The Virtues of Traveling Alone

When I turned 18, my father offered me a choice between two birthday/graduation gifts: a new computer or a solo plane ticket to Europe and month long Eurorail pass. I chose the computer.

It wasn’t until nearly a decade later, after finishing law school (a few hours after taking the California bar, to be exact), that my wife forced me to travel out of the country. We had a great time. It was the first time I experienced the joy of international travel. During this trip, my interest in the English walking tour was renewed while driving through the Lake District. Incidentally, we spent the night in a filthy inn not more than a mile off the Dales Way in Kendal.

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Falling in love with real ale in northern England 2005. Old Speckled Hen, if memory serves.

It took a few more trips to Europe and some soul crushing life events to finally spur me to go out and travel on my own – to finally do something that always scared me. And I am so grateful that I did.

I often wonder if my life would have taken a different course had I took that trip as an 18-year-old. It’s not like I didn’t want to. But I was terrified at the prospect of being on my own so far from home. I was not confident to trust myself to be spontaneous. But knowing myself now, I believe I would have gained the confidence to take more chances in life. Maybe I would not be so hesitant to try for the things that I want.

Why do we hesitate to pursue things we dream about? Granted, there are often real obstacles in the way our dreams. But, speaking for myself, more often than not, I made obstacles where there weren’t any. Truthfully, I wanted obstacles to keep me from being bold enough to do something daring. I made excuses because I was either too scared or too timid to pursue the thing I wanted. I know that I’m not alone in this.

When I talk about my trips, one of the first questions is always, “who did you go with?” People often seem surprised that I go by myself. I don’t often get asked why I go by myself, but I suspect people wonder.

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It’s not that I don’t like traveling with other people. Some of my most fulfilling adventures have been with my wife and close friends. However, there is something about a trip alone that satiates a special metaphysical longing. There are also more practical reasons I intentionally travel alone.

The first reason I travel by myself is because it scares me. What if I unwittingly upset a local or get lost or mess up a lodging reservation? What if I get lonely? What if I need help? Traveling alone forces me to confront my petty fears. Not only do I confront them, I come to realize how petty they are and thereby produce a new level of confidence. This confidence banishes that nagging fear that leads me to create obstacles that keep me from doing what I want.

Similarly, I want to be spontaneous. I’m not a spontaneous person. But I want to be. Any amount of spontaneity I currently have is attributable to my wife making me do stuff of which I was previously too afraid. Spontaneity scares me. It makes me uncomfortable. Those petty fears are at the root of it again. On the trail, by yourself, it is hard not to be spontaneous. When your plan includes venturing to point A from B with a whole lot of mystery in the middle, you end up on unexpected adventures or meeting new people. When I’m traveling with someone else, spontaneity suffers. There’s often less room for spontaneity because there are always more plans or we might be less willing to strike up a conversation with strangers because we are content with each other’s company.

Traveling alone also allows me to think without distraction. To this end, during my first walk, I made a decision to turn off my phone (not that it ever had service anyway) and not listen to music. I don’t want distractions. I certainly don’t want to feel like I need to keep a conversation going. I want my brain to take my thoughts where ever it wants. I feel more creative and introspective when I’m walking alone. And that’s not just a perception. There’s solid science to the notion that walking boosts creativity. The older I get, the more I seem to need time to clear my head and reflect. It is a necessary catharsis.

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Silence also provides an opportunity to take in my surroundings without interruption. Whether it’s in an old pub or out on a remote part of a footpath, I can take in more of the environment than if I was with someone else. Maybe I linger a little longer in an old church. Maybe I spend an extra few minutes taking in a sunset because I don’t need to hurry because my partner is tired or needs to pee. As I noted in a post last year:

Walking and talking are two very great pleasures, but it is a mistake to combine them. Our own noise blots out the sounds and silences of the outdoor world; and talking leads almost inevitably to… [a] farewell to nature as far as one of our senses is concerned.

― C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life

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Lastly, when I travel I alone, I do what I want. I could happily hit three different pubs in a day, but I know that is not most people’s idea of fun. Roman villa a mile off the trail? I’m going. But I don’t really get excited about shopping or botany. Alone, I don’t have to subject my interests on anyone and I don’t have to be subjected to someone else’s interests. It’s me time.

In summary, I travel alone because it transforms me closer to the person I want to be. A person who is willing to step out of his comfort zone to obtain those things he wants. A spontaneous person willing to take adventures as they present themselves. A person with clear thoughts.

I didn’t take that trip when I was 18 but I want to be a person who is bold enough to take the next one.

3 thoughts on “The Virtues of Traveling Alone

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