All by myself: One traveler’s take on the beauty and challenges of solo travel

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Photos and text by Ellen Burkhardt

It didn’t occur to me to keep track of how many peanut butter and jelly sandwiches I’d eaten until the loaf of bread was nearing its last slices. That had been the plan, after all: to survive on PB&J, tortilla chips, apples, and carrots, as well as the occasional gas station treat and breakfast or dinner out.

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Practicing the art of the selfie in Yellowstone National Park

I was on the last stretch of my 10-day solo road trip from Minnesota to Yellowstone, down through Utah, over to Colorado, and back home. The final tally of miles would be 3,888; as for the number of hours spent alone in my car, I’m not sure. I don’t keep track of my time on the road in hours or minutes, rather landscapes and experiences and weather and seeing how long I can go without pulling into a rest stop.

The most frequent question I’m asked when people find out I travel alone is, “But don’t you get lonely?” My go-to, wrap-this-conversation-up answer is no. My more complex, this-will-require-further-discussion answer is sometimes.

As in:

When you pull into a picnic area in middle-of-nowhere Montana after failing to find the trail that you’d intended to spend the afternoon hiking and the bathroom is locked and you have to eat your sandwich next to an abandoned playground that looks even more lonely than the rolling, empty hills surrounding it: yes, it feels lonely.

Or when you go to a bar after driving for 13 hours and the bartender chooses to talk to his server friends instead of you and you’re flanked by couples holding hands and talking in their secret couples’ language: yes, it feels lonely.

Ditto for seeing something hilarious and not having anyone to laugh with, or pulling into a hotel when it’s raining and dark and the lobby is abandoned and you sense you’re not in the safest city in Colorado, but you’re too tired to keep driving, so you walk in with your head high and fist clenched and don’t exhale until the deadbolt on your room door is in place and you’ve ensured there are no bed bugs looking to bunk up with you.

But those are fleeting, temporary blips in the otherwise exhilarating, meditative, interesting, and informative experience that is solo travel.

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Looking out over Beartown State Forest from the top of Monument Mountain in Great Barrington, Massachusetts

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Before freezing the night away at Bridge Bay Campground in Yellowstone National Park

My solo travel days began five years ago. I was working for a lifestyle magazine and was the only person with a flexible enough schedule to go off for days at a time to research and fact-check upcoming travel stories. At first it wasn’t easy. I felt exposed and judged asking for a table for one and wandering unfamiliar city streets by myself. I didn’t yet know that planning ahead—namely writing down directions, restaurant addresses, and phone numbers—was key, because WiFi isn’t always available and mobile networks fail without notice.

Eventually I learned to enjoy the freedom that came with being the sole decision-maker in any given situation. Where do you want to eat? What do you want to see? What do you not want to see? How do you want to spend the morning? Afternoon? Evening? Do you like this bar? What about this radio station? All of it is up to you. No one will be disappointed if you decide, say, to forgo freezing your butt off for a second night of camping in Yellowstone, tell the park ranger to keep your $20 deposit, and drive to Jackson Hole, calling every hotel you pass, negotiating a deal on a room, and savoring a shower so hot it makes you forget the hours you spent shivering in that godforsaken tent the night before. Every decision—good, bad, and in between—is your own and affects only you. How often do you get to say that in life?

Next page: Solo travel may or may not be for you (and that’s OK)…

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Ellen Burkhardt About Ellen Burkhardt

Ellen Burkhardt is the managing editor of The Growler. When she's not writing, editing, or interviewing, chances are she's on the road, seeking out good food, drink, conversation, and fodder for her next story.

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