The 5 Stages of Solo Travel

And what actually happens out there

The Lightbulb Moment

I was in the midst of a dull season at a temporary job. Between emails, my scrolling seemed to reveal every tropical destination ever posted. I started to pass the time daydreaming about leaving home with just myself and a backpack.

Ever since college, I had tried and failed at solo travel. When I scrounged together enough money to go to Ireland, my parents bought a ticket last minute. They had always wanted to see Europe. No further comment.

As I hopped around the continent, I stayed with friends who showed me around first hand.

Each time, what would start as a solo journey would quickly morph into something else: something a little more comfortable. Solo is risky. Solo is a challenge. This idea, though several times thwarted, had not left the back of my mind.

You’re idea might center around a few goals. Perhaps meeting new people is one, or getting to know a unique culture. Maybe you just want to see what you’re capable of. You might find your motivations as multiple as the ingredients in a day-after-Thanksgiving sandwich. We all know how glorious that can be.

By the end of my seasonal job, I had built quite a Thanksgiving sandwich.

I don’t quite remember how this particular trip hit me: to work-trade on a rural farm for a month. I was not a farmer, never potted a plant. And, I had a boyfriend, why would I possibly want to go by my scrawny female self? Thus, my answer to “why” changed each time I was asked. That’s ok. I told myself. It was still just an thought experiment, a conversation topic, a muse. It’s not like you’ve gotten a plane ticket yet.

Buy The Plane Ticket

I hurdled the online fees. I waited on hold. Suddenly, the deed was done. I was going, and I was going alone. I texted several friends in a spree of exclamation points. I even slipped in a “come visit me” or two.

I began to fluctuate between two states:

  1. “Party in the USA” by Miley Cyrus
  2. “What I’ve Done” by Linkin Park

Oh yes, the subtle fear of this kind of resolve will start to creep in. Likely, you are leaving a career, a group of friends, and the security of home base. Those invites over text? Sometimes, they’ll be little life rafts. If someone wanted to come, would you say no?

As someone who deeply values personal connection, I was a bit unsure of where this “solo” thing was coming from.

Leave Home

Do people still get shoe shines?

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

Glancing at my cheap sneakers, I felt giddy at the thought of a shoe-shine. I shifted my gaze up and followed the signs to my gate. The two internal states started to get louder. They sang in a constant call-and-answer.

One voice will be quite excited. It is bubbling to see sights, learn new things, and explore wherever, whenever. I let that voice talk all it wanted.

Photo by Sacha Verheij on Unsplash

I wrote the following in my journal when I boarded the plane:

I’m reminded of the flight I took alone when I studied abroad. “Welcome, bienvenido…”

I still can’t believe I did that. I remember my professor’s words, “If you come out of this experience only saying ‘it was fun,’ you did it wrong.”

I am still waiting to see how I feel when I get off the plane.

Well, I got off the plane and was hit by one single, incredibly heavy feeling: I was alone.

When you land, no one familiar is there to help you find the bus and get to your hostel. More importantly, no one is there to joke and smile and play.

Eerily, music buzzed jovially from the speakers in the empty terminal. Why did I come to such a great place without someone to share it with? I swallowed, feeling stupid.

Adjust

A day later, I found myself in a tent, hiding from mosquitos. I wrote this:

First full day on the farm: Here goes the adventure! It took me until 4pm today to feel rested and recovered. Now I’m back and ready to be around some people!

…and no one is here…

I feel like a dog waiting for the family to get home. To be clear, this is insanely cool, communal, and grounding. And buggy. I’ll be sure to get out tomorrow.

Photo by Gabriel Jimenez on Unsplash

When you’re adjusting, it’s almost like you’re a child looking through the glass at the zoo: Everything is new, exciting, yet a bit removed from what is real. You ride the adrenaline rush of your first cultural stop for lunch, or the first people who tell you where they are from, too.

Sure, I was physically there. But I was waiting for the experience to come to me. I had not truly arrived yet. I thought I had, but I hadn’t.

Finally Arrive

You haven’t made it when the plane lands. I wasn’t done when I checked off goals in a journal. I didn’t get what really mattered from sight seeing (God forbid this misconception).

I made it when I sweat through my shirt, and slept harder in a tent than I had in months. I arrived when I got up to see the sunrise before working hours on my farm; I happened to wake up early.

I arrived when I got stuck in my head, and toiled over every relationship I’ve ever had. I arrived when my anxiety welled and depression waned because it was dark and there was no one beside me.

I arrived when I missed home.

Photo by Andrew Preble on Unsplash

In all this, I decided to stay at a hostel last minute. I followed a hunch.

At the gate, streamers and banners read “Happy birthday Allie!” I could hear laughing and music coming from the main porch. As soon as I got my bearings, I was signed in and offered a piece of cake.

I stayed up all night talking with like-minded strangers from Canada to Russia: A Type-A nurse, a spiritual massage therapist, an odd-job guru. Each one was traveling solo, and swore by it. Each saw value in long conversations with strangers.

That night, I found connections I longed for — I just had to cross the world to feel alone and need to make them.

When you make yourself vulnerable, each new face, deep breath, even mosquito bite is suddenly meaningful.

Photo by freestocks.org on Unsplash

The last stage of solo travel comes with the resolve to do it all again. From my laptop, my adventure on a rural farm feels more than a few weeks in the past. I’m settled back into a familiar routine, although with a bit more energy, lingering confidence, and consciousness.

Because, hey, I did it. I should feel good.

With a little intention and hard work, I am fortunate to know I can embark on another solo adventure. When? Where? Who knows, but it doesn’t matter.

What matters is what you make of it. The virtues come from vulnerability like barks from a dog. If you get the chance to embark on a solo journey, discomfort will come. Be thankful for it.

There’s far too much to gain from being little uncomfortable.

AKA Haley Gowland. Bringing you anxiety, queerness, music, outdoors, existential mishaps and more, while supplies last!

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