The Unexpected Journey—Stories of a Solo Traveler
“What am I doing?!” I said to myself as intense panic began to set in. I was standing on the edge of a mountain, 20 miles deep into Montana’s national forest with no phone service or map after I had wandered off in search of a trail with plants, mushrooms and land I had never seen before. I was 33 and had just ended a 14 year partnership. I had embarked on a ten day solo trip for the first time in my life, taking advantage of my incipient freedom. The trip had gone smoothly up until then, staying with friends in Portland and Idaho, but then continued on by myself with my newly fledged confidence into new territory.
It was in that moment that I realized I had no one else to rely on except myself. Any predicament that I got into I would have to deal with. After never living on my own or traveling by myself in my life, this was The “what-ifs” began to run rampant through my mind. What if I encountered a bear? I put my hand on my pocket. I had bear spray that my mom had given me and I kept my keys loudly jingling to ensure my presence was known. What if the car broke down? I sort of know my way around a car and there’s a few things I know how to fix. If not, I had everything I needed to camp for at least 5 or more days, plenty of food and water. Plus 20 miles are a doable to walk back to the interstate if it came down to it. I took a deep breath and decided that I had the situation handled. I hiked the several miles back to my car. As soon as I sat down in the driver’s seat, I smiled one of the biggest smiles in my life.
I have gone on at least one solo adventure each year since then. The next one was to Telluride, Colorado where I spent ten days in and out of the wilderness foraging and writing my Master’s thesis. Another was a mushroom foraging trip that took me along the the coast and ended up at Mount Shasta in California. Each trip I returned with more than beautiful nature photos. I returned with a deeper understanding of myself and how I relate to this experience of life. This year I decided I had never seen the Olympic Peninsula and have been fascinated by temperate rainforests since I was a kid. With no plan in mind other than to head north as far as I could go, I went on yet another journey that I wasn’t quite expecting. I had been doing this solo thing for a while now and felt confident that I would have an enjoyable time wandering about the wild, searching for mushrooms and nibbling plants, photographing and writing along the way. I didn’t think there was much deep soul searching experience left to have at this point. In fact on day 4, as I sat on an desolate riverbank in the middle of the forest, it was one of the most powerful existential crises since my ex-husband moved out four years earlier, nearly taking everything but my car.
It seems rare these days, as a working mom especially, that I find I am ever alone for very long. From roommates, children, teaching, running a business and living in an urban area, its difficult for me to spend an entire day alone without someone needing to interact with me. So when I get the chance to adventure alone, I get tempted to stop and visit friends along the way, but end up politely declining because of how rare and how much I value my solo time. But then, as the days go on, I realize I haven’t interacted with a real person in a week. By intentionally journeying solo, especially in low populated areas, the traveler is suddenly subjected to one’s own company hour after hour, hundred miles after hundred miles, day after day.
It can become a very profound and spiritually enlightening experience. Those little underlying and long unresolved issues suddenly seem to bubble up to the surface. Those uncomfortable realizations about the self that have been avoided and shoved aside promptly make their way into the limelight. The layers are peeled away. Suddenly, the meaning and purpose of one’s life comes front and center. Fears and uncomfortable truths that seemed insignificant before, now are magnified. But, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
I tend to prefer going without a rigid plan or itinerary. I spend so much of my regular life planning nearly every moment of the day, week and month that it feels incredibly refreshing not to have a pressing to-do list or the incessant feeling of always ‘having to be somewhere’ that I’ve become accustomed to in this busy modern life. However, take away that preoccupation for the brain and what’s left? For me, at the beginning it feels like I can be in the moment, make decisions on the fly and not be distracted with the next item on the to-do list. But then the mind starts searching for something to entertain itself. That’s where all the thoughts of self-reflection and analyzation crept in. We get so wrapped up in our modern lives, falling into monotonous routines, doing the same things every day, over and over, when suddenly we realize a year (or ten) have gone by.
Spiritual awakening, soul searching and loneliness aside, there have been some incredible moments on my travels that I will remember for a lifetime. The feeling of accomplishment of 10+ mile hikes into the backcountry, the victorious summits, the rewarding dip in a pristine alpine lake, reveling in the fact that I relied on no one else but me to get to that point. Those times worth every challenging moment along the way.
Food for the (spiritual) journey
I also like to change up my eating habits on the road as well, shopping at farmers markets and foraging along the way. No restaurants (although it was my birthday this last trip and I took myself out to a fancy restaurant in Portland) and no processed or prepared foods. Since food wasn’t as easily accessible, I was able to examine my unconscious eating habits. Snacking when I felt anxious, reaching for food when I felt overwhelmed or wanting to avoid something. If I wanted to eat, instead of mindlessly grabbing a bag of chips, I had to stop somewhere, open up the cooler, set up my mini-kitchen and prep food from whole ingredients I found along the way. For every meal. Snacking on foraged berries and plants was helpful in between. A majority of what we do in our daily lives is routine and habitual. We go throughout the day without thinking. If it worked easily, comfortably, in the past, we are more likely to continue doing it over again.
