The first time I traveled alone, I took a train from Florence to see the frescoes at the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi.
I had been studying in Florence for the semester and traveling on the weekends and holidays was a competitive sport. My classmates traveled to a new city or country every weekend, taking off Fridays or Mondays to extend each trip. The one with the most stamps in their passports (or different currencies in their pocketbooks — this was before the introduction of the Euro) won.
I had yet to convince any of my classmates to skip a trip to Paris or Prague or London to visit a tiny town known only for a large church with some paintings on the walls. So when I had a few days over spring break on my own, I got on a train on my own and headed south.
Nearly 15 years later, the day is mostly memorable for the feeling that I could do what I wanted and see what I wanted to see in my own time. When I was hungry, I found a restaurant. When I wanted to rest, I found a bench. When I wanted a little more time to examine a work of art I had seen only in a text book, I took as much time as I wanted.
This summer I traveled solo by bike through southern France for a week. I had done short bike trips before, but never anything longer than two or three days, and never on my own. I signed up for a group tour, thinking it would be fun to meet new people while traveling by bike through the French countryside, drinking pink wines, eating baguettes with brie and picking out fresh fruit at markets.
But two weeks before the trip, I was informed that the tour was canceled because there weren’t enough people signed up. I could take the “self-guided” tour or I could cancel. I hesitated, uncertain I wanted to travel nearly 200 miles by bicycle on my own. I thought maybe I would be better off traveling to one city in France and taking day trips, safely grounded in a home base. But a few days later I decided I had to do the bike trip. It was why I was going to France and not doing it would be a disappointment. And after a crazy couple of months at work, I needed a break from cities. A week in the country was exactly what I needed.
My coworkers’, friends’ and family’s reaction to my decision fell into two camps, divided entirely by generation. Those over the age of 45 were horrified that I would even consider doing a trip like this alone. Even the feminists in the group discouraged me, likely frightened by the dangers I could encounter alone on the road. The reactions ranged from “you can’t do that alone” to “what does your mother think?” After explaining my rationale to one surprised coworker, she finally admitted that she wished she had the courage to do something like this when she was younger.
On the other end of the spectrum, friends closer to my age all encouraged me go for it and thought it was a great idea.
Just like I would have on the group tour, I enjoyed the wine, the food, the markets, and the scenery. I packed picnics for lunch and ate four- or five-course meals for dinner. The only time I missed being with someone was at dinner, but on the road, I felt free and unencumbered. I could stop whenever I wanted, sometimes a few times a mile to take photos of the beautiful scenery. I took my time on the difficult hills, sometimes pedaling so slow I was amazed my bike was standing upright. But it didn’t matter because it was just me.
When I got back, I read an article by Glynnis MacNicol in the Guardian about the need for more stories of women on road trips—stories that negate the stereotypes of women in danger or along for the ride as a sidekick. She sums up the experience of freedom on the road best:
There is something intensely clarifying about being on the road. One day on the road feels like seven or eight at home. Life, regular life and all its restrictions recede; as though your former self is separating from you, pushed upwards and out by the increasingly big sky you are driving under, until it becomes a thin distant reality that hardly seems connected to you at all. You are suddenly able to see yourself as an individual, disconnected from your life and the people in it. You become whatever is happening in that moment.
The freedom that comes with traveling alone is like nothing else. There is no other situation where I can just be a human without the social influences that can bring so much stress and angst to my daily life. It’s that feeling that I will probably remember more vividly than any glass of wine or five-course meal. And that freedom is what I will think about the next time I hesitate before taking another trip alone.