Carping the Diem, Solo-style

A couple of my women friends called it “crazy,” but more were positive, encouraging, and impressed. One friend texted, “I think solo travel is so empowering.” I had decided I needed a carpe diem summer, to use various body parts before I lose them. At 58, I hauled a tent along on a Southwest flight (great baggage allowance!) to Denver, where I attended an education conference, then rented a car and camped four nights in Grand Lake, Colorado, so I could see the Rockies for the first — and likely the only — time in my life.

Empowering, yes, to be independent, but the word that reverberated in my mind was “free.”

I felt so free — free to decide what to do at any time, to go here or there, to change my mind, to sit at a picnic table at 10 pm writing postcards, to seek out moose (a failure), to be up for two hours in the middle of the night, to live on avocados and trail mix and fruit and Hershey with Almonds, and discover that Rosemary & Olive Oil Triscuits are even tastier bathed in sardine water. Only once did I eat out, a poached salmon Benedict breakfast (terrific) the final morning, at Blue Water Bakery Café, where I’d been taking coffee every morning while gazing at the lake.

I texted back to Heather, my “empowering” colleague, “Yes, my weekend adventure this weekend (leaving Monday) is to figure out how to tie guy lines onto a rain fly,” to which she responded, “I just had to google what that meant. Lol” The guy lines held; the tent stayed dry in the rains. If you’re wondering, too, guy lines are cords connected to a rain fly — a removable cover over the tent proper — then pulled taut and staked to help keep rain flowing down to the ground instead of landing on the tent.

This was a new Marmot Limelight 3P (i.e., three-person, which would only sleep two comfortably, but could, if necessary, accommodate three of average size). It came with cord, but they needed to be attached. I’d never done this, but the Internet rocks for such things.

Sure, traveling alone can have some downsides, but not nearly as many as the ups.

It may have taken embarrassingly long to learn to tie eight tautline hitch knots, but I did it, and they worked. I was happy, in the night, as well, that I ditched the cord that came with the tent and bought reflective. Bright in the night with a headlamp shining on them. The lines are easy to trip over otherwise.

Fortunately, the weather was clear upon arrival; otherwise set-up can be tricky. Once, my neighbor campers came to the rescue as I was struggling to set up a tent by myself in gusty winds. And campers do help out; this is a great way to meet good people — and what better way than by traveling alone? This tempts you to interact with strangers. Of course, I am a friendly person by nature, which helps. (Once, while hotel traveling with a colleague, I put her on the phone with my 20-something daughter. She told my daughter, “Your mom talks to everyone,” to which my daughter responded, “Welcome to my world.”)

Over the long weekend I chatted with several people. Among them was Emily, a charming, mature 13-year-old with a rare skin condition that gave the appearance of a serious sunburn, and who, coincidentally, happened to be in the shower area at the same time as I for three days running. On the second day she asked, “Did we tell each other our names?” We hadn’t, so we did. Also in the campground, I splashed in a puddle with a little girl maybe a year-and-a-half, with her repeating my stomping rhythms.

At the Moraine Park riding stable in Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP), I enjoyed one of the most delightful travel experiences of my life. It involved jabbering, of course. No other clients were there, which I thought odd, being that the park was crowded. I inquired about it, and they were mystified, too, but thought it might be because a storm — which never materialized, and which several people told me they hoped for, as they hadn’t had enough rain — had been forecast.

Whatever the reason, this afforded me a two-hour private ride with 26-year-old tour guide Megan, about the age of my daughter. Comfortably enjoying a saddle while my horse walked behind hers, I started my friendly thing, and during the two-hour ride, we talked about everything from financial challenges for young people to rising costs and residents in Denver and San Francisco, to mothers and relationships, to Stoic philosophy and balance and the promises and challenges that face us with extended life spans likely due to technological medical advances, to where to look for moose in the Grand Lake area, to Grand Lake (west of RMNP) versus Estes Park (east), and more. Another hour and we would’ve been exchanging phone numbers, I think. Unless my brain departs before the rest of my body (which seems increasingly likely as I age), I will never forget Megan or that ride with incomparable scenery.

A memorable ride, also, because, when we returned, I realized that my driver’s license was gone.

