Every woman should travel alone

At 27, I took a road trip across the country by myself. It was foolish and lonely and the best thing I've ever done

Published July 24, 2012 12:00AM (EDT)

A photo of the author on the Alaskan Highway.   (John Erler)
A photo of the author on the Alaskan Highway. (John Erler)

It was three months into my solo road trip when I grew genuinely scared. I’d been pitching my tent across the country, but I had rolled into Bar Harbor, Maine, on July 4 only to discover all the campgrounds and hotels were full. Wouldn’t you know: The grand celebration of our freedom left me with nowhere to stay. So I parked my car in Acadia National Park, because I figured serial killers wouldn’t bother with the entrance fee, and I curled up in the backseat with the only protection I had: A ball peen hammer, and a teddy bear.

Yes, I carried a teddy bear with me on my swashbuckling Jack Kerouac adventure. It was a gift from my high school boyfriend, and it reminded me of being loved, and I had dragged it along the ground of the previous decade, across college and my first career and various romantic disappointments. That bear was a kind of battle armor, even as it squished up against my face.

And I needed it that night, because my mind was a haunted house of broken glass and men in ski masks lurching from the shadows. There were so many reasons to be frightened while traveling alone – 18-wheelers, lightning storms, roadside motels that reeked of death – but the most formidable was my own imagination. I told myself I’d be fine, that no one would find me here, but I was wrong, because I was startled awake by a flashlight flooding the window at 3 a.m.

“Ma’am, you can’t sleep here,” said the park ranger. I tumbled out of the car, barefoot, and how strange I must have looked to him: the ball peen hammer swinging from one hand, the teddy bear from the other. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could see his face, a mixture of amusement and disbelief. What the hell are you doing here?

The truth was, I didn’t know.

At the age of 27, I got in my aquamarine Honda and drove 26,000 miles around the country for five months by myself. It was foolish and lonely and 10 years later, I still think it might be the best thing I’ve ever done. I wore clothes till they were filthy and lived on baked beans and peanut butter, but the luxury of that time is unimaginable to me now, because I woke up every morning with no one’s agenda but my own. What did I want to see today? Where did I want to go?

I’ve been thinking about that trip recently, because I’ve been reading Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild," an account of her foolish and lonely solo walk along the Pacific Crest Trail at the age of 26. As far as feats of fortitude go, Strayed blows me out of the water. She loses her toenails. She swallows her own mother’s ashes. Meanwhile, I visited the Cereal Museum at the Mall of America (and I highly recommend it).

But what we shared was a reckless sense of adventure and a grandiosity to believe we could make such a journey in the first place, when many people were ready to convince us we could not. A woman traveling alone threatens tradition and propriety. And because women often doubt themselves, we stay toward safe harbors and soft landings, hiding behind the needs and wants of others.

I spent my mid-20s in this crouch of safety. My friends scattered to both coasts after college, but I stayed in the same city where we went to school, in the same state where I’d grown up. I got a good job at an alt weekly. I learned to shoot pool. But I hid behind 20 extra pounds and a pyramid of empty beer cans. I would get these honking crushes on guys at work -- I lived lifetimes with them in my mind -- but I would run into them at the printer and be all blank stares and whatever.

My female friends were not like this. They were crashing against the rocks of 20-something relationships in a way that was thrilling and age-appropriate – living with boyfriends, dating older men, dating women. But I spent the ages of 23, and 24, and 25 drumming my fingers on the table, waiting for a big romance that never arrived.

Men had always been the instigators of adventure for me. It was my older brother I stumbled behind as a little girl, tripping along the ground to try to keep his pace. It was my college boyfriend who whisked me out to Colorado two weeks after we met, where we drove all night and slept under the stars. I kept thinking if I met the guy, then I would lose the weight, I would stop drinking myself into a coma, I would crawl out of my hidey-hole.

But I knew in my heart that the opposite was true. No one could rescue me from my own isolation. The first line of “David Copperfield” kicked around my mind: “Whether I shall be the hero of my own life, or whether that position will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”

If you are lucky, you stop seeing the world as a series of things you do not have -- a boyfriend, a baby, an adorable terrier – and you start noticing the things you do have. A healthy bank account, unburdened by mortgages or school loans. No romantic ties. Loving parents who wanted nothing but happiness for me. Years to burn. That kind of freedom is like a command from the universe to get off your ass and do something amazing.

And so, at the age of 26, I quit my job and went to travel in South America for four months. It was amazing, although I don’t need to tell you about it now, partly because that is not the point of this essay, and partly because I am the kind of person who can’t read about someone else’s mind-blowing world travel without quietly seething with envy. Oh, I’m so happy you saw the face of God in the stones of Machu Picchu, I’ll just be over here dribbling this Chipotle burrito down the front of my shirt and dying inside.

