As a college senior, I bought a single ticket on Continental Airlines (remember them?) to Key West over Christmas break. I figured I’d stay in the hostel there, which I read about in my guidebook.I’m pretty sure I had Frommer’s, not Lonely Planet, or maybe just a AAA CampBook. I think I had to sleep in the Miami airport – ah, the carefree life and healthy back of a 21-year-old! – and then moved on to the Keys on a puddle jumper in the morning. A few days of solo carousing on the cold beaches and in a couple of bars, and I was ready to come home.
I’ve always wanted to do my own thing, make my own rules. As a teenager during the short time we lived in LA, (Mom, you can skip this paragraph) I used to take the city bus to Venice Beach during the long summer days when I stayed home alone. Back then, to figure out a bus route, you had to call the number and ask the operator to tell you how to manage from your initial stop to the final one, and back again. Turns out, it was a 2-hour trip one way, with three transfers including one at a sketchy-as-hell bus station downtown. I’ve always been antsy to be on the move, and happy to make plans and implement them. Probably marriage wasn’t the best idea for someone like me, but mid-20s I didn’t know myself the way I do now.
In my newfound solitary lifestyle, I have identified plenty of ways to satisfy both wanderlust and impulsivity. This includes stays in fire watch towers and forest service cabins around western Montana where I live, solo summer hikes and campouts, kayaking on mountain lakes, and vacations to the coast: good things that are wild and free.
I’ve recently returned from one such coastal vacation to Oregon. If you grew up on the east coast as I did, you may be used to warm, sunny beaches where hot breezes kiss your sunburnt back, sand finds its way into the pages of your book, and the salt water mats your hair and stings your eyes. That is not the Oregon coast, which is often rainy and windy, tree-lined and rocky. Beautiful, but different.
In the PNW there are enormous hunks of shoreline rock covered in impossibly tall Sitka spruce,with trails begging to be hiked. The sea on a sunny day is an incredible blue, which I named for myself as “Pacific Blue.” I caught glimpses of it far below the trail, white water crashing over rocks in an almost-sickening surge and retreat, surge and retreat. I emerged from the hiking loop onto a wild rocky shore where I found a log to sit against and endured the wind whipping my face for a good 30 minutes before climbing the stairs back to my car.
The most important thing I do on any vacation is exactly what I want to do and nothing else. If it’s cold and windy on the beach, I’m not walking on it. I don’t care how far I drove to see the ocean; I’m happy to look at it from the balcony of my rented sand-cabin. If I want a nap at 10 am, I take one. If I want to read a book all day on the couch and not see a single thing in the town, I do that.
An acquaintance called me recently to talk about it all. Her partner passed away a few years back, and she wanted to know how I managed this solo-travel thing. This isn’t the first time I’ve been asked this. In fact, I feel inspired by others whose retired lives I watch on social media. I know the SM is not real life, but if it’s the best of someone’s reality, why not see that and say, “That can be my best, too.” Perhaps solo travel or living is not for everyone, but I find myself valuing my life so much more these days, it’s hard to imagine compromising on a lot. I like my living space, I like my vacations, I like my alone time.
Sometimes I do feel lonely, and then I turn to friends for companionship. In a terrifying space around Christmas last year when I knew my kids would be at their dad’s and my social circle would all be with their families, I asked a few good friends to check on me via text. Asking for that support was hard, but less hard than I thought it might be and much less hard than 36 hours of radio silence would have been. And of course they followed through with sweet messages all evening/morning until my kids arrived.
I’m no longer as energetic as I was in my 20s and you will not catch me voluntarily sleeping on an airport floor, but the drive to see, and do, and experience, has never diminished. Perhaps it’s why the coast exerts such a draw, because it’s as far as I can drive in my little car: all the way to the boundary, the farthest promontory of experience, where the surge and retreat of life pull me to the very toe-edge of it all.
They walked by the water’s edge,
Two matching birds with black bodies, tan legs and white feet.
They walked in perfect unison,
Like two uniformed members of a marching band.
Suddenly one spread its wings and held them wide,
While the other stepped carefully along.
Those twin water birds left the shoreline,
Clipping their white feet ever closer,
Until they became girls dressed just alike,
Wishing like all my only-child girlfriends
For a matched-set sister.
Pre-internet, we had these things called travel guidebooks. They were possibly a lot better than TripAdvisor.
Book recommendation: The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed by John Vaillant
and unfortunately spent the rest of the hike head-singing Prince’s “Computer Blue” - the singing part, okay, not the talking part at the beginning or the screaming part at the end.
I’m so glad that you are happy and enjoying life. And taking full advantage of the quote from Mary Oliver:
“What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
I think I’ve used that on FB in the past as a label for one of my adventures ❤️