The other day, an old friend reached out to me on Facebook. We hadn’t spoken in years, and he checked in with no other motive than to let me know he was proud of me. He remembered me as I was at eighteen: terrified to be 700 miles from home for school, and contemplating a transfer back home to Montana. Now, here I am, living in London and traveling alone through Central Europe. Reflecting on that juxtaposition, I thought of something Joan Didion once wrote: “We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were. I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be.”
Over the past decade I’ve left behind a few versions of myself. I’ve bid adieu to the girl too scared to embrace a new university, too shy to make friends in San Francisco, too masochistic to leave a toxic relationship. As it turns out, my new self is stronger than I ever thought I could be.
If maturation comes naturally with age, then solo travel thrusts growing up in overdrive. When I embarked on my first solo trip, I mustered the guts to meet my fears head on. I learned to embrace vulnerability. I became closer with myself and had the opportunity to pick apart who I actually am from who I was told I should be. I could explore what made me happy with no one I knew watching. There are definitely less high-stakes ways to learn to love yourself than applying a slash-and-burn approach to your life and moving across the world, but personally, it was the kick in the pants I needed.
It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I realized how far I’ve come. When I packed up my life in Seattle in the back of a Subaru hatchback last summer, I was absolutely terrified by the uncertainty. Now I no longer felt any anxiety toward being on my own. In fact, I crave it. So I made arrangements for my second, shorter solo adventure, this time through Central Europe. I now believe learning to keep yourself company is a part of growing up. I haven’t figured it out completely, of course, but I’m proud of myself for taking the leap, embracing vulnerability, and opening myself up to unlimited adventure. I was eager to spend time further exploring this, and Prague was the perfect backdrop: red brick roofs, good beer, cute boys, and potato soup.
Time for introspection is one of my favorite parts of solo travel, but there are so many more benefits. I’m sure you’ve heard them before: not being held down by anyone else’s timeline, the freedom to follow your own whims, etc. I love to walk. You burn calories and see the city like a local, all for free. What could possibly be not to like? When I travel alone I can lean into this, and I’ll usually walk 12 to 15 miles a day - because I can. There’s no one around to stop me.
Prague is a wonderful city to see on foot. Majestic buildings and lush parks positioned on rolling hills along the riverbank, street stalls with sausages, ice cream and pastries (that I can eat guiltlessly thanks to all the walking), and a fascinating smattering of tourists and locals that light up every street with diversity.
Perhaps ironically, what makes solo travel truly wonderful is the opportunity it affords for human connection. I’ve travelled with others quite a bit: a boyfriend, a best friend, family, classmates. There is always someone there to co-navigate an adventure, to reflect on moments, and to share a meal. A safety net and a piece of home you carry with you to stave off vulnerability.
We live in an ever shrinking world of unlimited opportunity for cross-cultural connection - but our lives are so full with the people we love, we don’t reach out for new relationships. Traveling alone - for a moment - creates a sense of scarcity of closeness, and opens you up to meeting people easily ignored when you’re comfortably surrounded with people you already know.
In my time in Prague I was open to new friendships and experiences, and I was lucky to meet fascinating and unique travelers because of that: Hollywood's next big female film director, a rowdy Scot eager to see England lose the World Cup, two rural Danes that would probably feel right at home in Montana, and so many other lovely people. All because we embraced the equalizing vulnerability of risking moments of silence or loneliness for the chance at meeting extraordinary humans on a kindred quest to explore the world and ourselves.