Posts Tagged 'solo'

Alone With Everybody: My First Post on HuffPo

You know how I say on my “About” page that I’m not actually that lonely? Well, I lied. Or I half lied. What I should say is that I’m more or less, to one degree or another, constantly lonely. Except for when I travel—alone.

If that seems to make no sense to you, well, you’re in good company. For my first post as a blogger over at the Huffington Post, I muddled around with the quandary for few hundred words. Check it out here.

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Through the Green and Into the Dust

Blogging to you LIVE from the Wigwam Motel in Rialto—my own yellow, cigarette-stenched circle of heaven in the epicenter of strip malls, tract housing and Morrissey fans, the San Bernardino Valley. It’s the perfect place to end the drive down to SoCal, and to begin the journey into the dusty heart of whatever weirdness remains.

I started out on my roadtrip yesterday, sniffling and sore and in a DayQuil daze. I decided to press on with my plans, despite succumbing to a nasty cold that’s been going around, and if it hadn’t been so goddamn beautiful, it might have been painful. Spring arrived a couple days ago, with that certain lightness that makes everything seem young and hopeful and achingly pure. The coast was lit green by months of El Nino storms, a verdancy that’s rare in California. I twisted and turned on the skinny roads, blasting my stereo over the roar of wind through the rattlingly cracked windows.

I stopped in Big Sur, where I hadn’t been since I was a kid. I’d remembered it being so far away from home, which I suppose it is, but only if you measure in culture, not in miles. It was just as massively impressive as I’d remembered, with broad trees and heartbreaking cliffs and not too many tourists, being early in the year. I’d been too groggy to stop for a sandwich on the way out of town, so I pulled into Nepenthe, purported to be one of the better of Big Sur’s overpriced coastal cafes. Glorified Wonderbread, browned and soggy lettuce, and $20 later, I decided that eating a $7 sandwich from home of the hood of my car at some pretty vista point would have been a far preferable experience. Whatever—it’s Big Sur. You can’t stay disappointed that long.

Feeling a little pepped up, I tried to do a quick hike, but discovered that a lot of the trails are currently closed due to the pummeling storms this year. So I tromped down a little coastal path, with bickering families and friendly Germans, aptly named Overlook Trail. It overlooks this:

and I felt pretty satisfied.

Back on the road, the coast got twistier, the pavement rougher, as I made my way down to San Luis Obispo. It’s a pretty typical California college town, with one major draw—one of the region’s few youth hostels. I grabbed a cheap bunk at Hostel Obispo, a cute old Victorian house, and took a leisurely stroll down to “Downtown,” which is really more of a high-end outdoor mall.

meeeeeat!

Traveling within the US is a novelty for me, and it comes with a couple major benefits, one of which is the use of my iPhone (far too expensive to use abroad). While the Cheap Gas and Public Restroom Finder apps have proven utterly disappointing, my old favorites are definitely coming through: Google maps and Yelp. I wanted to eat somewhere popular, that would give me a good feel for the town, and ended up at the Firestone Grill. It’s a BBQ joint heavy on portions and easy on the pocketbook, which makes sense in a college town. It was alright, about twice as good and half as much as my lunch—but 419 reviews? Then I passed the newly opened Chipotle, with a line literally out the door, and realized maybe, you know, I had had some of the best food in town.

I strolled around the town some more, filled with dudes in flip flops and girls in work-out clothes and pony-tails. It felt wholesome and relaxed—even the local riffraff felt quaint, in their barefoot belligerence. Everything felt cheerful and hopeful, like springtime and college students. I topped off the night with a much-needed soak in a hot tub at Sycamore Mineral Springs, a 12 minute drive from San Luis Obispo. My achy bones and sinus congestion thanked me.

This morning I backtracked to Montana de Oro State Park, for a little fresh air and strolling. Curving down a two-lane road, I went past coastal hills covered in purple and yellow wildflowers, orange explosions of poppies against the green green of the hills. The road took me into a tangle of eucalyptus trees; I pulled over where a bunch of cars were parked and scurried down a dirt path into a grove of trees.

