I clearly remember the feeling. A swelling in my chest and a sense of the world opening in front of me. I was driving ‘Vanessa’, my beat-up Toyota minivan, south on US 97 into California. The sun beat the blacktop and the open plain stretched away toward Mt Shasta in the distance. I had just left Oregon with everything I’d have for the next year. A couple of rubbermaid gear bins and a cooler stuffed under a platform bed in the back. The passenger seat was empty, nothing but possibility on the horizon.
My life to that point had been insulated from the world. Parents, college, then the security of an eight year relationship. Life was good, safe, and stable, but tension was building inside me. I started to wonder. Who was I? Life with my partner was filled with love but as time went on I felt the walls closing in. It took months of pain for me to finally admit it didn’t fit anymore, and we split.
I’d dreamed of all the places I’d wanted to travel in the US, and never felt like I could go. Now I could. There wasn’t anything separating me from the experiences I wanted except fear. And I was afraid. But I knew that now was my chance to find out the kind of stuff I was made of, or always wonder what might have been.
For a year, I wandered the US and Canada, visiting all the places I’d dreamed of. Exploring the parts of myself that had gone ignored, and building up new ideas about the world and how I wanted to live. Aimless wandering, self doubt, and loneliness come to mind when I think of that year. So do a lot of wonderful things. I learned how to make decisions for myself and how to take responsibility for my own happiness. Stepping away from the love of a partner, friends, and family gave me a chance to see who I was in the world, and showed me the power I have to create that person.
Maybe you know exactly the visceral feeling of your own power. Or maybe you’ve just had a hint. For me, these feelings are always strongest when traveling alone.
Four years have gone by since that trip. I’ve reestablished, found, and built a community I love in Portland, but that expansive feeling of traveling alone still beckons.
Last winter I sketched out a trip that would connect distant friends with time alone on the highway. I made plans in Colorado and Utah for the four weekends of January and packed the essentials. I hugged my Portland friends goodbye and climbed into my newly finished campervan ‘Debbie’ for a month on the road.
Once out there, I remembered how lonely trips by myself can be. There’s no one to lean on, no one to tell me things will be alright when they’re not going well. It always takes a little while to make peace with the sense of being alone in the world. What I’ve found is that the fear of being loneliness is always worse than the feeling itself.
I’ve come to love the exposure of it. I still get that sense of power and possibility when where to go and what to do is entirely up to me.
If I sit too long in one place I start to feel stagnant. I get all up in my head and lose perspective on what really matters. I love and appreciate having a comfortable life in Portland, where I want for nothing, have a close community, and a vibrant city. I’m grateful for all the opportunities I have and don’t take all that lightly. Life’s all about being grateful for the opportunities you’re given and taking full advantage of them.
On winter road trips I do a lot of driving after dark. The van a ship steaming through the frozen night, a single point of light beneath a curtain of stars. A podcast playing in the warm cabin. Every fifty miles or so I pull to the shoulder and let the van idle as I scribble furiously in my notebook. Something to tell a friend, a bit of wisdom from the podcast, plans for the next year. It all swirls around my mind in a flurry.
We’re rolling now, Debbie and I. Welcome to Idaho, Welcome to Utah, and finally, the welcome sign marking the Colorado border leaps out of the dark and flies by the passenger window.
I struggle to find the clear insight of solitude in the company of other people. I can feel the pull of their desires and I want to please them. This is a constant tension. How to live an authentic life and connect with the people I love? When to seek the experiences I want for myself, and when is shared experience more important? I have to remind myself that my energy comes from living true to myself. Compromising that person and living for others serves no one. Sometimes it takes the perspective of casting off alone for that clarity to come.
Of course there are limits to what you can learn by yourself. I’m guilty of thinking way too much, of not reaching out for help and perspective enough. We all have some work to do in one direction or the other.
I wake to the sound of the alarm in the black cocoon. I’m camped in the parking lot of a climbing gym in Golden, CO after two weeks on the road. The air is cool, the only sound is the quiet tick of the fuel pump feeding the diesel heater. I flip on the lights in my little rolling cabin. Pop open the cabinet over the sink and pull on long johns and a shirt. Stretch. Turn up the heater, throw on my puffy jacket, and boil water for coffee.
One of my favorite things about travel is that it forces you to ask yourself what matters. For a month on the road, I packed a couple changes of clothes, ski gear, and running shoes, and despite room to spare, left the rest at home. I love the opportunity to pare down to the essentials that support the experience I’m looking for.
Brown grass covered the hills west of Denver, waving in a spring-like wind. A friend and I grabbed six packs from a gas station and hit the road for Crested Butte, 5 hours to the Southwest in the San Juan Mountains.
We spent a long weekend camping in our vans on the snow-covered streets of CB and skiing the local hills.
The weekend drew to a close and I watched his van disappear in the rearview as he headed for Denver and I pointed Debbie west. Saying goodbye to a friend is bittersweet. I know I’ll miss companionship and connection, but I’m excited for that old feeling.
I work remotely and part time, so as long as I have cell service I can sustain myself, which makes the logistics of a trip like this easy. The barriers are emotional. I worry about being lonely, about the feeling of exposure out on the road. What if something goes wrong? How will it feel to be out there by myself? If I let these fears run me I’ll live safe and small.
It’s often uncomfortable at first, but being out in the world alone brings me back to center. There’s always something murmuring in the background that needs space to come into the light.
Heading northwest now, out of Colorado and back into Utah, Idaho, Oregon. A mile closer to home with every green marker that streaks past the window. The sun is warm through the window and there’s a huge blue sky overhead.
Being alone and exposed is a wonderful thing. You get to feel your power and agency. You can do whatever you like and can only look to yourself to know what that is. You don’t want it that way all the time, but that isn’t the point. The point’s to step away every once in a while and look back on life with fresh eyes, dig into who you are and what you need. Fill yourself up with the passion and energy of the things that bring you alive, then turn the van around and bring all that wild-eyed wonder back to the community you love.
I drove snow-packed roads to the tiny town of North Powder, OR and passed under I84. I hooked a left and accelerated up the ramp, setting the cruise-control for Portland. My mind leapt ahead to where the interstate ends at the Willamette River and the community, and comfort that waited there. I thought back to all the road that had passed under the van’s wheels in the last month.
The trip reminded of the powerful realization I’d had on that California highway years ago. Sometimes you need to go it alone for a while to find out who you are. Sometimes you need some time away, some time with that wide-open feeling of power and possibility that waits on the highway just outside of town.