OH my god that’s so dangerous.
Aren’t you SCARED?
I couldn’t possibly do that.
Why don’t you go in a group? That’s so much SAFER.
In 1983, I threw a backpack over my shoulders- it was WAY too heavy- and headed to New Zealand, Australia and Fiji.
Alone. I was barely 31.
This was long, long, long before Eat, Pray, Love.
I told my friends I was going to walk the perimeter of Australia.
Um, no, you’re not. But you can’t argue with the hubris of youth.
What decided that for me was a side trip to a small harbor in the North Island of New Zealand. I made some friends, stayed a while, and fell on the boat during an energetic game of tag. Gave myself such a serious thigh bruise that I had to go to the hospital for crutches.
Then, a few days later, I stood on the pier as my friends motored away. In an attempt to express my enthusiasm I lifted my right arm- holding the crutch- to wave goodbye. And was horrified to watch the crutch arch into the clear air, only to splash into the harbor water and promptly disappear into the depths.
Okay, So I’ll Hitchhike
Reduced to one peg and one crutch, and a very sore right thigh, I had to stick out my thumb.
That began four years of the most extraordinary explorations I’d ever experienced-up to that point.
Being crippled gets you rides. Being a Yank back in 1984 made me popular in New Zealand. I was invited to farms where I sheared sheep. Rode horses at 5 am. Helped with chores and kids and cats and cooking. Learned how to harvest fruits and veggies out of people’s back yards and make from-scratch soups spiced with herbs off the window sill. Yum.
Sometimes I had to sleep in my Marmot one man tent by the roadside when traffic got scarce. Even the “Dumb Yankee” sign on my backpack didn’t entice relief. At times a sudden storm would strike so quickly I had mere seconds to set up and crawl inside for cover. One night I ended up floating on my Thermarest on top of five inches of water. Now that’s rain.
Fake Social Security Numbers
When I broke a couple of teeth during the trip, I was forced to work for a while to help pay the cost. I joined a group of people- all in their twenties- to pick nectarines on the northern tip of South Island. It was like a plenary session of the UN. The nectarines were embarrassingly juicy and wondrous. At the end of the day, after we’d exhausted ourselves from the work and a feisty food fight with overripe fruit, the lot of us would hike back to our campground with wasps buzzing around our heads. There, we’d hose each other off, make dinner together and sleep soundly before another day in the groves.
We were issued fake social security numbers, and were just as illegal as anyone who has ever snuck across the US-Mexico border. And it was fun as hell.
“So You’re A Lobbyist…”
Right before I’d left on this trip I’d been a DC lobbyist for what was then Martin Marietta Aerospace, now Lockheed Martin. My time rubbing shoulders with some of the most powerful people in Washington had gone to my head, as it does with the young.
However that came crashing down at ANZ Bank in Auckland one day as I stood in line waiting to cash in traveler’s checks. The man behind me noted my backpack and engaged me for a chat, as Kiwis are wont to do. When I told him proudly what I had done for a living he grinned and announced loudly,
“Aw, yeh, so you’re the one who sits in the hotel lobby and tells people where their rooms are!”
Thoroughly deflated, I decided after that to refrain from telling people what I did, and get in the habit of asking about their lives.
Four Joyous Years
My travels took me to the Barrier Reef, ultralight flying over Geelong in Victoria, and to explore by battered car the winding, hilly backroads of Australia. The dust would curl up into the station wagon, so that by the time I was ready to roll my sleeping bag in the back, it was several inches thick.
Only once did I join a group, when the lot of us, all having met in Cairns, Australia, decided to help move a campervan down to Melbourne as a team. I have rarely laughed so hard or had more fun as when a motley bunch of people from myriad countries camped, tented and ate together for several weeks as we made our slow way down that enormous country. One of my funniest memories was the Irishman we all called Paddy, whose high top sneakers (having been worn around the world twice) were so foul that we actually stole and buried them. Paddy mourned for days. We didn’t.
What Traveling Alone Taught Me
Landing solo in Fiji got me an invitation to live in the chief’s house in a nearby village. I learned enough of the language to get in trouble, scuba dived the reefs, and got peered at in my outdoor shower by hordes of local children who had never seen a white woman.
When I finally made it back home to stay in 1988, I remember walking the aisles of the local grocery store, mesmerized by the thousands of products. Especially deodorants. In Fiji, your choice of deodorant was Right Guard, Right Guard, or, if you insist, Right Guard. After four years, returning to American over-abundance was a culture shock.
What I learned, among many other lessons and adventures on this trip, was that solo travel was the only way to go. Without someone to tend to, argue with over where to go or how to spend time, the freedom was exhilarating. Not only that, adventures constantly landed in my lap. All it took was the willingness to say “sure, I’ll try that.”
It never occurred to me to be frightened. Once, and only once, on the west coast of Australia near Geraldton, north of Perth, a semi driver offered me a “cuddle.” Thanks, but no thanks. That was the sum of all the danger I faced, if you don’t count flying ultralights and swimming with sharks.
Today, 34 years later, I am still in touch with people I met in Australia and New Zealand. The experiences we shared and friendships forged have lasted a lifetime. What is more telling, though, is that the four years I spent free-wheeling by backpack in three friendly foreign countries established a love for adventure and exploration that has only been whetted over time.
I still travel alone. Whether I’m mushing dogs close to the Arctic or riding horses in Kazakhstan, paddling a kayak in Iceland or climbing mountainsides in Croatia, the one lesson I’ve learned is to be available.
My phone stays home.
The Only Travel Companion You Need
That way the door to my heart is wide open. No matter where I adventure, people simply want to know you’re interested in them, their way of life, of love, of worship, of work, of play. When you are open, soft and curious, you get included. My bad experiences, like getting ripped off for a cab fare, are so rare in the sum of the years I’ve spent on the road as to be wholly inconsequential. I am constantly reminded of the generosity of people, most especially those who are the poorest. It is inside the thatched huts of people who have nothing that I am given the most. Those are the parents who push fat packages of peanuts- slowly grown and harvested for their meals- into my hands after a visit. Nothing is so humbling as the extraordinary generosity of those whom we think have nothing. Nothing could be further from the truth. They have endless love and affection to give. And as a result, they are rich beyond measure.
Traveling alone keeps me in the present moment, where all the joy and excitement exist. The wondrous, ever-changing now, where anything can and does happen.
So head out alone. Leave your phone at home. Just take your curiosity, your kindness and your love of adventure with you. Pack in a big dose of humor and the absurd. They are the only travel companions you will ever need.