"You're going where? By yourself?" my mother asked, like I had just set out along the Oregon Trail with nothing but a bag of beef jerky and a slingshot.
It was 2006. I was 25 and headed to Belize. Alone. Solitude wasn't necessarily my first choice, but I was single and couldn't coordinate vacation time with friends. Belize wasn't my first choice, either — more of a destination compromise, due to the vacation's last-minute conception and a minuscule budget. Of my vacation Venn diagram, Central America occupied the common space: international, inexpensive, and a little unexpected. Then, Belize was slightly more obscure than Costa Rica and Panama, had less of a known reputation for violence than Nicaragua and El Salvador, and had cheaper flights than Honduras and Guatemala. While I dreamed of Kenya or Japan, my wallet wouldn't allow me to leave the hemisphere, so Belize it was.
I was still monumentally excited, but my mom clearly didn't share the enthusiasm. In my mind it would be swaying hammocks and coconut drinks, and in hers it was fist-size insects and watery graves. To her credit, she never explicitly told me I couldn't go, or even that I shouldn't — she just made it abundantly clear that I would be abducted if I did.
"You're just very young and inexperienced," she said. "And a girl traveling alone? That's just ... that's ..." she trailed off, unable to verbalize whatever doomsday scenario was playing out in her head.
And on this, I have to concede. Slightly. Yes, navigating the world in a female body can be dangerous, but that's just as true in the jungles of Central America as it is in the fraternity houses of the United States. And of course there are some parts of the world where women can be particularly vulnerable due to antiquated societal norms and it's better to travel in a group. Belize was nothing that some pepper spray and an ear for my gut couldn't handle.
Belize was nothing that some pepper spray and an ear for my gut couldn't handle.
"I'll be fine!" I huffed, irritated by how much of a total bummer she was being.
What did she expect me to do? Stay home? Visit her? Go to a Sandals?! I wanted adventure! I wanted culture! I wanted affairs with foreign men! And I just couldn't stomach the idea of censoring my own life's experiences based on the absence of a companion. It felt so hopelessly Victorian.
So, despite my mother's protests, I booked a flight—
—Which I promptly missed. OK, so maybe there were some things I still needed to learn.
Lesson 1: Even when your connection is domestic, if your final destination is international, you have to arrive two hours ahead.
Then, once I landed I got food poisoning. Lesson 2: Not drinking the water doesn't work if you're still eating the raw vegetables washed with that water.
Finally, I realized I had switched ATM cards with a friend back in LA, and my bank account had been frozen. Maybe iPhones and Square have changed it, but in 2006 the jungles of Central America were cash only. Lesson 3: Don't be a bonehead.
Luckily, I had $400 in traveler's cheques, which I was able to survive the week on, thanks to my lingering nausea and inability to eat. Lesson 4: Sometimes, listen to your mom.
I wanted to call her immediately, but I didn't. Partially because I didn't want her to worry, partially because I didn't want to prove her right, but mostly because in my delirium I heard a voice. It had the unmistakable mix of glass-ceiling-shattering strength and calming velvety smoothness of feminist patron saint Murphy Brown. In my hour of need, she came to me in a smart blazer and said, "Come on, girl. You got this." And because she's a no-nonsense pragmatist, Murphy also pointed out that the pay-phone instructions were in Spanish, so regardless I was shit out of luck.
I wanted to call her immediately, but I didn't.
Once my fever dream broke, the trip did not get better. On the way back from a tour of Actun Tunichil Muknal, a Mayan cave filled with human sacrificial remains, our truck broke down. Because this particular deserted dirt road was crawling with banditos, a unit of Belize Army commandos arrived frighteningly quickly, and I rode back sandwiched between their AK-47s. Later, in a flurry of enthusiasm over some hot springs, I fell and gashed my toe open. The best medical treatment available was provided by a disgruntled Vietnam vet living at my hostel, who thought I "probably wouldn't" contract gangrene. And finally, there was the discarded American yellow school bus I took to the coast. En route I got my period, bled through my shorts, and was told by the only other nonnative aboard, a wild-eyed and leather-skinned old hippie woman, about that time last week when she had been held up at machete-point.
But I wouldn't relent.
Hobbling and puking my way through the country, I summoned the determination of Scarlett O'Hara when she pulled that withered carrot from the charred remains of Tara. I steeled myself, and I did what I came to do: see Mayan ruins and kiss dudes with accents, goddammit. And you know what? In every picture from that trip I am utterly beaming. Not because I was having such a great time, but because I was free. I would not be conquered, and that self-reliance liberated me. I emerged from the jungle knowing that for the rest of my life, I would need only to look to myself for salvation.
I also realized that traveling alone was an activity to seek out for its own merits — like a midnight trip to Yogurtland or adopting a rescue cat. The experience was abstractly luxurious and soul-nourishing, and I couldn't wait to do it again.
The experience was abstractly luxurious and soul-nourishing, and I couldn't wait to do it again.
The next time I headed out on my own was a simple road trip. I was invited to two weddings on consecutive weekends, one in Monterey, California, then another in Boston. By this time, I was dating the man who would become my husband, and traveling had become a coupled affair. He could only get away from work long enough to fly to Monterey, so I renewed my Triple A membership and went alone.
"Well, at least you're staying in the country this time," my mom had said, her death grip of worry loosening ever so slightly.
