always has a collection of passports and identities. So cool!
A current, detailed map is a wondrous tool
I’m old school. I have, and adore, the Times World Atlas, which weighs a bloody ton. I love flipping through it and dreaming about where to go next. I have maps of all sorts of places I haven’t even gone yet, like Morocco, but which allow me to study them at leisure and think about what I’ll do when I get there. Maps offer lots of intriguing possibilities and ideas for exploration.
Don’t play it too safe
Yes, you need to stay healthy and un-molested. But it doesn’t mean sitting at home terrified to leave the cosy and familiar boundaries of your town/state/province/country. Travel to a place that’s really challenging is an excellent way to discover what makes you deeply uncomfortable — and why.
When in Rome….
Do your homework and dress respectfully, paying close attention to local customs and taboos. I didn’t look a man in the eye in rural Portugal for three long, lonely weeks. Nor in Istanbul. I knew the rules, and played by them. There’s no ego battle involved, no need to “prove” that your country’s ideas are better. You’re in their world for a while, and it works just fine for them. In a global economy, we need to remember this, every day.
Dream really big, then find a way to make it happen
My Dad’s current partner is 77 and such an inspiration to me. Just before she met my Dad, she had committed to move to Mongolia and work in the Peace Corps; luckily for all of us, she picked my Dad. There are many avenues to creating, and funding, a domestic or foreign travel adventure: a fellowship, grant, temp on contract jobs, fruit or vegetable or tobacco-picking, farming, volunteer work, missionary work, finding work aboard a freighter or cruise ship, study abroad, au pair jobs.
The world is filled with kindness
Sappy, huh? I would never have seen this as clearly had I not taken the terrifying risks I did to venture off alone. I met some British Reuters reporters in Madrid who suggested I look up their freelancer in Barcelona, a German woman married to a Briton. In my two visits there, she: let me take a bath (it had been months of showers only); lent me her typewriter so I could write and sell some stories; paid for a cab to her home when I was really sick and broke, arriving from Italy by train late at night, and lent me her weekend home. This from someone I barely knew.
Being alone is work
It means you’re the only one in charge of all it: where to go, where to stay, where to eat, when to leave and how to get there. You have to change currencies and languages. If you get sick, you’ll have to find a doctor or hospital or pharmacy and explain the problem — something I’ve done in French and Spanish, sometimes in tears. I once had an allergic reaction, alone in Istanbul, that I thought might kill me; I’d totally forgotten I’m allergic to dust and mold, and had spent a wonderful afternoon looking at old rugs in the Bazaar. Every time the dealer flipped the pile, a cloud of it was filling my nostrils…I could barely breathe or swallow all night. Eating alone, especially in good restaurants, is another challenge; I always take a book or magazine, and I usually sit at the bar, where conversation is easy and often fun.
How capable you are! (or not)
Once we’re on the road of responsible (sigh) adulthood, with student loans and bills and a spouse and/or children, the challenges are often financial and emotional, but routine. Travel, by forcing us into unfamiliar surroundings and dealing with dozens of strangers whose motives we don’t know and may find confusing or opaque, forces us to up our game and sharpen our wits — never a bad thing! Trusting your intuition can save your life. Being resourceful is like lifting weights; you have to actually put things into motion to see results!
Total strangers will really like you
Seems obvious, right? Not if you’re shy or your family or work has been confidence-sapping. I’ve been amazed and delighted and grateful to find, and sometimes keep, friends in the oddest of places, whether standing in a post office line in Antibes or at a conference in Minneapolis or sharing a truck for eight filthy, tiring, crazy days with Pierre, a trucker who spoke not one word of English. I did that journey, from Perpignan to Istanbul, to write about trucking in the EU. We couldn’t shower for eight days, and one day — a sunny, windy day in March in some Romanian or Bulgarian parking lot — I begged him to help me wash my (short) hair, which he did, pouring water from a jug he kept in the cab while I lathered up. It’s been the most life-changing of choices to fling myself into the world and find, every single time, that I am often met with open arms. You don’t need to cart along the usual security blankets and identity markers: the right school(s), family, skin color, cultural preferences or clothing. Just be your best self.
The natural world awaits
Travel by canoe, kayak, dinghy, bike, mo-ped. Lace up your hiking boots. Take binoculars, tent and sleeping bag, backpack, camera, pen, sketchbook, watercolors and your willingness to be there, un-plugged. The happiest five days of my life were a trip I took, alone, to Corsica in June 1995. I rented a mo-ped down at the port in Bastia, and zoomed around La Balagne, the northern end of the island, reveling in the impossibly gorgeous fragrance of sun-warmed maquis, sleeping in lovely small hotels at the sea’s edge, riding (shriek!) through a pelting rainstorm wrapped up in only in a couple of garbage bags. I stopped at the Deserts d’Agriate, gaping in wonder at the moonscape before me. I have no photos. But oh, the memories! Here’s my Wall Street Journal story about it.
