“You’re so brave.”
The woman counts the coins before she placed them in my palm, a wrinkle of concern bisecting her freckled forehead. We are standing under the exposed wood beams of the Pioneer Mercantile, a Wild West-themed souvenir shop tucked under the arm of Disneyland’s Frontierland, and I have just made the mistake of telling yet another stranger that I am traveling alone.
From a young age, my father instilled in me a healthy fear of unanticipated danger. Always wrap your purse straps around a chair leg to deter would-be thieves, he’d caution when we sat down to a meal. Don’t put your passport in the outer pocket of your backpack. Stay alert on the train. Keep your keys threaded through your fingers when you walk alone in the dark. Walk under streetlights, away from the shadows. Remember the family “safe word.” Make sure you have pepper spray with you at all times. Kick hard.
It is because of my father, then, that I walk with my keys out at night, my head up and my mind cycling through any number of scenarios in which I’d be forced to do something other than unlock my car door with them. Still, it’s not only for safety reasons that I try not to disclose my solo status to strangers when I’m on the road.
Most of the time, it’s to avoid moments like this one.
The cashier looks me up and down and all but clucks her tongue as she hands me the plastic bag.
“It just… sounds lonely,” she confides.
I murmur some vague reassurance and duck out of the shop. I understand where she’s coming from, even as I fight the urge to brush off her remarks. It’s not as if I’ve taken any real risk to enjoy a day at Disneyland by myself, I think. I haven’t crossed any continents, sailed to any remote islands, tangled with wild animals in the brush of some distant jungle. It’s barely a two-hour flight back up home to the Bay Area, for crying out loud.
But the risk — and subsequent thrill — of traveling alone isn’t confined to international travel, to the challenge of deciphering an unfamiliar tongue or confronting true peril. These feelings are unavoidably present in the way that, independent of your final destination, the act of traveling alone forces you to rely on yourself. They’re the nerve-wracking call to step outside of your comfort zone, whether you find yourself asking a stranger for directions or choosing a restaurant in which you’ll be forced to eat alone again. They’re the moments, few but inevitable, when you have to battle loneliness — as well as the moments when you find yourself relishing the ability to absorb and appreciate the world around you.
I started traveling alone in earnest during college: flights from my grey-skied home state to a tiny liberal arts college nestled in the hills of Montecito, California; train rides down the coast to Los Angeles and back up coast to Santa Cruz; road trips to bánh mì shops in San Francisco and coliseum-like libraries in Vancouver. With every trip, every temporary excursion, I felt freer, more independent, more like myself… or, at least, the person I wanted to become.
For a few hours or days or weekends, I could test-drive adult life. Find my way around new cities without a parent or a friend to hand-hold me. Get some reading done. If I was lucky, even have an adventure or two that might be worth writing about later in life.
Three years after graduation, I put down roots in the Bay Area. I scraped together several hundred dollars from babysitting gigs and freelance writing and rented a small garden studio in San Leandro, just a 40-minute BART ride from the glittering bustle of San Francisco. I learned to suppress my wanderlust, convinced that I had already had everything I needed: a happy relationship, the World Series-champion San Francisco Giants, a handful of part-time jobs that allowed me to write about immigration law during the week and watch baseball on the weekends.
In the rare moments when I reflected on it at all, I attributed my former appetite for travel to an inexplicable dissatisfaction with my life. Maybe, I thought, I had just needed a temporary fix for my post-graduation blues and minimum-wage burnout. Maybe a new home — one of my own choosing — would be enough to cure my chronic restlessness.
Like an itch left untreated, it wasn’t long before that restless desire returned in full force. Sitting alone on my lunch break one day, the idea of going somewhere new suddenly seemed more compelling than ever before. It wasn’t that I hadn’t enjoyed my time in the Bay Area or that I longed to escape to a new locale or even that I needed a break from family vacations. But I missed the feeling of freedom that is uniquely tethered to traveling alone — the feeling that, at any given moment, I could take my work on the road for a couple of days and jet off to the nearest seaside town or amusement park for some much-needed R&R. (And beneath that, I suppose, the feeling that life was about more than keeping a job and paying off student debt and making rent, ill-equipped as my paycheck was to accommodate that feeling.)