The light cut through the leaves and branches and ocean mist in this dream-like haze, and all I could hear where birds and surf crashing. Over a hill and through a miniature valley (where a pelican glided past just as I rounded the corner), and I found myself at a surfer spot. I hung around a bit, sitting on the rocks and watching the waves and wet suits.

I headed back, this time inland on the 101, where flowers and green continued to line my journey. At home, I’m an impatient and cranky driver—I hate traffic, parking, street sweeping. Always an impediment to where I’m trying to go, what I’m trying to do. But driving down the coast, with my music playing and my broken skeleton doll dangling from the rearview mirror, I could let go and just go with the rhythms of the road. There was little traffic, just fresh air and beauty and my own wordless thoughts. The road was the place I was trying to go.

The roadside kitsch of Pea Soup Anderson’s was too much to pass up, so I made another stop—plus the soup felt good on my sore throat. Then I went to do a little un-urban exploring, swishing through thigh-high grass to poke around an abandoned diner I’d spotted from the highway. I peered through the windows at the stacked chairs, the silent booths, feeling a strange kind of nostalgia for a place I’d never been.

Things were starting to get cool.

As luck (or unluck) would have it, my iPod died just as I was cruising past Santa Barbara, so I pulled off to find a cafe. It’s hard not to feel alienated in a town like Santa Barbara, wealthy and white and homogenized and nice. Very very  nice. It’s the kind of place that feeds all your Southern California stereotypes, both the good ones—sun and long, tan legs—and the bad ones—everything else.

I got back on the highway just in time for rush hour. The green gave way to brown and billboards, the ocean mist to heat and just a thin layer of smog, the free flowing to break lights and miles of congestion. My 2 hour drive took 3 1/2. I climbed over the spine of LA, snuck around the backside, through one valley and into another. And finally pulled into the Wigwam Motel. It’s not as run-down as they say, the area not as “rough” as some reviews claimed. It’s a working class “ethnic” suburb and, hey, I’ll take that over a wealthy brofest any day. Even if it is damn hard to find a salad.

Blurry, but it does say "Get Your Kicks on Route 66." A better photo by daylight tomorrow.

So I’ve made it, my little car and me, crawling down the lip of the continent, down through the legendary beauty of coastal California, made more ridiculous by the green and tender spring. I’ve gotten reminded of what I already know of Southern California—bros and traffic—and am poised to head into the desert tomorrow. Found art, a rock n roll pilgrimage (and human cremation) site, and a honky tonk await. And that’s just tomorrow.

Sola: A Fetal Manifesto and Healing Tattoo

My swollen arm, looking more like my calf

Swollen and bruised and freshly tattooed, I’ve decided that there’s more to this “lonely girl” thing than a catchy title and purchasable domain name. It’s got to do with an approach towards travel, and maybe even an approach towards life, that’s developing inside me, embryonically. And at the center, the tiny heart between the budding limbs, is solitude, going at it sola.

There’s plenty of articles and blogs out there lauding the benefits of solo travel. Solo Friendly and Solo Traveler are devoted entirely to solo travel, with service-oriented tips and how-tos, while Women on the Road focuses exclusively on encouraging women to backpack. Independent-traveler sites BootsnAll and Matador have featured articles discussing pros and cons, and urging readers to take the solo plunge. The benefits promoted are fairly obvious—the freedom to do what you want when you want—as are the chief drawbacks discussed: safety and loneliness. Nearly every article and site on solo travel I’ve encountered has urged all travelers to go at it alone at least once.

I could write something similar, talk about how traveling solo forces me to be more social, to interact more with my surroundings; how it teaches me self-reliance and thus self-confidence; how I relish in the freedom of it; how none of my friends that can afford to travel are able to take the time off to accompany me anyway. But underneath and inside all those benefits is something harder to explain but ultimately more appealing, a kind of central gravity that all the other pluses of solo traveling orbit around: solitude.