Do something you normally do at home, or have always wanted to try, that makes you really happy.
Alone, I took a ballet class in an 18th-century studio in Paris, a watercolor class in Mexico City, danced to live blues at Harvelle’s, a club in Santa Monica, ate some great barbecue in San Angelo, Texas, bought textiles in Istanbul and went horseback riding — through L.A’s Griffiths Park at sunset, galloping along snowy train tracks in the Eastern Townships and through arroyos near Taos. When you’re out there all alone, it’s comforting to do something familiar that you enjoy, but somewhere new.
As some of you know, I could have crossed the width of Ireland three times in the time it took me to get from my Dad’s house in Canada to the house in Vermont where I’m now house-sitting til the 29th, responsible for a pool, a charming small dog and a huge garden.
I started at 8:45 a.m., dropping my Dad off at the car rental place to start his day. As it would turn out, I was driving in tandem with a convoy of tour buses filled with chattering, texting, flirting 13-year-olds…and every rest stop I made, they made as well.
The 401, which runs east-west in Ontario, might be one of the world’s most boring highways — a straight line of asphalt with farm fields on either side for hundreds of miles. (Kilometers, there.)
So, if you’re alone, as I was, tunes are key. My new radio wasn’t working (!?) so it was CDs that would keep me energized and awake for the next day.
Corelli. Martin Sexton. Some Indian instrumentals. That was enough to get me to the Quebec border, where a big blue flag said “Bienvenue” and I switched to the Indigo Girls.
Montreal traffic at 3pm was no pique-nique…especially when the first road sign telling me to look for Route 10 never re-appeared. Nope. Nowhere. And Montrealers, where I learned to drive in 1988, drive fast. At least I could read the road signs in French and knew which streets were which as the exits whizzed past.
Finally, I hit the Champlain Bridge…and was overpowered by a terrifying memory of a story I covered as a reporter for the Montreal Gazette. There is a lane on the bridge that’s a dedicated bus lane during rush hours, the same one I was now using to head south to Vermont. A car filled with young people had smashed head-on into a bus heading the other way…and I had taken (and passed) my driver’s test the following day.
The minute you cross the bridge, you’re in flat, green farming country, surrounded on both sides by barns, silos, cows. Enormous churches whose steeples gleam in the sunshine. I stopped for a breather and flopped into a deep bend to stretch out my back. I stood and caught the eye of a man in a purple polo shirt driving a flatbed carrying a tractor.
It’s fun to be out on the road alone, a redhead in a Subaru packed to the rafters.
The perfect music as I passed through towns whose names would take longer to pronounce than to drive through, like this one, St.-Pierre-de-Veronne-a-Pike-River, was Nick Drake’s album Pink Moon, (his third and final one, whose title track was used for a Volkswagen Cabriolet commercial.) I adore it — meditative, soft and quirky.
It’s barely a half-hour from Montreal to the U.S. border.
I offered my passport…which I had forgotten to sign after I got it two weeks ago. I showed my green card (which actually, now, is green, which allows me the legal right to work and live in the U.S.) in which I’m still a blond.
“Why do you have so much stuff in your car?” the officer asked. I stayed calm and perky and confident, the way Jose has taught me to be: “I’m away from home for a month.”
“Do you have receipts for all those things?”
I actually did. Even my auction goodies.
I figured for sure I was due for a complete shake-down, but was waved through.
It’s always an odd moment when I cross the border between my two homes, the one where I grew up to the age of 30 (Canada, and where my family still lives) and the U.S. (where I’ve married twice and re-built my career despite three recessions.) I treasure elements of both countries and find deeply irritating elements in both.
Toronto pals wonder why I’m “stuck there” and New York friends wonder about the appeal of that 10-hour drive north.
I end up trying to explain American political gridlock to my Canadian peeps and Canadian health-care to my bewildered American friends who desperately crave a better solution but many of whom loathe and distrust any solution involving government.
As I faced my final few miles, I turned the wrong direction and drove another half hour the wrong way, The Doors blasting loud to keep me awake.
I finally pulled into my friend’s driveway after nine hours, grateful for a huge glass of red wine and Chinese food for dinner.
What’s the longest drive you’ve ever done on your own?
I took the first one when I was too little to even remember it — from my birthplace in Vancouver, Canada all the way to Mexico, in the back seat of my parents’ car. No wonder I’m always eager to get behind the wheel, crank up the radio and flee the jurisdiction.
— When my Dad and I took a month to drive from Toronto to Vancouver, dipping south of the Canadian border into North and South Dakota along the way to visit some Indian pow-wows. We camped, and woke up to find a large steak and a bag of sugar at our tent door. In one farmer’s field, we camped and were awakened looking up at the owner on his tractor. I think every 15-year-old girl should spend a month with her Dad on the road. You learn a lot about one another.
Like….I am not a morning person. So my Dad would set the alarm for 6:00 a.m. and tell me it was 7:00 a.m. It worked, for a while.
