They were the innocent words of a late teens/early twenties BC Parks attendant at a lakeside park in the middle of B.C on my recent solo road trip. I’m sure she didn’t mean much by them, just polite chit chat but she didn’t know how words linger in the mind of yours truly.
For the unacquainted, at some point during the evening after setting up in a campsite an attendant will cruise around in their truck to collect payment and various other details from patrons, like myself.
“How many nights?”
“How many [people]?”
“Where are you from?” (For COVID contact tracing)
— Vancouver. Do you need the address?
“Oh gosh no, city is fine.
— No problem, it’s varied quite a bit park-to-park.
[Cue a quick exchange on my journey to date]
“Wow, and you’re all on your own?”
— Yep. For two weeks.
“Wow. I haven’t seen much of BC. I would love to do that, but I think I would just get so lonely.”
— No! *Trying quickly to distill so many key messages succinctly to encourage her* It’s empowering to take the time, to do it at your pace only. You learn a lot about yourself. And you meet people along the way. And appreciate our home.
A somewhat short exchange, but it stuck with me. (We’ll shelve the value of experiencing one’s own home and it’s alter ego that is the privilege of travel for another day). It tapped into a promise I made with myself that I would not shy away from the fact I was travelling solo. No cowering as I admitted “just one”, but rather confidently stating “for one, please.”
I have travelled solo for quite a number of trips, in a few countries. The first concern is always safety, the other being with only oneself for company. Oh the insecurities and the fear are widespread.
It’s taken the better part of 30 years for me to learn, but alone is not the same as lonely.
It can, and sometimes, in my experience, does. But being alone is a huge opportunity that few experience. An opportunity to see the world and where your mind and your emotions go with a different pace and set of stimuli.
For me, it takes being alone (outside of my familiar apartment) to remember I almost never sit still. I never rest. (My fluttering eyelid for the last month also knows this). The campfire is alight and a cool beer in the chair cup holder, but me? I’m a little busy bee preparing for tomorrow. Packing bags, choosing clothes, cleaning up. Car doors opening and closing much to the frustration of those in neighbouring sites. Or I spend all the time getting the fire going and then bore of it and go for a walk. A few days into my trip I instigated sit down times, a little discipline I use at home when I know I’ve been in the words of mother dearest “burning the candle at both ends”. Self talk: Melanie, you will sit here and be still for 15 minutes, then you can do [insert task]. Like a child or dog, I slowly increased the time I was required to sit still. After days of this, I started to wonder why, what my aversion to sitting still is. A desire for productivity, carpe diem, fomo. A combo of all three? Certainly.
One recommended behaviour during periods of heightened anxiety is to use your senses to slow down and focus on the present. What can I hear, smell, taste, touch, see?
At Meziadin Lake I took out my friend’s inflatable kayak. My (always) optimistic plan was to paddle around the island, then around the bend to look down the valley. Perhaps 5-6km and then be back for dinner. I started paddling and realised it was not a realistic plan based on the mobility of the boat and the wind. I managed the little island and then I paddled upstream enough to float. And float I did for 45mins. I had a cheeky beverage and just let the current take me. I stopped. I could hear the birds fly above, I noticed an eagle soaring overhead. Some kids closer to the shore were learning how to SUP. There were a handful of fishing boats out on the lake. I wondered what fish? I noticed the cloud lifting on the mountains. I could see the glaciers.
At breakfast one day (a day I actually sat down), one slow spoonful of granola + blueberries at a time, I noticed a little squirrel doing the rounds of 3 campsites. Around and around, up a tree and down, on repeat for a few minutes. It reminded me of me. Productive to him, seemingly insane to the onlooker.
Another evening as I was sitting around my fire pit, I looked across the way and saw my neighbours had a bigger fire. I thought it was my competitive nature stirring, but as I looked back to my own I recognized it as jealousy. They had a bigger fire than mine. I stoked the fire and put another log on. The game went on for longer than it should because I recognised this was futile, actually futile. I now had too big a fire and I really wanted to go to sleep. It was a little reminder in this solo time to focus on me and what my priorities are and ignore others. (This is not always the case, and there is a very valid case to be made to look to the needs of others first).
In the months leading up to my trip I’d also decided it would be tech-free.