What about the loneliness?
One of the most common questions or comment I get about my travels is “doesn’t it get lonely?”
Of course. But why does one get lonely? What makes it so uncomfortable to be with yourself?
Surprisingly, it doesn’t take actually being alone in a forest somewhere to feel lonely. Many people living in urban areas admit to feeling lonely at some time AND at least sixty percent of people who feel lonely are married, according to research. It comes down to the quality of relationship you have with yourself and relationships with others in your life. That feeling of loneliness which arises during solo travel can help us examine and reconsider some of our habits and relationships.
A journey taken solo, I have found, is a completely different experience than when we travel with a partner. There are the positives of traveling with someone: You get to share those exciting and thrilling moments together: achieving the summit of a mountain, admiring an awe inspiring landscape, the elation of finding flora and fauna for the first time. Having someone to talk to about the meaning of life on those endless hours and hundreds of miles makes a world of a difference. A second opinion offered whether to turn left or right. But then there’s always a second set of needs and wants, other routines, other paces and differences to consider. It is more difficult to fully interact with the people you meet during the journey. There’s much, much less privacy. And of course, the more time you spend with someone, the more likelihood of disputes and disagreements. Is one better than the other? Not necessarily, just drastically different experiences.
For women, unfortunately, it can be a lot more intimidating to travel alone especially if you haven’t done it before. Even though I don’t usually have an itinerary, I always have the first night planned before I leave my house. After that, I let everything unfold from there.
My biggest suggestion is to stay observant. Keep an eye on the people around you and pay attention to your surroundings. Since I sleep in my car, I’m very aware of the places I choose and observe the local activity before I decide to commit to a spot for the night. If at all possible, I park and hop directly through to the back of the car to set up my sleeping area without going outside of the car which may attract unwanted attention.
I usually keep to myself most of the time when I travel, which has its own disadvantages, but in a safety sense, it works. When interacting with others though, it helps to be vague with people you meet about where you’re staying and where you’re going, even when posting to social media. I also don’t usually make a big deal about the fact that I’m traveling solo in casual conversations.
At the beginning of my first solo adventure, I stayed with friends each night with the next day’s destination being the next friend’s home. That made it incredibly easy. Someone was expecting me and generally had all the accommodations I could have wanted, even dinner. After that though, as I’m not always a very social person, I opted for campgrounds. There were people around but I could keep to myself. It was a plus if there was a shower. Then, as finances were a little tighter and nightly campground fees became more than what I wanted to spend. I opted for national forest camping at times or, highway turnouts… my favorite have been along Highway 1 overlooking the Pacific Ocean. A good app that I have been using lately is the iOverlander app that offers suggested boondocking sites with reviews.
What are my essentials?
Every time I travel, my “essentials” list gets shorter and lighter. It changes during the seasons and depends on what I plan to forage. Here’s what I brought with me last time on my 10 day roadtrip from Southern California to the Olympic Peninsula, sleeping in my car (no tent or chairs needed).
Kitchen necessities (cast iron skillet, chef knife, backpacker’s stove, chopsticks, spoon, bowl, and my favorite mug)
Basic cooking spices and oils
Field guides for the local area
Backpack with waterbottle/filter
A few changes of clothes
Appropriate footwear for the destination
Basic toiletries (just because you’re solo doesn’t mean its ok to skip brushing your teeth, or maybe it is..?)
Kitchen towel (or paper towels but I try to reduce waste when possible)
Cozy bedding (because those long days of driving or hiking should be rewarded with a good night’s rest. I recently splurged on a memory foam mattress topper that fits perfectly in the back of my car and its pretty much the best purchase I’ve made)
Music and/or podcasts downloaded (because there’s many times without phone service and internet radio is nearly useless without signal unless your songs are downloaded)
*I’m considering the level of comfort that having a phone provides which makes me curious what the experience would be like without GPS, Google and the various apps I use to guide my journey. What if I had to ask a human for directions or recommendations? How would that change my experience?
Travel changes you. Solo travel changes you even more.
Every time I return from my travels, my perspective has shifted in some way. I feel just a bit more confident, just a bit wiser, happier and easy-going. And just a bit more ready to take on whatever life throws at me next. And maybe… just maybe… I’ll share an adventure with someone someday.
Jess Starwood is an herbalist, forager and chef, aspiring writer and photographer with a passion for solo travel. Follow the journey on Instagram @this.wild.path or food adventures @jess.starwood