Bravery

Examining the perception of the solo woman traveler.

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That night at the bar, I uncharacteristically struck up a conversation with the couple having dinner next to me. I’ve noticed that when I dine by myself, it seems to be a lot more difficult to get the waiter’s attention. I imagine that it is something to do with the fact that as I’m alone, as I will eat and drink less than a couple. Still, after hiking all day I was hungry so being ignored by the wait staff is what got us talking.

When I travel solo, I tend to eat dinners on the go, or to get something and relax and eat in my room. I enjoy spending time in cafes or restaurants for breakfast or lunch, taking in the people watching, reading, or organizing my plans for the day. But something about eating dinner alone tends to feel more lonely to me, perhaps because when you are a woman eating dinner alone, usually a lot of questions or sad glances follow from the wait staff or other diners.

But on a recent trip to Colorado, I decided to sit at the crowded Whiskey Bar at the Stanley Hotel for dinner. I had spent the entire day hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park, and I was feeling exhilarated from challenging my body to finish as many miles as possible before sunset. My body was tired, but in that thrilling kind of way after you’ve done something you are really proud of. The Stanley Hotel is a gorgeous old hotel that just so happened to inspire Steven King to write The Shining, and I wanted to spend as much time as I could in the beautiful and slightly spooky space. The bar in particular with its glowing counter and back lit shelves did really evoke the feeling of the bar scene when Jack starts drinking again in the Kubrick movie. There were just a lot more people there in real life.

Staying at this hotel was a big splurge for me, as a solo traveler I typically try to travel on a tight budget, but I was feeling adventurous and wanted to experience part of the hotel’s haunted history.

drink
Redrum at The Stanley

I doubted that I would be back to that part of Colorado any time soon, if at all, so I found a corner spot at the bar, ordered myself the Redrum cocktail, and waited on the waiters.

The couple was in their mid-forties and they were on an anniversary trip, hoping to get some weed gummie bears and go on the ghost tour in the hotel.

hotel
A spooky Stanley hallway.

We talked about their lives in Texas, why they stay there even though they aren’t conservative, and about all the places they traveled to since one of them started working for an airline. They were funny and interesting, intelligent and relaxed. I told them about my day hiking, about all of the animals that I had seen, and how beautiful the mountains were. I was struck by the fact that they had no interest in going to see or hike the mountains – I was so drawn to the majesty of the Rockies I couldn’t imagine staying right next door to the entrance to the National Park and not even wanting to drive through. But they were there to relax and get away, they said they were “too old” to go hiking anymore.

The food finally arrived, it was decent and my first taste of buffalo meatballs. The conversation was better though, and we got along well as we watched the waitstaff take shots throughout the night. I love hearing about people’s stories, where they come from and what motivates them, and often wonder about the lives of those that just cross my path. I’m sure we wouldn’t have exchanged more than a glance in the lobby had I not sat down next to them that night.

They were a cool couple, and I was happy to not feel lonely at dinner. The topic of being alone of course came up, they asked me why I went on this trip by myself. I explained I had been wanting to see the Rockies, that I had a few friends I wanted to see in Denver the next day. They couldn’t help but ask, “but alone?” I always find it interesting when people ask that, and it happens all the time. It seems that many people find solo travel to be unfathomable. Maybe they’ve been with their partner for such a long time that they couldn’t imagine not being with them, or maybe they think they couldn’t afford it without a partner. I explained to them that I would love to have a partner to travel with me, but I am single, so the though of not going anywhere just because I don’t have a guy with me sounds pretty grim. I was filled with wonderment when I hiked that day, and it had been a long time since I had breathed in such fresh air. That alone, I explained, was worth the entire trip.

stanley
The Stanley Hotel, Estes Park, Colorado

They looked at me and smiled. I told them about my dream of seeing all 50 states by my 40th birthday, and that Colorado seemed like a fantastic spot to visit. That I had already driven cross country alone, and I had learned what to expect when alone the road, both good and bad. “But alone? Just by yourself,” she said, “I just couldn’t do that. I’m not sure how you manage. You are just so brave.”

