There’s nothing quite like the first time, is there? I remember it vividly—lying on the hood of a rented Mustang convertible, the pink and orange sandstone cliffs rising up around me, ravens cawing and circling in the sky, the scent of pinion pine heavy in the cool spring air. I felt like I was going to burst open with happiness. And later, when it was all over, I knew I was changed forever.
I’m talking about my first solo trip, the first time I travel alone, and in that moment—parked on the side of the road in the canyon lands of Utah, lying on the hood of the car, gazing in awe at the most mysterious and beautiful landscape I’d ever seen—I knew I’d ignited a passion that would burn for decades: becoming intimate with the world on my terms, alone.
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I shudder to think of what might have happened if someone had agreed to accompany me on that first foray to southern Utah. I didn’t want to travel there alone, but no-one—not even my most adventurous friends—wanted any part of my plan to explore slot canyons by harness and rope. I’m glad I chose to disregard their well-intentioned warnings of flash floods and ravenous mountain lions because their desire to stay safe forced me to explore the fringes of my comfort zone. That first trip both challenged and changed me: at the end of it, I was hooked on the idea of traveling alone.
In almost two decades of solo travel I’ve tackled a fear of heights, challenged my sub-par navigation skills, tested my endurance, and made dozens of new friends. At some point during every adventure (which have included trapeze school, paragliding, canyoneering and foot-punishing hikes) I thought I would have to bail. The physical, emotional and mental pressure was sometimes so overwhelming I felt the only escape was to weep; but once I muscled past that, I discovered that I was capable of more than I thought. I also learned my limits, which would have been almost impossible to gauge if I hadn’t tested them.
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Traveling alone gave me another gift: time to indulge in solitude and introspection, two commodities in short supply for most of us. It gave me endless opportunities to test my courage. And it led me to make a commitment to never live less of a life than I wanted for myself. It also gave me the time and space to think about the proverbial road ahead; what I really, really wanted (freedom) and what I wanted no more of (bureaucracy). That happened during a dog sledding trip in northern Minnesota. Driving the dogs for hours across frozen lakes and through dark, lovely woods, the white wilderness became like a canvas—what did I want to paint there? What did I want my future to look like? In that pure, crystalline silence, where the only sound was the sssssssssss of the sled runners on the snow, I began to think about my future. If I left my corporate life, what would I do? What did I want to do? And how would I go about doing it?
After a week on the snow with minimal encounters with people, the answers came. I knew that what would bring me joy would be to write, and speak, and coach people to become better versions of themselves. Within a year, I handed in my access codes and started a new life. A passion for traveling alone allowed me to peel away the accumulated layers of my past to uncover the passion that would fuel my future going forward.
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Not all my solo travels were yee-haw excursions. Some were quiet, contemplative soul searching travel journeys; others were study trips abroad. But every one of them gave me that unfettered time to be myself, be with myself, and be with the world, on my terms, on my own timetable. Even now that I have a partner with whom I really like to travel, I’m still seduced by the thrill of exploring on my own. It’s a gift I give myself whenever I have a big life question to tackle or when I just want to crack open my daily routine and scramble things up. I’m always surprised at what I find and how I feel, and that’s what keeps me going back for more.
Janice Holly Booth is the author of Only Pack What You Can Carry, a memoir about her solo adventure travels.
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