Tales of a Solo Traveler
I summited Half Dome last week. And, while I want to sit here and boast about my pride in reflection of that accomplishment, the truth is that it’s been bittersweet. Yosemite National Park had been the number one spot on my bucket list since I started climbing just over a year ago. Unfortunately, traveling solo leaves this rock climber without a perma-belayer, so I chose to enter the daily lottery for the Half Dome hike, a rather stringent process that allows only a select few applicants access to the summit by way of cables. And, well, I won. Stoke was too high.
Really, I was itching to get on the road. I had spent the prior three weeks in Newport Beach waiting on news about my car engine, and while I thoroughly enjoyed soaking in some extra California sun, my bones were aching to be behind the wheel. The five-hour drive from Southern California to Yosemite is, by my standards, a quick jaunt. One that I accepted with open arms.
I found an RV spot about 40 minutes outside of the Park (little did I know that the Half Dome trailhead is another 40 minutes into the Park when traveling up from the south), and I set my alarm for 3:43am (that’s not a typo, I actually only set my alarms on random increments). I woke up, brushed my teeth, flossed (yes, this is important), walked Nugget, grabbed my snacks and hopped in the car by 4:30am. As planned, I hit the trailhead just after 6:00am with my headlamp properly fashioned under my messy bun.
The moral of this story has nothing to do with these minor details, however. I could describe how the granite looked in the sprawl of that September sunrise (like hand-drawn ice cream sundaes, the black ink pooling over their edges), but those would only be my words. And, I could most certainly offer up hundreds of photos and videos, but I wouldn’t be able to transmit the smell of the Redwoods or let you touch the beating of my chest after climbing up Half Dome’s aggressively vertical rock face. I would do my best. But, it wouldn’t be enough.
No, the real moral of this story is the loneliness. It’s the juxtaposition of a solo traveler’s joy to see the unimaginable and the sorrow to be on the end of an unmet high five. Because, I can’t take a good enough picture to import anyone into this memory.
A couple months ago I wrote a blog post about traveling alone (which you can read here). I encouraged readers to not fear facing an adventure as a solo person. I am still a firm believer in my words. I am proof that there is an unparalleled confidence that comes from making a choice to simply go without having the ability to lean on another individual to decide where to stay, or what to eat, or when to wake up and where to explore.
So, yes, do not be afraid to travel alone. But (there is always a but), don’t become so comfortable in your independence that you are then alienated from, or opposed to, or afraid of traveling together.
Let me explain.
When I was leaving Newport Beach, my dad watched me hitch up my Airstream to my car, a task that I have done so many times at this point that I could quite literally do it with my eyes closed. I didn’t even think twice about my process in that moment, and as much as he wanted to help, he knew that it would hinder my efficiency to have a set of untrained hands involved in the minutiae. So, he watched from afar. And, as he watched, I fixated on the idea of not having to do it alone anymore. I imagined the ease that would exist alongside another set of trained hands (even if that training was gleaned over time) in tandem with a lifetime supply of steady jokes (yes, witty banter required).
My thoughts then shifted to how many people in relationship with one another struggle to take on such tasks without erupting into full blown fight mode. Like, so many. And, for a brief second, I felt a sense of relief that the only person to whom I had to answer was myself. I was thrilled to exist inside my own solitude where no one could tell me I was doing something wrong and then get mad because I’ve vocalized that I believed there was another way.
Uh-oh, I thought to myself. I am becoming dependent on my independence. Abort. ABORT.
Because, I don’t want to do any of this, or that, or the other alone. And, I haven’t given up hope that fighting (and, therefore, not fighting) is a choice. I’m not willing to ascribe to arguments as being normal. I am not so naïve to think that disagreements don’t exist inside of romance (I’m quite opinionated and not afraid to share it), but I’m not playing on a team that believes that nagging and belittling and disrespecting are acceptable verbs to describe communication between two people who also use words like “love” to define their connection.
At this point in the story, let’s return to Yosemite.