Four months later, after my dwindling bank account and I bid goodbye to any fantasies of backpacking through Europe or touring Tokyo or road tripping through Mexico, I had a more modestly-priced plane ticket to LAX in-hand and a hotel room booked in Anaheim for the weekend.
After all, I reasoned, where better to reacquaint myself with the pleasures of traveling solo than at the Happiest Place on Earth?
When the day finally came, however, I felt strangely uneasy. The candy-colored theme park had been my favorite vacation destination when I was a child, but now, crossing under the train tracks and stepping onto Main Street, U.S.A. as an adult — especially without the buffer of family members or college friends or a five-year-old child of my own — I felt like I had just entered an unfamiliar country for the first time.
Swirling around me were young families pushing toddlers in double- or triple-seated strollers, groups of shrieking high school students posing under the shadow of Sleeping Beauty Castle, and couples clad in complementary “I’m Her Mickey”/”I’m His Minnie” t-shirts. They all looked like they belonged. I reluctantly picked out a curbside seat for the afternoon parade, unsettled and unable to dismiss the feeling that everyone was scrutinizing me or, worse, pitying me.
I longed for the security blanket of my family and friends and their reassurances that no, the mom waiting in the standby line for Space Mountain wasn’t giving me the side eye — she was just exhausted from chauffeuring a gaggle of chattering 10-year-olds during a grueling 12-hour day at the park. I felt acutely lonely as I watched parents play Heads Up! with their kids and friends compare scores on Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin (my score: 12,000 to 0).
I started to wonder if traveling alone was really all I’d cracked it up to be.
I wish I could say I found an easy fix that day.
But it took years — not weeks, not days, not hours — to learn how to de-prioritize my own self-consciousness and crippling introvertedness. I didn’t know why, after dozens of solo trips, those feelings were manifesting now, only that they were standing in the way of the experiences I so desperately sought.
Coming to that realization was the first step. Actively pushing those feelings away proved much more difficult.
With each trip to the sunny clime of Southern California, I found ways to distract myself. Instead of obsessing about which people were or were not staring at me in the Matterhorn queue, I began scribbling poems. I buried my nose in novels while I savored beignets and braised beef crepes at Café Orleans, napped on long riverboat rides along Rivers of America, and even tried my hand at befriending other solo travelers during early morning flights and the long, cold wait leading up to the evening fireworks show (admittedly, to varying degrees of success).
Eventually, I realized three more things:
- 99% of theme park guests (and non-theme park travelers, for that matter) are blissfully unaware of other people, whether those people happen to be happily single, happily partnered, or somewhere in between. And, like the well-meaning cashier in Frontierland, those who happen to be a little more alert to their surroundings tend toward kind curiosity than outright judgment.
- I can prepare myself for every scenario. Call it the common sense I inherited from my father or, perhaps, my own tendency toward paranoia, but nothing has alleviated my travel-based anxiety more than anticipating the worst outcomes (what if someone looks at me funny? What if a server makes a snide comment about me eating alone? What if I lose my wallet, or my flight is delayed, or my Lyft driver kidnaps me?) and devising a plan to deal with each one in turn.
- The rewards of traveling alone still far outweigh the residual awkwardness that comes with it. Even while doing something as simple as enjoying a meal at Lamplight Lounge or mustering up the courage for another drop on Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT! or explaining to TSA that, whoops, I dropped my driver’s license somewhere in the queue for Splash Mountain, I feel free, independent, and empowered to make my own decisions and solve my own problems when I’m alone. And despite the occasional burst of loneliness or hesitation, there are relatively few things that a good book and a comforting text message can’t solve.
Traveling solo will never be the most comfortable mode of experiencing the world around me, of that I’m certain. But I’m equally certain that if it weren’t for the boundary-pushing exhilaration, confidence, and freedom that discomfort begets, life wouldn’t be nearly so wonderful.