Sheep in Shottery, England
One early Saturday morning in England a few years ago a train full of soccer hooligans (er . . . fans) and I were making our way from Birmingham to Manchester. The young man two rows in front of me clearly had begun his drinking long before I had even awaken that morning. Thankfully there were enough others in the train car almost equally inebriated who welcomed and encouraged his arm draped around their shoulders as he stumbled from seat to seat rambling on about the upcoming contest. Glancing around the car I saw a few families with children that could serve as a refuge if he decided I should become his new best friend because of my proximity. When we reached our destination a long 90 minutes later, he and all his cohorts stumbled off toward the stadium while I peacefully rolled my suitcase in the opposite direction to my hotel.
None of their antics were going to disrupt my mood because the day before I had stood on the same stone kitchen floor that William Shakespeare had crawled as a child in Stratford-upon-Avon. And I had walked, perhaps, along the same path he had strolled many times to reach the next village over, Shottery, where his future wife Anne Hathaway lived. I watched hummingbirds flit in the gardens that had existed in some form since the 15th century while I chatted with a couple from New Zealand and communed with the sheep grazing in the field across the road like they had done for centuries, I’m sure.
When women friends (never men) hear that I like to travel alone, these situations are exactly what they worry about when they cluck “How brave” or “Isn’t it dangerous to do that? -- as if I were backpacking through Zimbabwe instead of simply riding Britain’s National Rail line or driving to Tennessee for a couple of days to wander through Iris City Gardens or walking the 10 kilometer path from Oberwolfach to Wolfach in Germany or strolling down Lower Broadway in Nashville at 2 a.m., taking pictures of the crowds and the neon and ducking into the clubs hoping to hear Music City’s next big star. Right after those responses comes the predictable, “Aren’t you lonely doing that?” But I’m up for hitting the road alone at the drop of a hat.
I’d have to agree to some extent. Solo travel is a brave thing. It’s not just a matter of updating your AAA membership to prepare for car trouble. It requires you to spend large expanses of time with only yourself as company. With a multitude of electronic communication devices at our fingertips, the temptation to take everyone you know along for the ride looms big. We’ve become a culture conditioned to always reach out and touch someone. But real solo travel challenges you to leave it all behind. If you can do that, you open yourself up to the freedom, serendipity, and world without compromise that you can’t get when traveling with others or when staying home.
Few things are more valuable than a good traveling partner. I’m lucky. I didn’t have to look far because I married mine. Brad and I started traveling right away with our honeymoon in the UK. We arrived with a single night’s hotel reservation (courtesy of my new father-in-law) and the advice from both friends and family to “eat ethnic” in London. With a rented car and a book about castles in England and Wales that I bought at a tourist office on our second day in town, we were off on our first of many adventures. Traveling with someone else -- no matter how compatible, though – makes it so much tougher to indulge your own whims or give full attention to what matters most to you. Striking out on your own gives you things you can’t find when you travel with a partner like a matched set of luggage.
It wasn’t until my third trip to London – alone – that I finally got to stand in the upper garret of the Gough Square house that had belonged to my word hero, Samuel Johnson. Absent anxiety about boring any travel companions or meeting someone else’s agenda, I could give my morning over to standing in the practically empty third floor dictionary war room, imagining Dr. Johnson’s amanuenses scurrying around with note cards filled with etymologies and examples for all the definitions to appear in the first comprehensive dictionary of the English language. I could spend an unhurried hour talking with the young woman who took the tickets and worked the gift shop about the monumental feat accomplished within these walls and the astounding visitors, such as Edmund Burke, who sat in these rooms, regaled with tales by Dr. Johnson before they retired to Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese across the Square for a good meal (where I also devoured a shepherd’s pie in one of the tiny stone-walled rooms of the cellar while reading a collection of his essays from The Rambler I had just bought).
Two weeks ago I made a pilgrimage through the maze of aisles that is Powell’s Books in Portland, OR. I wandered until my feet gave out, gripping in my arm my Holy Grail, M.F.K Fisher’s Long Ago in France: The Years in Dijon. Yes, I could have gone on line last spring and ordered it off of Amazon before I actually traveled to Dijon, but the thrill of used books has always been in the hunt. Before departing, I batted around dinner ideas with two men standing at the information desk, hoping for someplace that served comfort food but was particularly “Portland.” I wanted to luxuriate in a meal that was exactly what I wanted, no compromise. I left Powell’s with four books and four dinner recommendations, plus breakfast options thrown in for good measure. And on my way to the metro train I stopped at one of the gazillion food carts that line the downtown sidewalks of Portland. Just for the novelty of it and because I was on my own schedule I ate two shredded beef soft tacos as a late afternoon snack, juice running down my wrist and up my sleeve and eyes tearing from the green sauce the vendor had assured me was his “mild” kind. Later that evening I sat at the bar of The Screen Door with my plate of greens, mashed potatoes, and a strong contender for the best fried chicken in the country, stuffing myself and chatting with the bartender until I waddled back to my car ninety minutes later (eager to return another time for their biscuits and gravy breakfast and their berry cobbler for dessert).
When I travel alone my camera, a book, and my small Moleskine notebook with Parker T-ball Jotter pen are my best companions. The straight, open highway gives my brain time and space to unfurl. I have the opportunity to be brave and talk to strangers I meet (even if I discover two minutes later that they must have left their medications at home) or to walk into restaurants and ask for a table for one. Traveling solo is a chance to briefly enter the world free of expectations from anyone around you and pursue whatever interests you for as long as you like. You experience a certain kind of empowerment when rolling your suitcase down rue des Abbesses alone in Paris’s Montmartre arrondissement, joining the morning crowd as they descend into the bowels of the Metropolitan line, changing at the Madeleine stop to line 14 and arriving at Gare de Lyon to catch a train back to Dijon. You can even feel it when you get off the highway and by-pass all the chain restaurants to eat the Sunday buffet at Saathoff’s Café on the town square in Greenup, IL (“Village of Porches”). I recommend the fried zucchini. Traveling alone – even if just for an overnight jaunt – can clear the mind, calm the nerves, and center you a bit on what is important to you.
I have a travel wish list with goals big and small. I want to meander along the Quilt Garden tour in northern Indiana. I want to hit the giant weekend flea markets along the highways between St. Louis and Atlanta. I want to retrace the Burgundy Canal route Brad and I took, but at one third the pace so I can exit the trail to explore any road or village that catches my eye and take photos of every maison du canal écluse I pass. And before I pass from this earth I must gain the courage to drive in the UK because there are so many places to see that even British Rail doesn’t go. Having a travel partner who wants all of these things, too, can make the journey twice as memorable. But not having one is never a good excuse not to put on my walking shoes and go.