There is much written about the art and benefit of solo travel. Rolf Potts’ book, Vagabonding, being among my favorites. It’s a concept that has always sung to my soul; escaping alone into the world to wander a while, learn, grow, reflect, and eventually return, bringing the wealth of what is gathered abroad into the fabric of one’s community.
It seems like something everyone should do, something that ought to be a right of passage as we discover who we are and which path we will take for our lives.
I got married at the tender age of nineteen, and against all odds, kept the guy. Four children knocked on our door at equally spaced intervals, and life became a solidly communal affair.
From the beginning we’ve ordered our lives a little differently, eaten breakfast, lunch and dinner together, kept our kids close, treated the world as our living room, and wandered more than most.
“Our travels have been a lot of things, but quiet and solo are not often two of them.”
Our travels have been a lot of things, but quiet and solo are not often two of them. I’ve schlepped children and backpacks, school books and music lessons, across continents. I’ve cooked for six on two burners, for years, and hand washed every stitch of laundry for an above average sized family more times than I care to count, always with a child at my side helping and learning.
I’m a believer in being fully invested with my kids while I have them, giving up lots of what *I* might want for the benefit of the family, and giving this motherhood thing my very best effort for a couple of decades. I could count on one hand the number of times my children have stayed with a hired babysitter, in 18 years. So when I tell you that I’m also a big believer in making time for solo travel, even when you live life anything but alone, perhaps you’ll understand where I’m coming from.
I get that there are seasons of life where getting away is impossible. I was pregnant or nursing for a decade. There are weeks, months, years even, when we’re in full time care for those we love – children, parents, partners. This is life. I traveled plenty, sometimes without my husband, but never without a baby tied to my back and a toddler hanging on to the hem of my skirt.
“Getting away,” meant a bubble bath most nights after dinner, when Tony would ride the bedtime rodeo and I could escape through a book. A couple of times a year I might get a weekend away with my girlfriends, which is not the same thing as alone, or my idea of real travel.
“So when I tell you that I’m also a big believer in making time for solo travel, even when you live life anything but alone, perhaps you’ll understand where I’m coming from.”
It wasn’t until my kids were all in the central age group of childhood that I became brave enough to begin branching out on my own. Perhaps it wasn’t until I’d reached the hard, uphill climb that is mid-life that I recognized how much of myself had been depleted and how much I needed a recharge. Work, parenthood, long term partnership, community building, all of these things take their toll, they take energy and dedicated effort. Where do we get that? Where do we go to recharge?
Why I Travel Solo
I have friends who feel guilty about any moment spent on themselves, away from their work, their responsibilities, their families. I do not. I have come to recognize that time away, solo travel, is one of the best gifts I can give to those I share life with.
Traveling alone allows me to reconnect with the world around me one-on-one. I cease to wear the thousand hats of wife, mother, writer, co-worker, friend, cook, lion tamer, goose juggler, teacher, counselor, creative director, board chairman, and whatever else I might be on every given day of the year. Instead, I am free to be none of those things and examine who it is that I might actually be underneath.
“I have friends who feel guilty about any moment spent on themselves, away from their work, their responsibilities, their families. I do not.”
Traveling solo allows me to nurture the most important relationship I have: the one with myself. In our world of constant busy-ness and overwhelming responsibilities, it becomes very easy, as it all piles up, to forget who we are, that we matter, and that if we don’t nurture that inner source, we will quickly find the well that we draw from to give to the world has gone dry.
You’re laughing. I can hear you. The idea of being able to carve out an afternoon for yourself, never mind a week, is laughable. A month or more? Total pipe dream.
“Traveling solo allows me to nurture the most important relationship I have: the one with myself.”
I get it. I started with weekend retreats, organized events with groups of people that I could feel justified in attending for the educational benefit to myself. Then I branched out a bit to accompanying The Man on a few of his conference trips. I could sell it to myself as “marriage time,” but the reality was that at least 10 hours a day I was on my own. That’s worth leaving the kids for, right?
As they got older I took off for a couple of weeks at a time to help a friend at the opposite end of the continent welcome a baby, and I flew home from the other side of the planet to help a cousin tie the knot. I learned to tack on a week of extra down time for just me, snow-bound in a bed and breakfast, or in a little cottage by the sea, space to think, to walk, to read, to do nothing except take care of me.
Start small if you have to. Carve out moments and journeys on the margins where you can.
Why? Why does it matter?
Because you matter, and you might be forgetting who you are.
“You’re laughing. I can hear you. The idea of being able to carve out an afternoon for yourself, never mind a week, is laughable.”
You’re working 40 hours a week (or more!) You’re spending every other waking moment shuttling kids between school and activities, and doing your best to create quality time in between. Your weekends are packed with yard work and community projects. You’re up to your ears in extended family drama. You’re burning the candle at both ends. You’re doing all of the right things, but it’s not getting you where you most want to be, not in the external sense but internally. At the end of the day, this life and who you are is all you have, and you are too precious to trade for something less than what nourishes you.
I’m an advocate for solo travel, even when you’re not solo, because it nourishes you.
I’ve recently discovered something else: that it nourishes me is enough of a reason to go. I don’t need to wait for a conference I want to attend, or a class I’d like to take, or some monumental milestone to take a break from my “real life” and take a long walk.
“At the end of the day, this life and who you are is all you have, and you are too precious to trade for something less than what nourishes you.”
Here’s what else I’ve discovered: no one suffers unduly while I’m gone. The work plates keep spinning, the home fires keep burning, and I come back better prepared to manage both. There is no glory in self-martyrdom. What my children are learning from my more regular and prolonged absences is at least as valuable to them as what we learn together when we’re with one another 24/7. Regularly being alone, and more specifically traveling alone, has allowed me to maintain my strength and joy for the journeys that are longer and harder than hopping a plane for someplace new.
I know what you’re thinking: “Well that’s easy for you to say, your life is already organized around travel.”
And of course you’re right. On that level, it probably is easier for me than for some people. But that’s a choice too, isn’t it?
I have a friend who spent two years planning her short term solo journey of five weeks. It wasn’t easy for her, but she made it her priority.
I have another friend with seven kids who’s off for two weeks of solo adventuring this summer. It can be done.
“The best things, the most worthwhile things, the most nourishing things, are almost never the easy things.”
If the idea is tugging at your heart, then I’d even go so far as to say it should be done. The best things, the most worthwhile things, the most nourishing things, are almost never the easy things.
What you’re doing now isn’t easy either, is it?
Will it take planning? Yes.
Will there be logistical difficulties? Yes.
Will there be negotiations within your partnership and community about who holds the world together while you’re gone? Of course.
Solo journeying when you’re not truly solo is much more difficult than when you’re a party of one, but to me, that’s also part of what makes those alone-adventures so much more precious and worthwhile; they’re not a given, and you don’t take them for granted.