Half Dome is approximately an 18 mile hike out and back. It is normal to leap frog other hikers as people stop to get water, eat, and rest. I found myself going back and forth with a couple who clearly had experience in the adventure category. When we got to the cables to summit the final portion of the hike, they immediately started to put on their harnesses (not a requirement, by the way). I quickly learned why. She was terrified of heights. I could see the fear glazing over her pupils. As we steadily embarked on this voyage up, what feels like, a ninety-degree angle rock face, I expected him to quickly lose his patience as she constantly asked to stop so that she could gather herself. He never did. Not once. I have truly never heard an individual ask someone if he or she is okay more times than I did on that ten-minute uphill heave. The care he exhibited towards her was, at the core of its being, simply beautiful.
Meanwhile, I’m throwing myself up the side of this mountain and constantly checking in with my own being to ensure that I, too, am okay. I’m tired. My feet are incredibly sore. And, I’m most certainly hungry. But, yes, I am okay by standard definition of the word.
What I’m reminded of in this moment is that I need both. I cannot give to others if I am not okay, if I do not know how to make myself whole. But, I am doing a disservice to this world if I am not also giving to others. I become more whole as an individual in my pursuit of, or filling up of, other people’s cups.
If I had a dollar for every person who asked me if I was actually alone on my recent adventures, I’d be able to support my Whole Foods habit for the next week. The question comes out of a state of being impressed, and yes, that gives me a sense of pride. But, it paradoxically intimidates some people and makes them utter things like, “Well, you’re Stephanie fucking Kemp” when I make a single solitary comment about having a bad day. Right. Because my independence makes me immune to feeling. Because my independence makes me invincible. Because my independence makes me completely satiated on my own accord. Please read my sarcasm here.
I didn’t choose independence. I adopted independence out of circumstance. I embraced it when I needed it to survive. What I am now learning is that if you do things alone, the things that set your soul on fire, you are sacrificing the opportunity to share them with someone else in that we-are-both-seeing-this-for-the-first-time excitement. You are simultaneously creating a reputation for yourself that you don’t “need” anyone else in order to explore your heart’s desires. If you choose the latter. If you wait to do everything with someone by your side, then you sacrifice your passions. You become a by-stander to your being. You become victim to waiting, and the truth is that you may never get to do those things that capsize your essence.
So. You are damned if you do. You are damned if you don’t.
Because, it may impress people that I summited Half Dome solo. Hell, yes, I am impressed with myself. But, it’s very bittersweet to accomplish such a feat without someone to ask if I’m okay as we voyage to the top. Solo high-fives are rather anticlimactic, and gigantic hugs, which require two bodies, are necessary at the end of long days filled with adventure. My innate being yearns for that camaraderie.
Upon leaving Yosemite, I head towards the desert of Arizona. I hike the tallest peak in Flagstaff (with Nugget), and I
explore the vortexes in Sedona. On my first night atop Airport Mesa, I am completely taken aback by the grandeur of the setting sun. I’m also reminded that there’s no one to hold my hand in awe of such beauty, to squeeze the spaces in between my fingers as my jaw softens to a point where there is just the slightest space between my lips. So, I pull out my phone to send an Instagram video to my best friend, and to answer a guy’s text who is more than likely stringing me along, and to send another photo to my mom. That is what I’m doing. I’m here, present, in one of the most beautiful places in this world, and I’m pulling out my phone in an attempt to implant the most important people of my life into these memories. Then, I wonder if this makes me not present at all.
Maybe the point is that I should verbally share this beauty with the stranger standing next to me. But, maybe it is not. Maybe I am me because I yearn for the loyalty of one hand, one voice, one life. Because, I know people who travel well alone. People who become best friends with every random person at a bar. This is not my wiring, which is not to say that I can’t or I won’t engage in conversation with my random passers-by (I mean, these are the people who kindly take my photos so I don’t have to settle for never-ending selfies) or an occasional bartender. But, my soul does not yearn for those connections.
So, maybe I’m doing this whole thing all wrong. And, maybe I’m doing it right.
Because, I believe that we can exist inside of this yearning without it paralyzing our action. We can be both aware of those spaces within us that feel empty and also content despite their empty existence.
I know that my learning here is to find the peace in the awareness. Whether or not I continue to knock off every major bucket list item as a solo traveler is still up for further exploration. But what I do know is that, right now, it’s 1:22am and my back itches. Badly. In one of those places that I can’t reach and no matter what I do, nothing seems to work. Even if I am “Stephanie fucking Kemp.”