Admittedly, she's never had the desire to travel alone. She says it just never really occurred to her. She draws the line at eating dinner out by herself (though for some reason lunch is fine). I chalk most of this up to nurture and not nature, because as a person she's joyful and open. But for her, growing up in an immigrant community in Philadelphia, the world was much smaller — the edges of exploration reaching just 90 miles northwest to the Jersey shore town of Asbury Park. As a teenager she wanted to go away to college, but my grandparents insisted she live at home and commute, the gentle bud of her own gestating curiosity crushed by a mix of Armenian frugality and generational sexism.
"Just driving all that way by yourself seems kind of lonely," my mother lamented.
But for me this was the chief attraction. Solitary companionship can be a blessed relief from the compromises of inter-human relationships. On this trip I could listen to whatever I wanted, and I cheekily picked Steve Martin's The Pleasure of My Company as my audio book. Then, when Northern California's winding, piney terrain became just trippy enough, I turned on Pink Floyd. I may have also sang along to The Little Mermaid soundtrack, but in the absence of a witness to corroborate, we'll never know for sure.
I stopped as many times as I wanted for the bathroom, which was five times more than a reasonable person would have rolled their eyes at. And I would pull over just to stare at the ocean, very aware of its poignant melancholy and my own depth for appreciating it. So deep. Whereas in Belize I thrilled in the existential freedom of self-reliance, here I basked in the literal freedom of doing whatever the fuck I wanted. I sat outside Berkeley's library and eavesdropped on the students with no one around to judge me; in Boston I read the Declaration of Independence to myself at Faneuil Hall without embarrassment, then took the T out to Braintree and spent six hours touring John Adams's house without feeling rushed. There were no other itineraries to satisfy and no one to negotiate with.
But if you're still stuck at the concept of loneliness, the truth is that when traveling by yourself, you never need be alone. The world opens itself to single travelers in a way it doesn't when you're with someone else, and you meet people you otherwise wouldn't. Tours are done in groups, and in yours there will be chatty Canadians who want to go for beers afterward. Happy older couples whose conversations are as well-worn as their Merrell clogs will gladly invite you to join them for dinner. And if you've always wanted to take a French lover, just walk into a bar.
The world opens itself to single travelers in a way it doesn't when you're with someone else, and you meet people you otherwise wouldn't.
I'm certainly not the most well-traveled solitary journeywoman out there. At this very moment there are readers laughing at my podunk road trips and bougie weekend getaways. They climb Machu Picchu alone or explore Angkor Wat by themselves, while I go to Victoria, British Columbia, or Joshua Tree. But the idea of these solo trips isn't to be the most swashbuckling lady out there, it's to show up to your own life, reconnect with yourself as a single entity, and know that you never have to sacrifice an experience because there isn't someone else there to share it with.
As my travel stories have become less about marooning in a developing country and more about dinner at Chez Panisse, my mom has gotten more comfortable with it. Even when I told her about the surprise coed nudity I was thrown into at a hippie retreat's hot springs, she gave only the slightest titter, then conceded, "The shock value has kind of worn off."
But I grew, too. As I shed the self-centeredness of my 20s, I began to appreciate her benevolence. So many friends had families, and mothers especially, who held them tethered to their own orbit, either with emotional blackmail or actual responsibilities. My mom did not. If my moving across the country to California upset her, as the prospect of seeing your child biyearly certainly would, she never even hinted at it. Hell, she bought my plane ticket. She allowed my adventurousness to blossom and watched it at a distance with a bemusement that turned to interest, that eventually turned to awe.
She allowed my adventurousness to blossom and watched it at a distance with a bemusement that turned to interest, that eventually turned to awe.
"You're still thinking of driving back to LA from Albuquerque?" she asked me a few months ago.
"Yeah. I'm gonna stop in the Grand Canyon and Sedona along the way."
I had actually been worried about this one. The Grand Canyon was someplace I knew she wanted to go, a family trip she constantly talked of but one that had never materialized. I didn't want her to be mad that I would see it without her. I waited. "Hmm," she chirped. "That's pretty ... cool."
As I hiked into the canyon, touching its inner belly where the different colored layers of sediment were stitched together, I thought of covered wagons. It's something I do whenever I'm face to face with the American Western landscape. All I can think is, How did they do it? How, with their bonnets and hard tack and lack of Google Maps, did those pioneers ever make it? Right up to the canyon's rim in some places, the outlying woods are pretty dense, so surely some unlucky early caravan came upon it by accident. Just stumbled onto the Grand Canyon trying to get to California. And the obstacle of that giant chasm of Earth really makes you feel like a wimp for being proud of just going by yourself — in a car with the help of an iPhone.
Then I thought of my mom. I saw a family struggling to set their camera timer so they could all be in the shot and capture the majesty of this background. I offered to take their picture, and then they offered to take mine. Since I don't do selfies, it's the only one from the whole trip that I'm in. I'm wearing a floppy hat and I'm smiling, but for the first time I wished I wasn't alone. I wished my mom were there. I don't think I would have had a better time — she asks a lot of questions, and that annoys me to an extent that I am ashamed of — but I missed her. The infinite vista unfolding before me made me sad. She has bad knees and probably won't be able to manage terrain like this much longer. What if she never gets to see it?
I offered to take their picture, and then they offered to take mine.
A few weeks ago, I was in Ojai by myself on a quick getaway when my phone rang. It was my mom.
"You'll never guess what I just bought," she said. "Season tickets to the Pennsylvania Ballet."
"Oh, cool," I said. "You finally convinced Daddy to take you?"
"No," she said. "I just bought single tickets. I'm going by myself."
I smiled. It was a start.
Lisa Goldberg is a writer living in Los Angeles. She has been on the producing teams of such films as Bridesmaids, This Is 40, and Funny People.