The point of this essay is that I went by myself, and doing so made me wonder what else I could do alone. A map of the world became like a series of boxes unchecked. I kept thinking about my 401K -- $7,000 gathering dust in a series of graphs and charts that arrived in the mail each month. I kept thinking about those swaggering tales of men blazing across American asphalt: Soaring down Route 66 with the windows down, sliding into some corner booth while a waitress called them “honey.” Travel can be an addiction, and five months on the road suited that greediness in me. I didn’t want to go to one place; I wanted to go to all places. I wanted to run my hands across the entire continent.

And so I drove up the Pacific Coast Highway. I drove to Alaska. I drove across Montana and up into Quebec. Some of my friends were so excited by my trip that they joined me on two-week legs. I wrote about my travels on a blog, and strangers emailed me tips for their cities before I’d even arrived.

Not everyone loved this plan. My parents, for instance. But my mother is partly to blame for my wanderlust in the first place. I had grown up hearing tales of her trips to Germany and Austria as a young woman. She traded the cost of an engagement ring to my father for a chance to hike around in the Black Forest, which I thought was the coolest thing ever – to commit to travel and marriage all at once. (My parents are still together.) So she sucked up my eccentric journeys, and settled for a call from every port. It wasn’t easy for her. The world is a wicked place, and no one likes the thought of their only daughter swallowing fear and vulnerability on a daily basis. But at some point, every one of us must stare down this calculation: How safe do we want to be? How much of ourselves are we willing to give up for it?

Yes, I was scared at times, but I had also been scared sitting on my futon watching “The Real World.” (Scared of the phone, scared of the future, scared of what people said about me.) The far more terrifying fate, as I saw it, was that I would fail to become the person I wanted to be. I still wasn’t sure what that was yet. I spent much of those five months feeling like a kite dangling on a string. Was I going to head to grad school? Write for television? Open my own school? My mind filled with clouds. But my God, it was fun. It was boring, too. I took eight-hour hikes and let my mind wander, or sang the “Xanadu” soundtrack for the 18 billionth time.

I also made incredibly stupid decisions. One night, while walking to my friend John’s house in Portland, Maine, I climbed in the car of a strange man who offered me a ride because he thought I was cute. I know better than this, but I was buzzed on five beers and the whiff of danger. He got lost almost immediately, and I grew nervous, and at some point, he started yelling at me, “So you think I’m a rapist? You think I’m going to kill you?” And the answers to those questions were yes, and yes.

But he did not. Instead, he called me a bitch and dropped me off at John’s place, where he had grown panicked with worry. “You can’t do that,” John said, pacing the floor as he spoke. “Promise me you’ll never do that again.”

And I felt bad, but I also thought he was being unfair: John spent his 20s hopping on rail cars and dumpster diving. He joined the Hari Krishnas. He was a wild-eyed wanderer, and now he lived in a comfy Victorian in Portland, Maine, and was giving me lectures about stranger danger. Why? Just because I was a girl?

I didn’t get it. And it took me years of harrowing escapades and narrow scrapes to get it. Climbing into that car wasn’t stupid because I was a woman. It was stupid, period.

So I had a lot to learn about taking care of myself, but I was on my way. In the years since, I feel a jolt of excitement whenever I hear about a woman traveling alone, whether she’s a single woman surfing in Costa Rica or a married journalist dropping into a war zone or a mother going to the wilds of Africa, discovering what quiet sounds like when it unfolds around her. Such exotic forays are out of reach for many people – including me, for most of my life. But I also think you can take a day hike by yourself, you can travel to the lake by yourself. And what you find is a reassurance that you can stand on your own in the world.

There is a poignant scene near the end of “Wild.” Cheryl Strayed’s mother is close to death, and she tells her daughter, “I never got to be in the driver’s seat of my own life … I always did what someone else wanted me to do. I’ve always been someone else’s daughter or mother or wife. I’ve never just been me.”

God, that moment cut me. Boyfriends are nice, and careers are important, but I think this is all I’ve ever been after: to just be me.

I can’t travel much these days. I don’t have the money. I have a cat I love beyond all reason, who is old and tired. But I also found that I had to stop moving every time I grew uncomfortable. Being in the driver’s seat of your own life is grand, but it requires knowing when you are out of gas. I try to keep a traveler’s eyes. I take expeditions to strange suburbs. I take expeditions to the 7-11. (Behold: Corn Nuts in their native environment!) After years of movement, my challenge now is to sit still.

But I also try to hold on to the girl who was young and stupid enough to believe in foolish adventures, the girl who was equal parts ready to fall in love with you and hurl a ball peen hammer into your front windshield. I had a strength I did not realize, but one I did not forget. When I am restless and defeated and scared again, I tell myself this: that the greatest trip of my life came because I did not get the things I wanted.

I wish you the same.

By Sarah Hepola

Sarah Hepola is the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir, "Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget."

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