Traveling as a Woman Alone
At around 11 PM on my first night here, I get out of bed to test the carbon monoxide detector.
I’m staying alone in a renovated Airstream called the Spartan Manor for the week in Seaview, Washington, tucked into a very lovely down-laden bed. It’s pouring rain. As I listen to the pitter-patter on the trailer I think I hear something else...a hissing, something seeping. But what is it? Everything is rather cozy in here, which means that the propane stove is 2 feet and a few inches of plywood away from the bed. Could it be a gas leak?
I reluctantly get of bed, and put my nose to a burner on the stove. Does it….smell like gas, too? I put my ear down. Was that a noise? Or just rain spattering the metal roof? Earlier, I’d had some adventures lighting the burners with a match, and finally succeeded in igniting a spluttering flame after some bursts. But the stove is kind of sketchy.
There’s no 24-hour concierge here—and I like that kind of hands-off vibe—but I realize that there isn’t someone to whom I can tell that I think I may suffocate overnight. It’s 40 degrees outside, there’s only a space heater in here, and there’s no way I’m cracking a window. I know I won’t be able to sleep, worrying about the potential gas leak. I go back to the bedroom and look around, nervous. Sure enough, there is a carbon monoxide detector. Thank God.
I exhale, get back into bed. The monitor sits there, a reassuring round of plastic smiling down at me. Surely, it will go off if something goes wrong.
But...what if it doesn’t? Maybe the batteries are dead. I mean, how often do they actually check these things? Shit. I get out of bed, press the “Test” tab. A loud beep, a red flash. It works. I go to sleep.
I recount the story to my boyfriend the next day. “You would,” he said. I would. I did, I do. Because I am a woman who travels alone.
I am a woman who travels alone, and every time I go I marvel at the miracle that I can move freely, in my body, and feel pretty safe doing it. That feeling ebbs and flows, of course. Despite the relative physical safety of any situation, I travel with the baggage of dramas that have already played out in my head, on the screen, in a book, on the news. With the “Be safe” and the “Make sure you take your phone” and “Maybe you should bring some pepper spray on that hike?” that I can’t leave without.
I still go. As a white American woman, I know I have it pretty good. But there’s still something in me that, even though I’ve hiked many a longer hike in more remote locations, makes me turn back on the Tom Dick and Harry Mountain trail after I realize that I haven’t seen anyone for a while and my heartbeat won’t slow. That consistently checks for my phone in my back pocket before I get in the car. That makes me test the carbon monoxide detector. Just in case.
Just in case of what? Well, there are a million possibilities, ones that you can probably imagine, and ones that I often do, even though the chances of those possibilities manifesting is very, very slim. But I can’t let go of them. I bring them with me, and I take precautions—just in case.
Call it paranoia; I’d argue it can be justified. And when I travel alone, the precautionary measures give me, at least, some feeling of control. It helps me to have a map, to write down phone numbers, make a plan. It helps me feel more comfortable with the aloneness.
Because when I as a woman travel alone, whether it’s to a nearby trailhead or my local bar or another country, I spend most of the time trying to get comfortable with being by myself. Eating alone is awkward—have you tried eating peanuts in the shell at the bar with only 2 other patrons there? That crunch is deafening. Slurping noodles? Eating a drippy burger? I’ve had unwanted guests impose themselves on me before; I will often regret not being able to try more things with no one to with me. But I love sitting alone and reading, taking in the people in a room. I enjoy savoring a meal in silence. And sometimes, the surprise guests are lovely, and will even decide that you can forge a temporary alliance to try 4 different appetizers and get a whole bottle of wine.
Making decisions alone always feels unnatural at first, too. As soon as I enter the ether between home and destination, or lack thereof, I start questioning myself: I don’t have to compromise? Consider anyone else’s dietary preferences? Worry that I’ll choose the wrong playlist for the mood? Even the small choices feel strange and weighty at first, and the larger ones—where to go, what to see—are overwhelming without an affirmation that I chose correctly, or a contest that proves something’s worth fighting for. Each time I settle into a new pattern of aloneness, I have to remind myself that it doesn’t matter what I choose. Only I am keeping record. It’s ok to question, but also to feel assured.
And of course, when I travel alone I sometimes get lonely. Particularly when I don’t set out to meet anyone—when I already feel fulfilled by the ones I have at home—I struggle to preserve my precious solitude with the urge for companionship. With a tiny computer always in my bag, it’s easy to stay tethered to people. That draw is distracting. I’m terrible at “staying present;” it’s a practice I return to again and again. But limiting my immediate human connection helps me be more observant, and share in other ways—like writing. For me, the longing and bliss of aloneness balances out. Being alone helps me appreciate other people. It gives me time to appreciate myself. When I leave, I try to bring something back for us all.
I learn the most when I’m alone—about the world, about myself. Being alone is my greatest fear and greatest freedom, my deepest sadness and purest joy. I like to travel alone, when I can. I accept the baggage and try, each time, to make it lighter. But lately, and on this adventure especially, the opposite has been happening. The weight is growing heavier, because it includes more than my own anxieties. It carries a knowledge that I can't, and shouldn't, forget: that now more than ever, immigrants, Muslims, and people of color may not be able to travel, or travel alone. That not every worry can be placated by pressing a test button, to make sure everything will go as it’s supposed to. That for many, there may be no way to feel in control.
If we can’t all go, how can I?