— Our road trip from Mexico City to Taxco to Acapulco, in the mid-1980s. I speak good Spanish so, as the gas gauge fell alarmingly low, he said “There’s a house. Go ask where the nearest gas station is.” When we arrived in Acapulco, he remembered a cheap hotel from a decade or so earlier and there it was.
— My mom and I lived in Mexico when I was 14 and drove all over the place, which was vaguely insane for two women alone, one of whom was 14, with waist-length blond hair.
— Montreal to Savannah, Georgia, crossing — yes, this is its real name — the Great Dismal Swamp in North Carolina, with my Dad. We dipped into tiny coastal towns like Oriental.
— In Ireland, my Dad and I drove the outer edge of the whole country in a week; as Europeans well know, you can cross several countries in the time it takes to get out of Ontario or Texas. Ireland, side to side, three hours. I’ve spent that in NYC traffic just trying to get home! We visited Rathmullan, Co. Donegal, where my great-grandfather was the teacher in the one-room schoolhouse.
— In 2002 while researching my book about American women and guns, I went to visit a cowboy who lived in the middle of nowhere, between Silver City and Colorado City, Texas. For hundreds of miles, all one could see were oil drills pumping up and down.
Out there, on a long bare and empty stretch of road, my cellphone didn’t work, my gas was getting low and I was a long way from help. Then a white pick-up truck pulled up beside me, with a weathered man at the wheel. “You the writer from New York?”
Um, yes. That lost-tenderfoot thing probably gave me away.
“Follow me!” And when I arrived, his wife Doris showed me a long, narrow, low wooden box. “You’ve probably never seen or heard these and I want you to be safe when you’re here.” Then she opened the box, using a long metal stick. It was full of….live rattlesnakes.
— Jose, now my husband, took me from his native Santa Fe, New Mexico along the High Road to Taos, through the town of Truchas. Spectacular.
— Alone, in June 1994, I drove in a circle from Phoenix, Arizona north to Flagstaff, saw the Grand Canyon and the Canyon de Chelly, (inhabited for the past 5,000 years), and arrived back in Phoenix against a sunset sky so yellow and purple and orange — cacti backlit — I felt like a character in a 1940s Disney cartoon.
— I had a great solo road trip, in my beloved red Honda del Sol convertible, (since stolen, from New York to Charlottesville, Virginia. I stayed in B & Bs. I visited Monticello, home to polymath, and its designer, the U.S.’s third president, Thomas Jefferson. I drove through lush hills and valleys in West Virginia that made me feel like someone in a Thomas Hart Benson painting.
I didn’t learn to drive until I was 30, so I had a lot of driving to make up!
Go alone, or with your BFF or your sister or your nephew or Dad or Mom or husband or sweetie.
Pack a cooler with yogurt and green grapes. Bring binoculars and a sense of wonder.
Stop often. Eat well! Get up for dawn.
Drive in the cool of the night, as we did in North Carolina, the scent of dew-covered jasmine filling our nostrils.
What’s the best (or worst) road trip you’ve ever taken?
If your sweetie is heading off on a big trip alone, kiss your relationship goodbye. That’s the theory, anyway, says Outside:
Barbara Banks, a 19-year employee of Wilderness Travel, said, “We may well have been cited in some divorce cases, though we haven’t been called to the stand.” Peter Grubb, founder of the international rafting company ROW, confessed that, at least once a year, a client divorces a spouse after a raft trip. Robert Whitman, founder of Five Star Counseling Services, in Denver, confirmed my worst fears. In his 20 years as a professional counselor, he said, he’s seen roughly one marriage per month break up soon after a big solo trip.
The problems start early, he said. Two years before the trip, the wife complains that she and her husband don’t really talk or do fun things together anymore. The guy, only half hearing, remains as loutish as usual but goes along with her efforts to spice up the marriage. Frustrated, she gives up six months later. Things return to “normal” until, at the end of a quietly frustrating year, she says she wants to go on a big trip without him. The husband agrees, thinking himself supportive. The wife interprets his encouragement as the final abandonment.
Maybe on the trip she summits a tall peak and gains a loftier perspective on life. From this distance, that little man back in the States—whose range of interests spans everything from his kayak to his PlayStation—starts to seem positively puny. Meanwhile, the brawny mountain guide who got her to the top suddenly seems more responsive, caring, and nurturing than he’ll ever be.
The takeaway, though, at least in Whitman’s example, is that the big trip isn’t the problem; it’s merely the final, too-late alarm bell. Whether she goes to Japan or Djibouti, the relationship is over before she gets on the plane.
“‘I’m gonna take a big trip by myself’—that should hit you like a two-by-four between the eyes,” says Whitman.
I’d agree. If your man doesn’t share your love of adventure, he’s not the guy for you. Two men became clearly lodged in my rear-view mirror after I spent time traveling alone, overseas. It’s not necessarily any other guy tempting you into his arms. It’s the one who didn’t come along and why he chose to stay behind.
Have you been dumped this way? Have you been the one fleeing?