My first solo trip was a tentative affair. My sister was bicycling across the country as part of a charity effort called Bike-Aid. I’d decided to join up for a day or two when the group rode through Nashville, Tennessee, which meant I first had to cover the 350 miles of back roads between there and where I lived in Bloomington, Indiana.
I hopped on my bike, carrying little more than a change of clothes and some Pop-tarts. A friend rode along for the first day, and we covered about 175 miles. When he turned around and headed back the secondary, reality sank in: I was a woman cycling alone through rural Kentucky and Tennessee, wearing a pair of pink bike shorts. Although my sister expected me to show up in a day or two, no one knew where I was or what I was doing, except the guys who booted as they drove by in muffler-free pickup trucks.
It was after dark when I finally pedaled into the community center where my sister and her group were staying that night, I had cried, cursed myself for attempting such a ridiculous trip, and wondered about my sanity. BUt with all the sweat and tears, I also had a feeling of accomplishment that I had never know before. On that last day, I had been solely responsible for me, whether that meant deciphering a map, negotiating a nasty thunderstorm, or eating Moon Pies to gather enough energy to cycle those last 20 miles through the dark in pouring rain. It was my first taste of the pleasure and pain that can come from going it alone.
It’s rare that we find time to be alone. Our lives are filled with work and workouts, friends and lovers, kids, dogs, cats and, in my case, pet snakes, all of which bring us fulfillment, love and companionship but demand our attention. Constantly, Silitude — spending time with just yourself — is a scarce commodity. For many women, it’s also frightening to even contemplate being alone for an extended period of time. Solitude makes us feel vulnerable. Having no one to take care of you except yours truly puts the focus on and responsibility for your well-being right smack on yourself.
And that is the strongest argument I know of for going solo. Whether it be a bicycle tour, a backpacking trek or a long trail run, doing it alone can give a woman confidence in her skills, much-needed time for contemplation, and lessons in how to care for herself.
Since that first independent bicycle trip to meet my sister, I’ve been addicted to going solo. I still travel often with friends and loved ones, but traveling alone gives me a chance to reacquaint myself with myself. I know women who have done more extensive solo trips than I have, like my friend and neighbor who spent six months packing through the Southwest with only her dog and two llamas for company. I can’t afford that sort of alone time, at least at this point in my life, nor can most women. But I regularly steal a week, a few days or even a few hours for myself.
Living where I do now, in the heart of southwest New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness, I venture often into the backcountry by myself. Soloing in the backcountry affords a more complete solitude than any you can find in civilization. No catcalls, noisy cars or shady looks to plague you. Of course, no 7-Elevens or pizza joints, either. More than once I’ve returned from an eight-day trek to find my own voice sounds strange to me.
Each time a neighbor drops me off at a trailhead 40 miles away and I wave goodbye, I still panic for an instant. Did I bring enough food? What if the weather turns foul? Can I really survive for a week with only the contents of this pack that sits so heavily on my back? What if I fall and break an ankle?
Those are real dangers — and in a world more oft made safe and sound, something about that very realness appeals. I’ve had a few close calls, like the time I fell face first in the river I was crossing, the weight of my pack nudging me farther into the swirling water. I felt ridiculous as I scrambled around, finally managing to flip over like a turtle and unstrap my pack. I emerged with only a scrape or two and a soaked pack but also with the awareness that I had almost drowned. The third day out on that same trip, my stove quit. It was the rainy season, and two weeks of daily thunderstorms had soaked every bit of wood, making it impossible to start a fire. For four days, I subsisted on a rather crunchy diet of uncooked dehydrated food, envisioning the big plate of steaming enchiladas I would feast on at my favorite cafe as soon as I returned.
Experiences like those have taught me that even when things go wrong, I can rely on myself. Sure, it would have been easier and safer if someone had been along to pull me out of the river, but I knew as I sat there shaking, more from the realization that I had almost died than from the icy water, that I could do what I needed to do to survive. And as a cow elk silently watched me crunch my unreconsituted dried beans one evening, I knew that being alone in the backcountry was worth the cementlike paste that was slowly building up on the roof of my mouth.
Each time I’ve soloed, I’ve learned something more about myself — some things that I like and some things that I don’t. I’ve discovered that I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself and — thank goodness — that I rather like spending time by myself. When I’m traveling alone, I move at my own pace, stop when I want to, take a picture, write a letter or scratch out a poem I would never show to anyone, my dog included. Sometimes I eke out a few more miles than I had planned just to reach an inviting peak, canyon or creek. I eat when I’m hungry, sometimes granola for dinner and rice and beans for breakfast, sleep in the middle of the day and walk at night. In the backcountry, I skinny-dip in the river and dry myself, lizardlike, on warm rocks in the sun.
Soloing rewards the brave traveler with self-reliance and strength. I don’t look at my solo trips as taking time alone but rather as creating a space where only I can go. I return to that precious space when the rest of my life is in turmoil. When the deadlines pile up, I can’t find the time to train for my next race, the bills are coming in faster than the paychecks, the car breaks down and even my boyfriend tells me to get lost, I breathe deeply, close my eyes and go back to my solo space. It’s refuge that no one can take from me.