Not long ago I experienced the joy and terror of traveling alone in a matter of hours. I was on a solitary trip to a remote New England island in the dead of winter, and I’d spent the afternoon strolling an empty, miles-long stretch of beach, where sleek harbor seals played in the surf. To my delight, a few curious seals had come close enough that I could make out their whiskers and hear their loud exhales.
Once my cheeks had gone numb and the sun had started to set, though, I’d made my way back to where I’d parked my Jeep, in the lee of a high dune. But when I revved the engine and threw the car in gear, the wheels only whirred uselessly, spinning without purchase. Reverse was no better, and even engaging the 4WD only sent a geyser of sprayed sand from my tires—which, I could see once I got out of the car, were now carved into deep hollows.
This was bad. The beach I was on was part of a state preserve, where the closest sign of human development—an unmanned ranger station with a sign telling me to reduce my tire pressure before driving on the beach (I had, but clearly not enough)—was ten miles away. The closest town where I got cell-phone reception was a dozen miles farther. Nobody knew I was out here; no one would look for me if I didn’t return to my rental cottage at the other end of the island. I had no food or water, and—I checked—less than a quarter tank of gas. What was I going to do?
For the next hour, as the beach grew inky dark and the wind keened around me, I entertained a parade of panicked and ridiculous ideas. If I leaned on the car horn long enough, would someone possibly hear me (before I went deaf)? Maybe I could flash out “SOS” with my headlights to a passing ship—if there were any passing ships (there weren’t), and if I knew Morse code (I didn’t).
Finally, convinced I’d have to spend the night in the car, waiting for the engine to run down and leave me shivering in the blackness, I pressed my forehead against the steering wheel and stared disconsolately at my boots. Between them, seeming to taunt me, was my dead, dark cell phone, worthless as the plastic mat it lay on.
That was when it hit me: My God, the floor mats. Two flat, plastic sheets that might just provide traction if I slid them under my tires. Which I did.
And they did.
I was lucky that day, but that’s not why the episode still looms large in my memory. Rather, it serves as a sort of touchstone for me, an embodiment of everything I love about traveling solo.
Traveling Alone: Relying on My Wits
Since I’ve always been something of a loner, it makes sense that I’m often drawn to places like that winter beach: wild, off-the-map landscapes where other people don’t tend to congregate (at least not during the off season). Many of my “dream” destinations—the Rajasthani desert, the subarctic tundra of northern Canada, the jungles of Papua New Guinea—are ones that typically hold zero interest for my nearest and dearest (including my impeccably dressed, luxury-loving husband). So visiting these places has almost always meant visiting them alone.
Regardless of whether I’m in the wilderness or in a swarming, chaotic city, though, I’ve found that being by myself can heighten my appreciation of a new environment. When I’m not distracted by talking to or looking out for another person, my senses seem sharper, freer to take in all the detailed sights, sounds, and even smells of my surroundings. I notice more. I feel more immersed, more open to all the quirks that make a place special.
Like the incident on the beach, many of my solo travels have also required me to rely on my wits. I’m not going to say every mishap I’ve experienced on my own in a foreign locale has been fun; I’ve been wretchedly seasick off the coast of Sri Lanka, stranded in a tiny Patagonian village after getting off at the wrong bus stop, and terrified by a pack of yipping hyenas outside my tent at a Namibian safari camp. But each one of these incidents taught me something significant—even if it’s just to prepare better or ask more questions next time. And each one reaffirmed for me that, in a jam, I’m usually quite capable of coming to my own rescue. My husband still needs to be reassured about this from time to time: he worries about me. But he also understands how meaningful it is for me to trust my own resourcefulness. Mostly, he’s come to trust it, too.
My Taxi Driver Pen Pal
A lot of the time, the trickiest part of solo travel is just feeling lonely. But even that, I’ve learned, can be valuable. It’s prompted me to strike up conversations with locals, which is often the best way of all to get to know a new place. I’ve chatted up many a shop clerk and bartender, and I still trade occasional emails with a taxi driver I met years ago in Mexico who invited me to have dinner with his family. Missing company has also encouraged me to write about my travels—a pursuit that’s been my livelihood for the past 14 years.
Maybe most importantly, the journeys I take alone make me feel extra grateful for the time I spend with others. Taking care of my own needs (for solitude, for adventure) recharges me so that I can more fully attend to the needs of people I love. I’m positive these trips have helped me to be a more compassionate friend, a more patient and resourceful daughter, and a far more entertaining storyteller for my god kids, nieces, and nephews.
Oh, and I’ve become quite the vacation scout, too. I returned to that remote island beach, more than a year after I got stranded there, and stood in the very spot where I once faced the daunting prospect of nightfall. This time I went on a bright summer day, with my husband, and we strolled the shore together like honeymooners.
TIPS FOR TRAVELING ALONE IN MIDDLE AGE:
Make sure it’s safe.There are plenty of destinations where it’s unwise—even foolish—for a foreign woman to travel alone. Before planning a trip to any developing country, be sure to thoroughly read all precautions about it on the U.S. State Department website, which posts up-to-date information on areas prone to violent crime, disease, and political instability.
Join a group of other lone travelers. Just because you leave home on your own doesn’t mean you can’t have companions. It can be great fun joining a group tour or safari-style vacation, during which you’ll share daily activities and meals with other solo or coupled travelers, (but, for an additional “single supplement” fee, can choose to bed down in your own room, cabin, or luxury tent).
If you’re nature-and-wildlife minded, Natural Habitat Adventures, a tour outfitter that partners with the World Wildlife Fund, runs trips all over the world that bring small groups (usually comprised of single, like-minded folks) Luxury-minded culture hounds may want to check out Abercrombie & Kent, whose small-group tour destinations include Morocco, Italy, Japan, and Australia. What’s more Next Tribe sponsors trips with friends–ones you already know and ones you’ll meet. Read more.