Going It Alone
The wrong questions, from a female traveler.
The summer of 2016, I felt an overpowering need to drive, like a scratchy couch itch in the back of my mind every turn of the ignition in my VW Golf. What if I just keep going? I was unemployed and depressed, so a road trip seemed like the thing to do. Nothing fancy, just a few days driving through the deep south. Close by, but foreign enough to lose myself. A long stretch of highway through a place that was not here.
I made many mistakes that first solo trip, but my first one was telling people about it. In between browsing single-dollar-sign AirBnBs in Jackson, MI, I spent the next couple weeks having different flavors of the same uncomfortable conversation with various family and friend.
“Won’t you get lonely?”
“That’s kind of the point.”
“What about your husband, is he ok with it?”
“. . .”
“Isn’t it dangerous for women to travel alone?”
And so on, the defensive edge in my voice sharpening with each iteration. The experience has not, unfortunately, proved isolated. Routine solo travel has become essential to me, and each event brings its own round of unsolicited questioning.
I get it, I really do. The misgivings come from a good place that unfortunately can’t disguise their condescending, misogynistic nature. This particular brand of fussy concern has plagued me since grade school when I wasn’t allowed to join Little League and had to wear starchy dresses instead of athletic shorts (even though they are objectively the most comfortable form of clothing). It’s maddening as hell now that I am a grownass woman with a long track record of successful travel and, you know, managing not to die.
Although impulsiveness is a cornerstone of my particular brand of human, carelessness never has been. All who know me are familiar with my skittish, worrisome nature. It is a matter of course that my first concerns when traveling would be those of safety and practicality. I get upset when my husband drives a corner too quickly or a food runner carries more than two plates at a time. Your fusty Great Aunt Delphine and I would get along swell.
So. The probing interrogations could not possibly come from a place of genuine concern for my bodily safety. Which begs the question: what are they about? I have a theory. The confusion does not just stem from a woman doing a dangerous thing. It’s from a woman doing a dangerous thing for no apparent reason.
A single woman past a certain age is pitied as a sad, lonely, dejected creature. To be alone, a spinster, is the worst possible fate. Under this assumption, it makes no sense that a married woman would choose to vacation alone. What can she have to gain? This is the question that all other questions dance around. A woman traveling by herself makes people uncomfortable because they just don’t understand why it’s happening. This is the question people avoid asking because it gets into the squishy, unscientific areas of emotion and curiosity and can we ever really know someone that we culturally find uncomfortable.
It is not a question that is designed to render a simple answer. I travel alone for a lot of reasons. Sometimes it’s to discharge the brain static. Sometimes to exorcise hopelessness. Sometimes to prove to myself that I can. Sometimes none of these things. Sometimes all of them.
The truth is that traveling alone, especially on a budget, certainly can feel lonely, threatening, and uncomfortable. There are experiences that would be more joyful if shared. Oftentimes strange men will assume a lone woman must be lonely and become threatening in their friendliness. I usually end up eating a lot of beef jerky to avoid the expense of restaurants, and I hate beef jerky. I once found not one, but two cockroaches on the pillow in my AirBnB. Sleeping in the car isn’t the most restful experience in the world.
Why would a person actively seek these unsettling experiences? Individually, they have dubious merit at best, but the whole is greater than the sum. My solitary discomfort purchases me a validation greater than any amount of company could provide. It proves that I don’t need distractions, artificial comforts, or companionship in order to be real. The world outside our homes and heads is host to unpredictable sharpness and ill intent, but it is also bound together by swift sunrises and self discovery. In the silence of my singular, solitary experience, I can finally hear the tiny whispered thoughts that say to me, you are, you are, you are.
In a culture that places supreme value on measurable achievement, what could be more disquieting than effort without intention? After all, you can’t Instagram inner peace. But these values only persist if we all agree to them. The amorphousness of unobvious intent can uncover dissent, and dissent has the power to unravel the thin polyester weave of American values that tell us what is instead of asking what if?
So let’s stick to the easy questions of logistics and assume that women prefer to hide their strength and personhood behind the bustle of companionship. Nevermind that my experience has no power to invalidate your choices. Question me all you will, because I understand the real confusion. You just don’t know how to question yourself.
Photo courtesy Alex Rhee