It’s both positive and negative, both the exalted glory of Rilke and the insanity-inducing agony of solitary confinement. It’s a gnarled old wizard dude with a staff and a lantern, setting out into the craggy blue of the Hermit tarot card, now etched into the tender flesh on the inside of my arm, swollen amid the lymph nodes and brachial veins that hold me together.

On my last trip, I met many incredulous, widened eyes that asked, “You’re alone?” Then, declaratively, both impressed and horrified, “I could never do that”—in the way I’d respond to someone who’d climbed Mount Everest: good-for-you, thanks-but-no-thanks. People told me I was brave, fool-hardy, a feminist.

The truth is, I never really considered the fact that I was traveling alone; it rarely factors into my trip-planning, doesn’t strike me as odd or especially intrepid. It is what it is. Of course I’ll be alone. Who else am I gonna drag off around the planet?

But things like that, core characteristics and fundamental truths, rarely strike us as odd. Or even occur to us at all. They’re so central to who we are and how we live in the world that we aren’t aware of them. They strike us suddenly, in strange moments of lucidity—the porcelain-clutching “moment of clarity” in which one finally realizes she’s an alcoholic, or my mom’s recent epiphany that “we were the crazy white family in the neighborhood.” Or when someone else points it out to us, in the dingy back of dingy taxi, when you tell them you’re traveling alone.

For me, it goes back to my travel roots, which aren’t travel roots at all. It’s where I first learned to be alone in the world—the raggedy-ass East Bay buses. During my hour-and-a-half commute home from a far-away high school, I learned all the things international solo travel would later confirm and deepen—self-reliance, self-confidence, how to handle dicey situations and dodgy characters. It was especially important as a female. Honing my street smarts and learning how to carry myself and not take shit have been invaluable. And not something not every girl learns. The lessons taught on the hard plastic of AC Transit buses equipped me to travel sola everywhere from Colombia to Morocco.

But there’s something more inside that, something deeper and more fundamental than knowing how to watch your back and tell someone off with your eyes. More than even the confidence of knowing I’ll be able to figure out and make it through whatever crazy-ass situation I end up in. What is comes down to is a kind of comfort and security in who I am, and the way in which I never feel more like myself, the who-I-am underneath whatever’s happening in my life at the time, than when I’m alone, out in the world. It’s not the same sitting here in my bedroom typing; it’s gotta be out there, walking the streets and riding the buses of this world.

I think everyone should travel solo once in the same way I think everyone should be forced to wait tables once: it’d be nice, but not gonna happen. I don’t think solo travel is for everyone, but it’s become a defining part of how I experience the world, how I exist in it. I simultaneously delve deeper into myself (“the teacher within,” as they say in yoga) and my surroundings. I experience the world from a more intuitive, back-of-the-brain place, where I’m okay with it not making sense, where I find a way to somehow swim through the chaos and insanity and all-too-often heartbreaking cruelty of it, and tap, however lightly, on the beautiful something at the center of it all. I’m more able to trust that I’ve got a place somewhere amid it all.

During my four-hour detainment by the Venezuelan police a few years back, the female officer kept looking at my passport, me and back again, and asking, “Y estas sola?” She couldn’t believe I’d venture off in some other country by myself. However much of an evil, child-abusing American I might have been (it’s a long story), my being sola amazed her. And may have had something to do with me weaseling out of the situation.

I suppose it would have been more accurate to get a feminized Hermit card tattooed, but the beard was too Zeppelin-y to forfeit. And I feel cheesy having an uber-symbolic tattoo, to finally have some kind of answer for the middle-aged customers that look up over their reading glasses at me and ask what my tattoos mean. Most likely, I shrug and continue to say, “I just thought they looked cool.” At least until this approach, this fetal manifesto, is a little more gestated.


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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