By Connie Rosser Riddle
The first time was quite by accident.
I had three days between two business trips; the first to a meeting outside of Phoenix, the second to a conference in San Francisco. Not enough time in between to be worth flying back to North Carolina.
“Why don’t you stay out there and travel?” my coworker suggested.
“By myself?” I responded.
“Sure. It’ll do you good.”
She’d been there while I worked and underwent breast cancer treatment over the previous eight months. The longest trip I’d taken since my diagnosis was the nineteen miles to my oncologist’s office. He had pronounced me well enough to fly, so why not take advantage of it?
When the Phoenix meeting ended, I rented a car and drove north to Sedona. I’d never been to Arizona, and I was amazed at how the landscape changed so drastically, from Saguaro cactus to grasslands to red rocks. I realized that for the first time ever, I had no schedule, no work or family responsibilities; no place I had to be. I can do whatever I want, I thought as I drove into Sedona.
After a stop at the ranger station, I took my map and headed out to Oak Creek Canyon. The afternoon sun felt nice on my shoulders as I sat on a rock and enjoyed the breeze off the water. Without having to rush, I took the time to watch a soaring bird and an older couple hiking along the banks. This is nice, I thought and realized I could sit there the rest of the day if I liked. Later on, I drove around the country roads, following my instincts and turning down dirt roads that weren’t on the map, delighted to discover pastures with flowers and cows huddled under shade trees. I didn’t have to consult with my husband or cater to the whims of my teenage boys; I was free to follow my own whims. I ended that day by sitting on the hood of my car, watching the theater of nightfall against the rocks and joining with a community of others in a collective “ooh” and “ahh” at the fantastic display of color and light.
I came back from that trip refreshed and renewed. Four years later, when my fiftieth birthday was approaching, my husband asked me, “Do you want a party?”
I thought briefly about all that would entail, the stereotypical “Happy Fiftieth” gifts of AARP cards and Geritol, and I responded, “No, I don’t really want a party. I want a trip. By myself.”
I knew he wasn’t offended. He saw what Sedona did for me.
I became excited about the trip, looking for a place to go that was in driving distance from my home. When I shared my plans at work, a different job from when I’d gone to Sedona, my coworker, fifteen years my senior, asked, “What does your husband think about it? Will he let you go?”
“He’s fine with it. He knows I’m not going to get away from him. I’m going to get to myself.”
I needed to be at the ocean, as water had always renewed me. I chose to go to Jekyll Island, Georgia. There I rediscovered the things I loved as a girl, like riding my bike on the trails through the marsh and by the beach, swimming at night in the hotel pool, sitting on a historic cottage porch and reading a book through a thundershower. Like Sedona, I found that without the requirements of traveling with others – the conversations, coordinating activities, taking care of everyone’s needs – I was able to relax and just enjoy being with myself.
Every year since my fiftieth I’ve taken a trip alone. I’ve stayed in hostels in Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Vincent, New York. I’ve hiked a mountain in the San Juan Islands, gone on a trail ride in the Tetons and ridden my bike along a canal towpath in West Virginia. I’ve met people who I’ve felt were “placed in my path,” whether they helped me to learn valuable lessons or I was able to encourage them through difficult situations. These trips have become meaningful journeys, intentional pilgrimages that have renewed my spirit.
Now the women I know ask me, “Where are you going this year?” A young mother, worn down from caring for her toddler, told me, “One day I’m going to do that,” her eyes dreamy. Other women, closer to my age say, “I wish I could do that,” to which I say, “You can.”
One friend offers to go with me, and I gently respond, “But if anyone goes with me, it won’t be the same.”
And it wouldn’t, because there’s nothing like the freedom of Going Solo.