Tech-free wasn’t possible in order to still be safe, but I removed Instagram and the Facebook app from my phone during the two weeks. It helped me slow down. Even during COVID where fomo has been possibly the most limited in years because we’re all stuck at home (and any ever changing additional geographic zones), I found myself looking on to our very boring lives with envy. I needed time away to just enjoy what was in front of me without trying to share it. I’m sure there are many of my dear friends who enjoy seeing where my adventures take me. And I love to share the beauty of my new homeland. But I also suspect there is a hint of jealousy and fomo within those watching them. The merry-go-round of Instagram stories (even in their 24h lifespan) is an invitation to project and curate. It’s a little creative outlet. An opportunity to have our own personal daily news spot even if no one is listening/watching. But it’s also draining. My brain is always in storytelling mode. It took days to stop thinking about how to capture it in order to later share my trip and just enjoy it for me.
In the lead up to my trip, indicating I was planning to travel solo also brought on the inevitable, a winky wink ‘ooohh, but what if…?” In a podcast episode ‘How to live single’ from ‘Unladylike’, the subject commented on how tired she had grown of people suggesting maybe she would meet someone…on literally any activity outside her home. The grocery store, her colleague’s house party, her gym, her solo travel trip. Sure we’ve all seen the romcom, or read that trashy summer novel, simpler things have happened when you least expect them, but honestly, I resonated with her sentiment:
“Why can’t I just leave my house and be me not in search of a SO? Why am I just not enough?”
But I also had those moments longing for someone.
Not necessarily an eligible suitor, but literally anyone to be with me. When I had spurts of loneliness, when I was putting up a tarp with a pounding finger having slammed the backside of a hatchet down the length of my pointer finger knuckle and skin and wishing someone could help me. When I was on edge hiking alone through bear country talking to myself and any hypothetical bears to alert them of my presence. When I’d hiked 21km to a glacial lake and was torn between the peace and solitude and wishing any one the people I dearly love could experience it too. When the weather threw a curve ball at my plans and I was trying to decide how to alter my plans and this external processor just needed a little snippet of validation. But I was also regularly reminded that I was not the only one. On trails I’d see men and women of all ages hiking alone. On my laps of campsites I saw single chairs beside a campfire.
One night a campsite neighbour wandered over. She was camping with another friend. We chatted briefly. “I thought you were with your husband…” she said, a compliment to my campsite set up. I chuckled and thanked her and told a little story about my improving tarp skills and newly learnt self-tightening knots. She ended “I’ve seen a lots of solo women, there should be some kind of group to get women together.” She meant well by the comment, but it suggests I (and them) were not satisfied with being alone.
There were other comments I received along the way too.
Some suggested bravery, others affirmed: “Good for you”.
Thank you I’d say, it has been good for me.
My solo travels are rich in learning, joy, reflection and much needed rest. I read (slash listened) to more books than I have in months, I found time to write, I was able to stop and take photographs without having to jog back to my hiking group. I indulged in music choices that others would shame me for. I tipped out shit beer, I drank expensive wine, I drank too many gin and sodas as a ratio to my water consumption and got a little tipsy (only identified by my dizziness in standing. It seems my telltale sign ‘chatterbox Mel’ requires drinking buddies). I went to bed early and slept in late. I napped in rest stops with good views. I stopped paddling to float. I didn’t shower. I spent $70 on a single meal only to pitch a tent an hour later. I pulled off highways to do spontaneous boat rides. I didn’t allow myself to be stopped by my frugality.
I’d love to say I had these profound moments with the Spirit and I’ve come out from 2 weeks solo closer to the God who loves me. I’d be lying. I absolutely had moments of reflection, time to read my bible, lingering prayers often paused by exasperated breath climbing another hill. I’d characterise the major purpose of this trip as rest and resting in the presence of God, in his creation was enough.
So yes, I suppose you can do many of these things on a trip with a significant other, or friend. I have had similar trips since. But I’d challenge anyone to give even a night a go, or just a meal in a restaurant. It’s very good to lean into a new and foreign state of being. Good to experience the intricacies of our minds, our emotions. Don’t let the words of the BC Parks operator be your own. “I’d love to do that, but I think I would just get too lonely.” And when you do, tell me about it. It’ll remind me to do it again.