The Case for Traveling Alone (At Least Once)

By: Erin McGrady + Save to a List

Adventuring by yourself just might be the thing you didn't know you needed.

Somewhere in West Virginia I started having doubts. What was I doing? One quick glance at the backseat of my hatchback and it’d be safe to say that I was moving. It looked like that, anyway. I had bags overstuffed with clothing, several pairs of shoes, my guitar, a camp stove, a tent, a sleeping bag, and a couple of old milk crates jammed with everything from bits of rope to extra water bottles and cup-o-noodles. But I wasn’t moving from one apartment to another, I was headed west, on a months-long road trip. Just me, myself, and I. The lump in my throat as I hit Ohio was like a question mark that wouldn’t fully resolve until I stepped into my old apartment months later but at the time I didn’t know that. All I knew was that now that I was on the road, I’d worried I’d bitten off more than I could chew.

But no, I needed this trip. To move beyond and through the last several months. To heal. I had been sexually assaulted and despite my best efforts, I was having a tough go. I kept trying to write new memories over top of the ones that kept rising to the surface when I didn’t want them to but it wasn't working. I think the moment I decided I was going to trek solo was the day I had come home from school, drawn the blinds to the world at about 4:00 pm, shoveled a frozen dinner into my mouth, and put myself to bed before the sun went down. My world was literally closing in but I knew that what I needed was for it to open up.

On the last day of school (back then I taught middle school PE) I locked the door to my apartment with the goal in mind of coming back as a different version of my current myself. Instinctively I knew that constant motion and new landscapes, unfamiliar running routes, and places where no one knew me would help. So, when I started having doubts, I fought back the urge to turn around and steeled my hands on the wheel.

It took about two weeks for me to really settle into the rhythm of the road but once I got into a routine, I could feel a lightness returning to me. My healing wasn’t linear (is it ever?) but I did feel improvement. Strangers seemed less scary and laughter came a little easier.

I drove several thousand miles that summer, most of them with the music on and with the windows down. And it’s still one of the best things I’ve ever done. It wasn’t all easy. I had a few low moments where I felt in over my head but for the most part the trip helped remind me of who I was. Or, at least showed me who I wanted to be. Though I can’t say I returned to my little apartment a completely changed person, I did return as a stronger version of myself. My panic attacks had reduced their frequency, and the trip had given me a renewed confidence in myself.

Here's why, whether you've been going through something difficult or not, I think everyone should take a solo trip at least once in their life.

It’s Empowering

Taking this road trip was the first time I truly felt the strength that comes (scratch that - is earned - from being on my own. It’s funny because it wasn’t the first time I’d been away from home. I lived and worked on Andros Island in the Bahamas for a little over a year and I’d had my own place for over a decade, but it took packing up my car and heading out alone to really feel like I had what it took and knew what it meant to feel truly independent. Was I lost with no cell signal? Had to find my way myself. Campsites booked with no lodging around for miles? Had to sort that by my lonesome, too. Tired, hungry, and lost all at the same time? No one’s gonna figure it out for ya. And I figure it out I did. The little bonus on top of all the problem-solving? That hard-won nugget I was looking for: confidence.

Memories

I’m a photographer so of course, I brought my camera. But I’ve also got a lot of memories for which I don’t have a visual reminder. The little cherry stand on the side of the road where I picked up a bag of fruit that made me think I’d never had a real cherry up until just then, the smell of the redwoods in California just after a gentle rain, the feel of the trail under my feet as I ran (panted) my way up the trail in Missoula just so I could touch the big ‘M’. I don’t know about you but my memories are some of my biggest treasures and they bring a richness to my life that I can access at any time.

Old and New Friends

One of the best parts of my solo road trip was catching up with friends who live in different parts of the country. I slept in a friend’s basement in Ohio, crashed on a floor in West Seattle, stashed my car on a super steep hill in San Franciso to spend time with a friend and his cats, and even stayed in a tiny house in the backyard of a buddy in Bellingham. I can’t understate how much I appreciated the hot showers and home-cooked meals but my favorite part to these re-connections were the deep belly laughs. It helped break up the monotony of so much alone time. Getting back in the car after a couple of days with friends was always a little sad. The silence was actually really loud. But I always consoled myself by looking at the map and pointing the car towards my next destination.

I also met a bunch of new people while traveling alone. Two that stand out in particular are Thomas and Benji, who I met up at Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park. They had hiked up, missed the shuttle, and needed a ride back into the valley. I surprised myself when I offered to take them. (And I had second thoughts as they started recounting about how they had recently had a bed bug infestation in their gear). We ended up meeting up with a few of their other friends (they were on a cross-country trip themselves, having biked from Florida and headed for the west coast) and spent the day hanging out. It was one of the best afternoons of my entire adventure.

To Learn Who You Are

I’m not joking when I say this. It sounds cheesy, but traveling alone forces you to spend a lot of time with numero uno. I’m not saying I avoided internal check-ins when I was at home, but I was able to distract myself with work, friends, and going out on weekends so that I didn’t really, truly have to go that deep. One of the things I learned was that I like my own company but that after about a week, I start craving meaningful connection with others. Another was that I can go a really long time without an actual shower haha.

I’m not sure if I would have taken this cross-country road trip had I not had something difficult to work through. But I’m so very glad that I did and I hope that if you've ever just dreamt about doing something similar, you go for it, even if it's just a long weekend somewhere fairly close to home. What have you got to lose?

Erin got her first trucker hat on that trip at a gas station just outside of Glacier National Park and wears it when she's feeling a little nostalgic for the road. You can keep up with her and her adventures at @e.mcgrady.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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