By Rachel Wagoner
Photo by Mike Carpenter, Type/Editing by Andi Bocsardi
You don’t travel alone expecting to find any sort of personal connection. You envision the freedom of solitude; meeting a blur of people, having invigorating experiences, learning new things. And you will. You will discover incredible new things, and you will have adventures; you will jump against the cold spray of the waves before the glaring orange sky at sunset. You will sit around a glowing bonfire and listen to the throb of the ocean mixing with the various lilting accents of the other hostel youths. But you will also find a strand of sameness with people completely foreign to you. German engineers, French models, English students, Swiss photographers. They filter into your travels as strangers and leave with a part of you that they claim as kindred.
You won’t find any of this on a “vacation”, though. You have to travel, really travel. Strip down to the bone of your consciousness and leave your expectations, your limits, your fears, your excessive clothing and extra bags behind. Find the part of you that would rather jump off some cliffs, clasping hands with some French girl whose name you can’t correctly pronounce, screaming together in pitched ecstatic absurdity, than stroll for hours around the famously huge mall, buying souvenirs for memories that you never really made. Find that facet of yourself that is okay with dirty hair and the constant smell of the ocean lingering on your skin; with fewer hours of sleep and continuous adventures at all hours of the day and night; with carrying around only one backpack for the times in between hostels when you have no “home” for your possessions. I left Denton, Texas for 7 days on a whim, traveled to San Diego, and stayed in hostels, walked across beaches, stared up at the skyscrapers in a city that overwhelmed and intoxicated me; I met beautiful people who were traveling for a vast array of reasons, who taught me powerful lessons about culture, life, spirituality, and myself; I sat alone in restaurants while reading books or writing terrible poetry and watched the locals swarming around me; I got terribly, hopelessly lost several times and had to depend entirely on my own resolve and a strength of will that I didn’t know existed in me beforehand.
Traveling alone is terrifying. There were times that I second-guessed myself, but there was a sort of intensity in these moments that I began to appreciate. From the moment that you buy that plane ticket and see the reality of your impending adventure looming on the screen in front of you, you begin to feel something.
When the tears burned down my skin on a dark, sinister city street in San Diego and I clutched my pepper spray so tightly in my fist that I could count the blood-red lines in my palm later, I was buzzing; I was dynamic and fierce; there was no denying that I was alive. Lying alone in the dark hostel bunk bed on the first night, surrounded by the sleepy movements of complete strangers, I let the aching intensity of the loneliness of knowing no-one in a strange city sink into me, and I let myself feel it all rather than hiding from it with my phone or laptop. It is impossible to go on a solo-trip and experience only positive emotions. You have to embrace the negative, the hard, the ugly parts of yourself as well, and you have to expose these parts to the possibility of change and transformation.
When I had no one to depend on but myself, I grew in ways that I never believed I could. All of my emotions were laid out on the surface of my vulnerable skin, and I began to shift, to mold and adapt to this new place, this new experience. I felt and watched myself change in a matter of 7 days; I sensed my courage grow, my insecurities subside, my self-awareness and curiosity for other ways of life swell. I could see that I could never be the same person that I was before the day I stepped onto that plane and was rushed across the country with only strangers by my side.
Buy a plane ticket. Book a couple hostels. Set a lower budget than you think you can stick to.
And do it all by yourself.
This article was originally printed in August 2014 in Austere Awake.