Captain and Crew of My Ship: A Story About Traveling Solo

I used to be obsessed with travelogues written by solo female travelers. I would read wide-eyed about these fearless women who thought nothing of hopping a plane to Uzbekistan or the Chilean Andes or some remote island in the South Pacific, with apparently no concern for their safety and the ability to pack light. I longed to be one of those women, yet didn’t have the gusto or the green to do so.

In my early professional years, when I was broke and scrounging for cash, I managed to travel a heck of a lot more than I do now that my paycheck is almost four times as much. A stress filled job and too much responsibility means no energy left to even plan a trip, yet alone travel. In the early years I went to Ireland, Costa Rica, drove up the PCH 1 from Big Sur to wine country, traveled to Toronto to witness Caribana, crammed into a car to drive all the way across the country to watch my beloved Badgers in the Rose Bowl, almost died during a whitewater rafting trip in Bozeman, Montana, breathlessly hiked mountains in Colorado and Zion National Park, soaked up the sun in Sedona, the Florida Keys, and zig zagged my way across Mexico.

Yet all of these trips happened with travel buddies. Save for the flight in or flight out, I was always with a gal pal or two on these adventures. Fast forward to today, where I find myself a 43 year old single, childless woman, surrounded by 43 year old married with child(s) friends, and I have almost no choice but to become a solo traveler. (No way in hell I am joining those singles trips!)

My first foray into the world of solo traveling was on the tail end of a business trip to DC. I took two nights and one full day to explore DC. In hindsight, this was probably the perfect trip to do so; with so many museums and monuments and activities, you don’t need someone with you to experience these things. Being alone meant time to read the history, spend as long as you wanted in a museum, make that stop at the Botanical Gardens that no one else would have wanted to do; stop by that fountain and soak up the sun for a bit with no one complaining it’s too hot; listen to the band a little longer. Or pop up and leave when you’ve had enough. Not being tied to another person’s wishes, desires, or to do list is liberating.  I quickly learned how to eat at the bar, where hopefully the bartender or another solo traveler is up for conversation. While I like my alone time, by the end of the day the voice in my head gets old, and I’m ripe for conversation.

I quickly learned a few key lessons about traveling solo; you have to curb your drinking when you are out (or save it for the hotel pool), you can’t tell people you are traveling alone (my friend is still back at the conference!), and you have to turn in early each night, which in and of itself is really a blessing, as it means you can be up and at ’em early each morning (while I relish this, as a night owl, I still get a little sad when I have to turn in early).

Another work trip took me a day early to Miami, but the only lesson learned on that trip was don’t drink too much by the pool after an early morning flight. Oh and that people watching in Miami is a ton of fun. After too many cocktails and too much heat, I passed out in my hotel room and never made it to dinner that night.

Then came the official solo trip in the summer of 2015. One of my “Things I Always Say I’m Going to Do But Never Do” items was to take the Lake Express Ferry across Lake Michigan and see the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park. And so off I went. I hadn’t originally intended to go solo, but the aforementioned married friends did not have free time in their schedules. The trip was a little bittersweet as well, as I was entering the final days of a long-term relationship, and wasn’t sure what I would come home to. More on that later.

That trip, which I call my Summer Solstice Western Shores of Michigan trip, was one of the most fantastic and beautiful trips I’ve ever had in my life. The freedom of having no one’s schedule but my own to deal with, having my car to give me extra independence, a wallet full of cash and credit cards, and nothing but time….. I felt like I had found the perfect formula for fully experiencing a place. I understood why women (and men) take off alone to see the world. Unencumbered. No ties. No expectations. And the freedom to change course on a dime if the spirit strikes you. I climbed lighthouses, drove a Jeep in the sand dunes, clambered up and slid down the Sleeping Bear Dunes, read about the history of lighthouse keepers, sampled cherry everything, drove through sleepy beach towns, took long walks in quaint neighborhoods, visited a winery, took photos in a historic fishing village, fell asleep on beaches, and had many fantastic meals at the bar while meeting fascinating people. I watched the sunset at 10:30 at night due to the location on the western limit of the eastern time zone. But I always had a hard time returning to my lodging early. That is when the loneliness set in for me. I don’t know if that part I’ll ever shake. But I considered the first official solo trip a grand success. I decided that every year I would travel alone for the Summer Solstice.

This year, after a long string of life-altering events (I ended the fifteen-year relationship as soon as I returned on the ferry. Ten months later my mother unexpectedly passed away at age 68), I realized I had taken time off work but failed to plan anything. After frantically researching places to go and realizing there was no room at the inn, I finally asked my neighbors if I could use their cabin in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I was a little leery about it, as the location seemed extremely remote. But they obliged, and since cabin lodging is not inexpensive, and I didn’t have the gusto to go camping, off I went. On a vacation not so much to somewhere as to nowhere!

I can’t say this trip was anywhere near as fun-filled, educational, or fulfilling as last year’s trip, but the lessons were just as valuable. I spent three long days doing a whole lot of nothing. The weather could not have been any more perfect for up north lake living; I spent my days slowly paddling around the three lakes in a kayak, fishing and catching nothing, floating in the middle of the lake on my pink lounger, reading books, and of course spending lonely nights in the cabin. This location was different; there was literally nothing to do here, which is why most people come here to relax. It was quiet, remote, and off the tourist path. There were no restaurants or coffee shops to walk to, no ice cream parlors, no road-side attractions to speak of, no shopping.  But it taught me about my travel style, and what’s important when traveling solo. It taught me that going from being in fifth gear 99% of the time to Park makes a girl restless. It taught me that when I’m flying solo, I need to be flying, not stalled. I need to engage my mind and my spirit and keep flying. Explorers did not discover the world by hanging out in one spot for too long.

I’m learning. I’m getting better at this travel solo thing. I’m practicing for a potential year off. I think I have more to learn before I take the leap, but maybe someday I’ll be writing a travelogue that some young girl will be reading with wide eyes.

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