Search any women’s outdoor group, news article comments section, or hiking forum, and you’ll see some pretty strong opinions about women alone in the backcountry. Or solo women travelers, period. There seems to be such a stigma against wanting to be alone that’s made doubly so when female. The usual fears are aired about attack, injury, rape, safety, wild animals. While some are (slightly) more valid than others, it’s not something that’s inhibited me on my travels. It wasn’t because I’d decided to take a radical stand. It just didn’t occur to me that it was even something to worry about.
My first solo trip came early in college. I hiked the length of the Hoh River trail in Olympic National Park, meeting my climbing guides at the far end in order to summit Mount Olympus. The hike in was uneventful, and the climb was amazing. Crossing the Blue Glacier was such a special experience. When it came time to hike out, I again went solo. And that’s when I encountered my first baby bear cub. Smack on its bottom, in the middle of the trail where it was carved into a steep scree slope. With nowhere to run and no idea where momma bear was, I backed around the corner and took out the pepper spray my dad had insisted I carry. Figuring it was a good idea to test it before an encounter, I gave it a squirt. It dribbled pitifully, getting on my hands. Quite unsure what to do next, I did the only thing I could think of. I started singing the one song I could think of (all others having left my brain entirely): She’ll Be Coming ‘Round The Mountain. Belted loud and off key, I braved the trail to find the bear cub gone. I must have sung that damn song dozens of times over, making up new verses when I couldn’t remember the lyrics. In my haste, I also forgot the pepper spray on my hands. Wiping sweat off my face, I was quickly reminded. My singing turned into a half choking, half sobbing mash-up lyrics and swearing.
I seem to accumulate stories by traveling solo. On another more recent solo trip, I ended up with my car breaking down out in the middle of the Mojave Desert. A snapped rear strut that wrecked the brakes as well meant that I ended up sitting alongside the rutted gravel road in a camp chair, drinking a beer, and hoping that somebody...anybody...would appear. As luck would have it, I ended up being saved by a nice rancher and his wife who fed me dinner and gave me a place to stay while I waited the two hours for a tow truck to Vegas. $2300 repair bill later (and a lot of cheap cocktails to drown out repair bill sticker shock), I made my way home. After that trip, I was asked if I’d consider sticking to “safe” trips, ones with less risk. My answer was an immediate Hell No.
I’ve traveled solo on numerous road trips, hikes too many to count. I’ve slept in truck stop parking lots, hitch-hiked in the Smokies, and shared shelter with strangers in the backcountry. Everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve met interesting people that I might not have spoken with traveling company. Solo travel means I can take naps on the trail if there’s a perfect sunny spot. I can spend all day in one museum without someone complaining. If I’m craving some random meal, I go and find it. Some days I skip them altogether. The freedom of going solo makes my heart happy. I find my best self on these trips, and I selfishly don’t like sharing that.
While there can be lonely moments, when I just want to share something beautiful, for the most part, I love that loneliness too. It helps to give an edge, a definition to the moments I’m experiencing. I won’t be joining any group travel tours soon. And I won’t be give up traveling if there’s nobody to go with. I’m planning my next trip now, in fact. A week solo on Vancouver Island, B.C. And I can’t wait to see what I discover.