Monday, January 28, 2013

Going Solo

Southern Oregan Coast

Of all the questions I field about traveling alone, this seems to be at the center of what folks want to know.  Why go alone?  People often start off with comments and concerns about being lonely or scared or worried or bored, but as I formulate my answer I find myself justifying the advantages of solo travel and essentially answering the why.  Going alone is not my default setting mind you.  I do enjoy the company of friends when I go places, especially new places.  Nothing solidifies a memory like a familiar face.  And then at a later date, when you are sitting around doing nothing, you can be guarenteed a laugh when someone starts off a sentence by saying, "remember when." 

So I never intended to embrace solo travel, afterall I do enjoy the company, the storytelling, and the remeniscing, but for me it became a thing of necessity.  For years I had been conspiring to go to all of these exotic places yet over and over my plans came to a screaching halt when my co-conspirators couldn't make it happen for whatever reason.  A lack of money, time, preparation, or a host of other good and bad excuses intervened.  Suddenly my expectations weren't being fulfilled.  I found myself much further along in life but with far fewer experiences than I had planned.  I had to do something to remedy this problem and that something was to just go, no matter what.  And I did.  I went to South America.  

Traveling alone really doesn't have to be lonely, scary, boring or worrisome.  In fact it can be quite the opposite.  The best example I have is from a bike tour I took down a portion of the Pacific Coast.  Here I met Roger, a gentleman recently retired from a lifetime of fixing food prep machinary for the Hobart Corparation and a very distant connection to the Coast Guard.  He stood no taller than myself but very lean and upright and with a proud smile.  If it wasn't for his snowy white hair and a dense beard to match, you wouldn't guess his 60 plus years, especially considering the jaw-dropping 6,000 miles he had just ridden his bicycle.   By his own admission his adventure was long overdue.  Much like me he let too many excuses interfere with what he wanted to do.  So, a week after he retired, he hopped on his bike in Texas, pedaled north to Alaska, and was on his return voyage to San Francisco when we crossed paths.  He was alone but with the company of dozens, maybe hundreds, of new friends that he met along the way of which I count myself as one of them.

The two things I recall best about Roger were, first, his affinity for good beer, and second, the absolute pleasure he took from sharing and hearing stories from the road.  For 5 days our bike tour followed roughly the same route where each night we landed in the same hiker-biker campsites graciously provided by the state of Oregon.  It is weird how quickly a custom can develop and by the second camp I could count on Roger rolling in with a couple of Oregon's finest microbrews to swap with the handful I had picked up along the way.  Damn if Oregon isn't overflowing with good and plentiful beers!

At the end of each day those hiker-biker campsites would fill up with a dozen or so folks of the same ilk; people determined to find childlike satisfaction from a proven method, their bicycle, but on a grown-up scale.  It was around the campfire where I learned about Roger and storytelling and the phrase, "Oh, go on."  He was as full of as many yarns as you would expect from an old salt who spent years aboard a coast guard cutter followed closely by a second life worthy of a 6,000 mile bike retirement.  And as entertaining as his stories were, it was the way he took in the wildly embelished stories of everyone else around the campfire that I remember most.  With each outrageous claim or for every heroic reason someone set out to bike hundreds or thousands of miles alone, you could hear Roger say, "Oh, go on," and he meant it.  He thrived on that interaction and every night everyone sat up way past their projected bedtime, swapping stories and drinking beers.

And that is exactly how lonely traveling solo is.  

Sure there are moments when you feel a little worried or alone and scared when you are standing at a border crossing, not knowing a lick of spanish, and the only phrase the guard says in english is in a very accusatory tone, "Is this anthrax?"  All of that quickly passes though when he starts to laugh at you and sends you on your way.
Fitzroy, Argentina

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