Hops and Skips

Musings on Solo Travel

“Women have many reasons for going traveling alone, apart from seeking adventure. Often we’re searching for something, reaching for some meaning in our lives, something bigger and higher than ourselves.”

I took my first solo flight when I was fifteen. My older sister and her husband had followed a job to Tampa, and our mom, in an effort to get her two daughters already far apart in age and now further apart, geographically-speaking, to share sister bonding experiences, shuttled me onto a Southwest flight. It was a pre-9/11 world; she walked me to the gate and waited until the flight boarded. I’ve had an independent streak since birth and have always found confidence in making my own choices. To me, this “first” wasn’t fearful or intimidating.

It was intoxicating.

I continued to make my annual solo trip to Tampa each summer, and when I graduated high school and moved to New York City for college, flying alone became a norm of my life. I flew back to Nashville a few times each year for holidays and family visits; I navigated my way through a couple European countries during my semester abroad; later, my job carried me to a handful of US cities for industry conferences. When I left New York after nine years and settled back in my hometown, the opportunities to hop on a flight became less frequent, and, now married and with a partner by my side, the solo travel became far less. Add two kids to the mix, and it’s nearly non-existent.

I’m in the Barcelona airport, waiting to board, and suddenly I feel like I have some sort of power and independence again. I’m excited about traveling alone, figuring things out myself…

Kate Wills’s A Trip of One’s Own: Hope, Heartbreak, and why Traveling Solo Could Change Your Life was on display at my library branch and a pick-up with very obvious appeal. It’s part memoir, part personal-interest project, part advice column. As a travel journalist, Wills is no stranger to solo travel, but those ventures have been for work, not pleasure. When she divorces after less than a year of marriage – an unexpected change of plans – the author figures a trip will help. Not one on assignment – a vacation. 

I think back to my teenage days when the increasing independence inherent to that stage of life comes with expanding opportunity. It’s exciting to realize and know what is suddenly possible, to be able to make your own choices and guide yourself through the experiences and adventures you do (or don’t) want. You age out of early adulthood, and the independence becomes less novel and more everyday. Then the day eventually comes that the independence is once again unusual. Car rides without kids feel oddly quiet; the rare, empty hours to oneself are slightly unsettling before the discomfort wears off and they’re once again invigorating.

Thoroughly enjoying the venturing alone. A little stressful, unfamiliar with the language. Have ventured through the tiny tiny Florence airport, made it on a train in 9 minutes to Pisa Centrale where I met some nice American people on the train who were heading back to airport to retrieve lost luggage. With the couple’s help, I got on a train heading to Riomaggiore where I am with a bunch of Scouts on what seems to be a camping trip.

If Wills’s personal experience was the motivation for the book, her dive into history is the rabbit hole down which that motivation led. Now embarking on her own personal journey of healing and self-discovery, Wills was curious about other women who had defied gender limitations and ventured solo into the unknown. Egeria, a 4th-century nun on a pilgrimage; writers like Emily Hahn, Nelly Bly, Juanita Harrison, and Virginia Woolf, constrained by the time in which they lived; Elspeth Beard, who hopped on a motorcycle after a breakup and ended up circling the globe. Wills’s memoir grounds the narrative with a common experience; these biographies remind the reader of what’s possible, that we make the rules and control our own narrative.

I love this independence. It’s the first 3+ hours I’ve had alone in months. And traveling across Italy with it makes it even better. … I saw a couple in Barcelona this morning, the man was leaving and the girl was crying. And she was crying real, deep, life-is-lonely-without-you tears. I always think it’s so weird how people in a different country and culture live life just like me. They work, go to school, eat dinner with their families.

Travel notes to myself, April 2006

Though I’ve taken many trips by myself, I have never traveled solo. I’ve never been in a foreign locale, so totally out of my element with no one to depend upon except myself; I’ve never been left with my internal dialogue for days at a time; I haven’t navigated a city or built an itinerary without a close companion to contribute to the decision-making. 

As a late-30s mother of two, the big, open world of opportunity that hovers over our youth feels much less available for the taking. I’d rather share experiences with my spouse, with our kids, with friends I don’t often see. But as forty looms just a few short years away, I’ve thought seriously about what a solo trip could offer at this point in my life. Introspection and insight? Perhaps. Anxiety? Without a doubt. Maybe I won’t know until I experience it, but the guarantee of living solely in each unpredictable moment is a pretty enticing proposition.

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