Solo Woman: How I Got Good at Being by Myself
Perhaps it started with my journey to Amicalola Falls without a companion, or even a year prior on my first solo road trip to North Carolina and the Blue Ridge Parkway. In recent years, I have embraced my introversion and introspection more and more. On the Appalachian Trail, I often reveled in hiking alone for several hours, or even for the whole day before reaching the comfort of camp and companions.
Following the end of my hike, I quickly decided to head out on a solo trip across the country. At first I was hesitant to leave the familiarity of the AT community, and I started my trip in some states I hadn’t finished: New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire. I hiked some small sections, visited friends on the trail, and tried to provide a bit of trail magic when possible. I soon realized that I had ended my hike and this was a new journey, and I pushed my way west. Visiting family along the way was a comfort, but my journey really began as I entered South Dakota.
Into the Badlands
South Dakota was more beautiful than I ever expected. I drove all the way across the state, passing huge fields of sunflowers and arid western landscape. I bought an annual pass at the entrance to Badlands National Park and was awed to remember the feeling of being in a place of so much natural beauty. Bison roamed freely and prairie dogs playfully hid low to the ground. I was in a brand new place alone, and I camped alone that night in the small free campground. I was the only woman camping alone. I found this to be common as my trip continued, and even found I began to be the only tent camper as the season wore on.
I have received praise from family, friends, and strangers alike for going it alone. And often there are specific things people praise–camping alone, doing a road trip alone, hiking alone, eating alone. I even saw a movie in a theater alone! I started to realize that there are lots of things people are often afraid or ashamed to do solo.
Table for One
I tried to continue my minimalist food pattern from the trail, but quickly learned that with a car the temptation to eat restaurant food is overwhelming. I cannot count the number of times I ate alone this year, particularly in a restaurant. This is something people avoid often. It tends to reflect a societal fear of loneliness, maybe because eating (particularly dinner) is such a familial practice.
I tended to enjoy dining alone, and I think it is something that can be enjoyable with practice. Sitting at a bar can be especially fun since it opens up the opportunity for meeting and chatting with new people over dinner. Sitting at a table alone offers solitude and time for contemplation while offering the opportunity to order whatever one desires with no shame.
I found myself a bit of a rarity in the many national parks I visited. Being a woman alone made me stand out sometimes, and I did not always appreciate the attention. When in groups or pairs, there are certain protections one gains. For instance, the fear of a dangerous stranger is often alleviated or reduced by traveling with others. One protection I did not consider was the benefit of being unseen. When we explore crowded places with our friends, families, or partners, we are often completely oblivious to or indifferent toward brief social interactions with strangers. I found that I either encountered the absolute friendliest people, or the most horrid.
General friendliness toward strangers tends to range from place to place. In more rural areas you can start a conversation with the person next to you at the gas station. In busy urban areas there tends to be variety, some friendly people, some rude people, and some completely indifferent people. I found that at some of the national parks, which were crowded like a city in a seemingly rural place, you can encounter the friendliest, kindest, warmest people who smile and greet you immediately, and the harshest of folks who glare or even sneer at you as they meander past. I will willingly admit that this is not my strong suit when it comes to traveling solo. I take it to heart every time. Even the most cursory unfriendly glance is enough to make me question my place in the world sometimes.
I saw things on this trip I have wanted to see for a lifetime. I stood in places I knew Cheryl Strayed had been. I gasped at the beauty and the shock of how big some of the mountains were, how blue some of the lakes and rivers were, how massive the trees were. One of the greatest gifts I experienced on this trip was the ability to go from place to place as I pleased; no one else had a say in where I wanted to go. I reveled in that freedom.
Older than Myself, Bigger than Myself
I saw a sequoia in Yosemite, I drove through several sections of the US that used to be sea floor, I wandered around Anasazi ruins and historic towns. I saw the oldest trees in the world. The hardest part about being alone for so many of us is actually having to be with ourselves. It is so easy to want to stay distracted, either with other people or with things like television, Facebook, and video games. Having my car was unlike being on the trail in that I could charge my phone, I had phone service usually at least a few times a day, and I could reach civilization within that day.
It was difficult not to spend too much time texting or scrolling through my social media. It was difficult not to call and talk to family or friends most days. Being out in the great big world alone makes it easier to understand our need for distraction and our need for relationships. There were times I craved being alone, when I wanted the places I was seeing to be empty. And sometimes I got my wish (or close enough).
I wandered around the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest early enough in the morning that only three other people were there. I got the chance to feel myself standing among some of the oldest living things in the world. Looking at something like that is like looking at the stars and realizing where we came from and how connected the world of living things is. That’s not something that is easy to feel with other people around.
Spelunking and the Fear of Fear
One of my best experiences in learning to be alone was learning to face fear alone. I had already grappled with the terror of facing something by myself when I started my hike on the AT this year. I had just as profound experiences on my road trip, particularly in caves.
I visited Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota early on in my trip. It is a massive and very unique cave featuring intricate lattice structures on the ceilings called box work. The natural entrance is small, and when I arrived the cave was exhaling, revealing its massive interior size. I took one of the tours, and I was the only one alone in the group, and something special happened for me when we reached a big room in the cave. The ranger explained that without the lighting system, there is no light in that part of the cave, and she told us to hold onto someone we trusted. I held myself as we stood there for a few moments in pitch black darkness that no human eye can ever adjust to. I stood and smiled at myself as I faced a fear I’d had since childhood.
I had two other cave encounters on my trip. One was on a remote trail in Utah that wound along red rocks to a hidden underground lake. This one seemed to scare me the most. I was completely alone; no one was on the trail, no one was visiting the cave that day. A tour guide I had met the day prior said one would have to stand in this cave for several minutes for the eyes to adjust enough to see the entire lake. I could only force myself to stand inside for a moment or two, but it was the most alone and scared I had felt on the whole trip.
My final cave excursion took place at Carlsbad Caverns in southern New Mexico. I rode the elevator 800 feet below the surface to the large room. I walked the mile around the path through the main area of the cave and laughed at my moments of fear in the darkest spots when none of the other visitors were nearby. I decided very firmly that I needed to climb out of the cave via the path most people descend into it. The sign warned me that the path was strenuous and steep, but I felt strongly that I needed to reach the natural entrance and emerge from the cave alone. And when I did, it felt like one of my greatest accomplishments this year though it hardly took an hour. I had climbed alone through the dark out of a cave. That’s when I knew I was really getting the hang of being alone.
A Cure for Loneliness
As I was driving in a homeward direction, visiting the final destinations on my list, I spoke with someone about being alone. I shared a fear of becoming too good at being alone, of becoming reclusive and choosing to isolate myself in an effort to avoid the pain relationships of all kinds can bring. She told me she understood my fear, but that getting good at being by myself could only help me to be better at being with others. She helped me comprehend that, for some of us, only when we are good at being alone are we good at being ourselves, and when we can be both of those things, we can much more easily cultivate relationships that enrich rather than complicate our lives.
I got the chance to really get to know some of my friends and family on this trip (so many of whom helped make this trip possible). I got better at meeting and talking to perfect strangers. I pushed myself to try new things and socialize in new ways. I hiked with Fat Girls Hiking. I somehow managed to get better at being alone while getting even better at opening up to people. So I think my wise friend was right.
When we feel the sting of loneliness, I think it best to fully lean into it. Feel it fully, embrace it even. When we can let ourselves be lonely without fear, shame, or sadness, we can learn to be alone without loneliness, and then we can learn to be with others without losing ourselves.
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