Traveling alone in Chamonix, I’ve often thought about my 26-year-old self landing in New Zealand five years ago. How lonely she felt when she first got there. How afraid that made her.
Solitude was an art form I hadn’t yet learned up to that point. Life in San Francisco was hyper-social. The calendar was booked six or seven nights a week, filled up with high school friends, college friends, work friends, city friends. The rare nights at home were spent cooking dinner and watching movies with my roommates.
I never had to be alone, which is why it scared me so much when I first went traveling. But, even then I wasn’t alone for long. Within a couple weeks I had a job at a ski resort and was surrounded pretty much 24/7 with people. From dawn when we got on the staff bus that took us up to the mountain to one a.m. when we’d stumble home up the hill after a night out at the bars. In Australia, sometimes I’d excuse myself for an afternoon to go for a run or to walk around Sydney and write in my journal. But I always had a loud, warm house full of people to come back to at the end of the day.
Things were different when I moved to Boulder. Steve was working or going to class seven days a week, and we were living on our own for the first time. It took me a while to make friends.
Those were some tough months. I was homesick, thinking about my family and friends moving on with their lives without me in California while I spent my weekends by myself in Colorado. That first winter I’d drive up to the mountain, walk into the lodge to get a drink of water and see people with their families; or sit with a groups of people my age on the chairlift who were laughing, giving each other crap, and ignoring me. “The sound of other people having fun” as my friend Patricia used to say. That sound made my heart hurt.
Over time, though, I started to notice that sound less. It was replaced by other sounds—the sound of tires on dirt as I ground steadily up a singletrack climb. The sound of my skis scraping snow and ice in the trees. There were smells, colors, and tastes, too, that I noticed in the absence of constant conversation. Solitude heightened my senses like waking up after a long night’s sleep.
Even after I started making some really great friends, I was still solo a lot of the time. The mountains were my company and my escape. I had grown to love the freedom of being on my own schedule and pace. And as a woman, every drawn-out, sketchy outdoor mission I accomplished on my own gave me more confidence in my own abilities.
When I was younger, I thought that if I was by myself, it meant nobody wanted to spend time with me. This was a disturbing thought because I really needed people to like me, as much as I needed air. The void I tried to fill with that approval was a black hole that sucked up all the love and support I already had in my life…and only demanded more. As I got older I began to realize that I didn’t need everyone in the world to love me, just to prove that I was worth being loved.
Besides, I was learning that you couldn’t hold on to anyone, anyway. People didn’t belong to me. Ironically, once I realized that, I also realized I could never really lose them.
I’ve been mostly alone since I got to France, and it’s been incredibly rewarding to know for sure that I’m not the same scared little girl I was five years ago. I enjoy the solitude while it lasts, and I appreciate the opportunities it opens up too.
Already, genuine human interactions have charged through my atmosphere like shooting stars; quickly, spectacularly, and memorably. Having surprisingly long conversations and throw-back-my-head laughter with the English guy who sold me my bike. Getting a sincere smile from the French girl at the bike shop when I apologize for my terrible francais. “It is good that you try,” she says. Having a local be kind enough to take me for a ride on the trails above town, and then also kind enough to stop at the top of every brutal climb, pretending to be taking in the view but really letting me catch my breath so I don’t faint. Sharing a beer with some hikers from Annecy, who invite me to come up and stay a weekend when I’m done with my classes here.
The kindness of strangers is a phenomenon known best by the solo traveler. It stands out starkly against an unfamiliar landscape, one of the most beautiful sights you can see on the road.
We’ll always be social creatures. And our favorite activities truly are best enjoyed with company—riding bikes or skiing with good friends will always be my idea of a perfect day. But the older we get, the more adept we become at traveling alone in between those moments and days. To new places but also through life. With more and more quiet confidence that knows, I am loved, I have love to give, and I am okay. Wherever I stand on my own two feet.