I was flying out from Denver the following night. But the man booking the rides told me that if I had a copy (I didn’t) or had a passport (I had a phone photo I’d taken for Airbnb), then I should be okay, so I didn’t stress. Travel tip: Bring copies of your license or passport, and/or have them on your phone. Stoicism is helping me focus on what is in my control and accept what is not, such as a truly lost license. Instead of kicking myself endlessly, I phoned Southwest that night and got some info on how to deal with it. Except the stable phoned me in the morning to tell me my lost license was found on the trail.

This necessitated my fifth traverse of the sometimes-hairy Trail Ridge Road through RMNP on Tuesday. Fairly sheer drop-offs in the higher areas, along with no shoulders, made this section a challenge. After breaking camp, driving two hours, and fetching my license, I returned to my car in the stable parking lot. There, in another fit of friendliness, I pointed for a couple of seconds at the torso of the man in the next parking space, then remarked “I love that band!” He was wearing a Tedeschi Trucks t-shirt. (This is not a particularly well-known band, at least not in Vegas, where I live, and I’d been listening to them the previous morning with a small Bluetooth speaker I’d purchased for the trip.) In a Southern accent, he responded to my pointing with “I thought I was in trouble!” A conversation ensued, of course.

Then, off to Denver to return a rented sleeping bag and pad, then to the airport. It would’ve been helpful to have a navigator in the car at times (especially in this leg of the trip), but Waze was good to me. (How did I live so long without you, Waze?) And I would’ve felt lousy if I had disrupted the last day of the trip for others due to mindlessly dropping my license.

I would not recommend undertaking such a venture on your first solo, but I would encourage you to try solo if you haven’t and have some inclination.

Start small:

Go close to home so you can retreat, if necessary. Stay in a cabin at first, if you can. If in a tent, be sure to set it up at home first to make sure it’s intact, with all parts, and that you have an idea of how long it will take to set up. Bring a tarp to place under it if it doesn’t include a “footprint,” and be sure it has a rain fly with guy lines. Draw up a list of everything you need and what bag it’s in, and double-check everything. You don’t want to be searching for a light in the dark, or for your gloves when it’s 45 degrees. If flying, check baggage restrictions. And check the weather ahead of time.

Another tip I learned the hard way from two nights, on two occasions, trying to sleep in a smallish car:

Rent the largest vehicle practical in case you have to sleep in it.

Once, I slept in a grocery store parking lot while a street sweeper seemed bent on running long enough to make the blacktop clean enough to eat off of. In that case, I was closed out of the campground after eating in town, during what turned out to be a hundred-year storm. My tent was in a puddle the next day. The first time I slept in the car, while at a campground just outside of the Grand Canyon, I heard what I believed to be a wild cat in the night as I was between the tent and the car, and chose the car. At 5’2”, it’s easier for me than for a lot of others, but it’s still awful (especially if, as I do, you have a knee issue). For this trip, I booked a full-size, and lucked into the only thing Avis had available when I got to the counter, a Jeep Grand Cherokee, in which I could fold down the back seats and be able to stretch out fully, so I napped once and slept once in back, just for the heck of it.

The most important tip? Plan, plan, plan.

Premeditatio malorum: Imagine what could go wrong, which is a lot when you’re camping, hiking, driving, and flying on your own. But don’t let that discourage you; let it guide you. Be ready to deal with it. Prepare for anything you can think of that could go wrong: a car accident; bug bites; cuts, scrapes, and bruises; forgotten gear; a lost wallet — or lost driver’s license. Leave yourself plenty of time to recover from being lost; don’t be in a hurry. Don’t mess with wildlife, either. Keep your distance and don’t feed anything.

Whatever you drive, wherever you go, however old you are, carpe diem, solo-flying lady friends. You never know when you will never have that chance again.

Betty Buehler is currently a 58-year-old middle-school science teacher intent on making the most of summer and physical abilities before she loses them both. She has had work published in The Christian Science Monitor, Casino Journal, Ithaca Times, Las Vegas Life, and Nevada Woman; recorded more than a dozen stories for KNPR, Nevada Public Radio; and was the recipient of an Honorable Mention in Poetry in an annual Nevada Arts Council Artist Fellowship competition.

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