Can you guess what the wide plains of West Texas, the purpled sunrise at Bryce Canyon’s most peaceful lookout, and the corners of your own unsupervised mind have in common?
You don’t—can’t—know what they look like until you hunker down and spend some real, serious time there.
That’s what I learned when I spent five weeks road-tripping solo across the United States from Manhattan to San Francisco last month. Well, that and how to fit everything I own into—and occasionally sleep inside of—my sometimes groaning, exhausted, reliable red car.
The trip, which wound in a lazy looping smile down the southern coast and then westward through every national park imaginable, was meant to be as much of a challenge as it was a respite. Equal parts invitation to “let yourself kick back” and mandate to “learn how to be alone.” Ebbing between vacation and validation, occasion and odyssey, detour and destination.
The most common question I got, from all kinds of people, in each distinct place, at every different juncture: “Don’t you get scared? Don’t you feel lonely?”
The short answer is no.
The long answer is: How could you get scared when your Airbnb host in New Mexico (she calls herself your “road grandma”) hugs you tight and kisses you hard when you lug your oversize, smelly camping pack off her front porch. And not when a man with red hair and forgiving feet teaches you how to swing dance in Nashville. Or when you learn that you prefer to stand, totally alone for now, on the red rock edge of Horseshoe Bend and to let yourself cry when the sun goes down.
The long answer is keeping your own pace on the hike up to Upper Yosemite Falls, even if it means you make it home after dark. And the weeks of windows-down, top-of-your-lungs, dance-in-your-seat type singing. Eating your first four-course meal completely alone, to the whirl of New Orleans jazz and the staccato tap-tap of your heels keeping joyous time under the table. And putting on all the clothes you packed when you wake up with six inches of snow in your tent.
The long answer is, for the first time in your life, not making choices within the context of social reaction and admiration and desperation and striving. And learning that sometimes it’s enough just to pitch your tent before dark and feel some primal independence welling up within the wind-whipped zippered walls. Taking selfies because there isn’t another soul for a hundred miles.
The long answer is becoming acutely aware of what a big project it will be, you know, to “make yourself good” – and how energized you are to do that work. Learning to love the sound your thoughts make when they whir through the tunnels in your mind, to referee your own unkind criticisms, to smile at your own silent jokes, to lend yourself and others grace without witnesses or volume.
I could only have learned the long answer driving the long way ‘round.
Illustration by Emily Zirimis.