I met a man once on match.com. He wanted to go to Paris but told me he couldn’t until he found the right woman.
“What if you don’t?” I asked. “Why not go now?”
“If I don’t have anyone to share the romance of the city with me, I don’t want to go. It wouldn’t be worth it.”
There’s so much about our culture that expects people to be paired up, as if Noah’s ark is our only conveyance through this world. No couple, no passage, no life. I admit, I used to hate going anywhere by myself. I felt terribly self-conscious, as if I were marked for all to see:
“No one loves this woman!”
I remember after my first divorce I wallowed in my sorrow, listening to sad songs over and over on my cassette player. “Graceland” by Paul Simon was a favorite. There’s a line that goes: “Losing love is like a window in your heart. Everyone can see you’re blown apart; everyone can see the wind blow.” I was a walking window, my desperate unhappiness blowing with gale-force winds.
All my friends were partnered. They’d send me invitations to their children’s birthday celebrations, bar mitzvahs, and graduations. I used to try to come up with an excuse to decline. Could I find a conference I needed to attend? Could I fall ill? Could my mother? The rsvp with its blank space for my “plus one” felt like a taunt. It yawned next to my name like a giant window, unshuttered, uncurtained, wide-opened, providing easy access to my buffeted heart, my unaccompanied presence becoming a monstrous absence.
I would dress to the nines and drive myself to the venue on the dreaded day, down a drink, clutch another, and force myself to smile. I hated being alone.
My oldest sister, Judy, was different.
She tried marriage once. It didn’t work, and then she made a career of traveling alone. She would spend weeks and months charting her route, raising money, buying the necessary gear, savoring the thrill of the adventure before she’d even left the house. At first she traveled in the United States, going to national parks by herself, camping in areas known for bears. Later she traveled in other countries, but not just any country. She canoed in the head-hunter region of Papua New Guinea, trekked through Pakistan, and sailed with Bugis pirates. My sister was different. She was fearless. She was not like me.
I needed a man. My first husband introduced me to distance running, biking, and triathloning. My second taught me to scuba dive. The man who had just dumped me took me camping in Colorado where we climbed the so-called “Fourteeners,” peaks over 14,000 feet. I couldn’t imagine doing any of those on my own. Now here I was, experiencing an unusual drought in male companionship and exhausted from the effort of trying to meet someone who could offer something new.
When Judy visited me one weekend, I whined about how badly I wanted to travel.
“So, go alone.”
“I’m scared. I’m not like you.”
She took me to a bookstore and we spent an hour in the travel section. Domestic. I didn’t want my first solo trip to be international. And I didn’t think I was ready to camp on my own. But I wanted to hike, and I wanted to hike where the likelihood of being eaten by bears or attacked by locals was minimal.
We decided on Oregon. Not the western side where everyone goes, but Wallowa County on the east where the Nimiipuu people or Nez Perce had once thrived. I’d studied Chief Joseph in high school. Wallowa was far from home but felt familiar.
I stayed in a motel but spent the days seeking adventure in Wallowa-Whitman National Forest and places nearby.
One day I hiked from dawn to dusk; another I joined a horseback trail ride; on the third I drove my rental car to Hells Canyon in Idaho to raft the Snake River with a guide. On my last night I ate at a restaurant by myself.
Surrounded by couples and families, I was the only solo traveler. No one paid me much attention. My invisibility was no longer a rebuke. It felt like acceptance. That wind sweeping through the window in my heart was not as strong as I had assumed. Its howling had lessened. I could now hear my own voice as I walked through the woods breathing the damp sweet smell of pine and hemlock, as I bumped over the rapids on the Snake River dreaming of the Nimiipuu people, even as I sat by myself at a table for one on the back patio of the Embers Restaurant, savoring my chardonnay and wondering why I hadn’t done this sooner.
This, traveling alone. It’s now one of my favorite pastimes. My pace, my pick, my terms.
The window is still open, the wind still blows but it carries me along to new destinations and compels me to try new adventures. I’d go to Paris if I wanted to. But right now, I’m thinking of Scotland. I’d like to walk along the lochs.