This is not the first time that someone had commented on my adventures as being brave, but for some reason her comment really stuck with me this time. I spend a lot of time wondering what my life would be like if I had a partner. Most of my friends have settled down, they are married and many own lovely homes with the spouses. It would be fantastic to have a partner, but that person has not come into my life just yet. My life isn’t perfect, but who’s life is? There are many things I still want to have, not just a partner but maybe more financial stability or more money to travel. But I do know that I am extremely grateful for what I do have – a healthy body, a soul that craves adventure, and the means to travel modestly. I am lucky enough to be in a community where I can work and live safely, and above all I have the luxury of dreaming.

Others have commented on my bravery as a solo traveler, but why did this comment stay with me this time? This couple was young, they could go anywhere they wanted with their benefits of working for an airline – what I would give for a few free standby tickets a year! They had something that I’ve always wanted, a happy marriage and the fun of celebrating an anniversary together on the road.

I have never once considered my travels as brave – traveling is just something I crave, something that I cannot ignore, a need I must fulfill for myself.  To have people just a bit older than me comment on my bravery gave me pause. I learned to love traveling alone. No one rushes me out of museums, I eat all the amazing local foods, I have time to think and write. When friends are able to travel with me, I’m so happy to have the company, but I don’t feel any less grateful to see the world if I am by myself. Because no matter where I travel, there is always something damn amazing to see, interesting people to meet and to teach me about their lives. I’ve seen so many beautiful people and places, I cannot imagine not traveling just because I didn’t have a partner to come along.

It is true that women travelers need to be aware of our surroundings, to use caution when meeting new people. There are risks to hiking alone, for example, but how can they be weighed when the alternative is staying at home and seeing nothing? It is unfair that so many women are raised and taught to fear being alone, while our male counterparts are praised for their adventurousness.  Of course there are dangers to plan for when maneuvering solo, and I have faced situations in the past that I would rather not relive. I have also been extremely lucky. I try to trust my gut when I’m traveling, and there are some situations that are beyond what I am willing to risk, even if ten years ago I threw caution to the wind and put myself in uncertain surroundings. I’m grateful I have had mainly amazing experiences so far, and I completely understand that those who have not may not be willing to travel alone again.

In my opinion, it is not brave to travel alone, it is an honor. I’m free, and I know that that is special. My dog and I have driven through half of the United States together. I’ve been through more than half of Europe alone, and I only speak one other language well. Not because I was brave, but because I had the opportunity, and I seized it. Traveling alone allows me to feel alive, to feel more connected to the world. I think about the times I have felt the most lonely and unmotivated, and usually that is when alone at home. Somehow being on the road connects me with the sense of feeling free, with so many possibilities at my fingertips. Solo travel has taught me to trust myself, to believe in my mental and physical strength. I never knew I had the stamina to drive 4000 miles alone until I did it, I had never even been to Europe or California before I moved there. Each time I see a new place, I’m reminded why I love to travel and one trip immediately begets the next. This not suggest that women who don’t travel alone are in any way less brave, but I do wonder why those who have the means to see more do not embrace the world that is available to them.

Is it brave to travel alone – I don’t think so. Maybe for me, the act of bravery on this trip was not hiking for a day in the Rockies alone, it was not driving in Colorado in a rented car, or staying in a nice (but potentially haunted) hotel. All of that was a privilege. Maybe the most brave part was throwing caution to the wind as I splurged on staying in a fancy hotel just for the experience. The more I see of America, the more I feel that it is my honor to explore. I didn’t realize how lucky I had been to be an American until I moved to another country, and I didn’t realize how gorgeous our country was until I left my comfort zone of the Northeast. In some ways, this comment about my perceived bravery helped me to put my life a bit into perspective. The dream of having a partner in my life still hasn’t been realized. However, my wanderlust is still thriving. My curiosity is peaked even more. The one thing I know for sure is that there is so much to see, and that this world is wide. Staying at home just because you don’t have a partner to go with you is not the brave option, it would be the lonelier option. I can’t wait to get out there again soon, the open road as my company.

 

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