We all have these pivotal moments in our stories that change the paths of our lives. These pivots include marriage, pregnancy, divorce, the death of a loved one. These moments leave us inevitably transformed. At least that’s what happened with Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild. Her mother died and she completely lost sight of her future. She found solace in drugs and men, which ultimately led to the dissolution of her marriage. And it took that divorce for her to realize she had to do something to charter a new future. Hence, the book and the movie Wild, her memoir on how hiking the Pacific Crest Trail changed the course of her life (and really, brought her back to life).
For women, especially, these pivots can be devastating, and, like in Strayed’s case, can cause us to spiral out of control. That’s my story. My divorce led me to a pretty dark place, and there wasn’t much that I thought would get me out of it. That was until I signed up for a hike in Colombia over New Years and then booked three more weeks in South America to immerse myself in a culture completely unlike my own. This leap also led to another huge decision: the one that had me moving to a city I didn’t know anyone, completely on my own.
Regardless of where you find yourself after a huge life change, there’s one thing I believe with 100% certainty—we as women all need to embark on a Wild journey, at least once in our lives.
Now, I’m not saying we need to pack up our lives and embark on a 2,500-mile hike through the Mojave Desert, unless you’re into that kind of thing. What I mean, in the simplest of terms, is that we all need to get away from our comfort zones, flee the hold of our friends and family and experience something—whether it’s a weekend getaway to a new town or a month-long sabbatical in South America—solely and utterly alone.
Even though it’s 2016, there’s still a slight stigma attached to solo female travel. I’m 31 and spend nearly 300 days of out of every year traveling the world by myself. And I can’t tell you how many times people look and me and ask: “Are you really here, all by yourself? Doesn’t it get lonely?” But it’s not their fault. That’s how much of the world still sees solo female travelers. It’s why authors like Cheryl Strayed and Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) are so important to our generation. They prove that you don’t need someone else to feel whole and you certainly don’t need someone else to embark on a life-changing journey.
So, if you’re finding yourself facing a fork in the road, with one path leading to comfort and the other leading to a terrifying new experience, here are some tips that’ll help you garner the strength you need to go down the second one.
It’s a well known fact that if you’re traveling with a partner, a family member or a friend, you won’t be as inclined to introduce yourself to the stranger at the bar, the person sitting next to you on your flight or the other hikers you meet on the trail. When you’re alone, you not only find yourself less inhibited, you find yourself more willing to reach out to people you normally wouldn’t. Elizabeth Carlson, writer and photographer behind the successful blog Young Adventuress, finds meeting people the highlight of any solo trip she takes.
“One of the absolute best parts of travel are those moments and conversations you have with locals that you meet, and if you are scared of everyone or don’t want to open up, you’ll miss out on them,” Carlson said.
If you have the desire and the passion, go. You’ll meet people along the way that share those same ideals.
Have you ever noticed that you’re far more astute when you’re alone? You listen to things a little deeper, you pick up on cues you normally would miss and you see things just a little bit clearer? The same thing happens when you’re on your own traveling. You tend to see more, hear more and experience more than you would if someone else was there to distract you. This gives you a deeper connection to not only the culture you’re in, but yourself. You find yourself listening to your gut and going to tackle things you might skip otherwise. Plus, you’re on your own, so you can soak up everything for as long as you want, whether it’s just a few minutes or a few hours.
“I think the absolute best tip I could give regarding solo female travel is the most vague: trust your instincts,” Carlson said. “A phrase so common and casually tossed around, it seems almost meaningless, but for me, it has been a lifesaver.”
There are going to be so many people who tell you what you are doing is crazy, unsafe, selfish and irresponsible. Even if you’re just hiking out to the forest and spending a weekend under the stars, there are going to be many who question what you do. And my advice? Smile and nod but do it anyway. Even your closest friends have no idea what you’re going through. This is your time to choose which way your life will go, and ultimately create a pivot you want to talk about. Female solo travel is empowering in that you find you only have yourself, and just yourself, to rely on.
As famous Jewish political theorist and author Hannah Arendt said: “Loving life is easy when you are abroad. Where no one knows you and you hold your life in your hands all alone, you are more master of yourself than at any other time.”
As a girl who travels the world by herself, I can tell you this: nothing will make you feel more like a badass than the moment you realized you just tackled that hike, ordered a meal in a new language or wandered along the streets of a new city without getting lost.
At the very beginning, it may seem like you’re going nowhere and you made the worst decision of your life. Remember Strayed, who questioned what she was doing with nearly every footstep? I’ve had those moments and I’m not going to lie and say they go away. You’re always going to wonder if you’re doing the right thing. But, just like Strayed, who ended up battling her demons on that trail or Gilbert, who found both forgiveness in herself and love, these trips and moments always leave you stronger and wiser than you were before. It’s not going to be easy, but what in life is?
“Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told,” wrote Strayed. “I decided I was safe, I was strong and I was brave.”
Claire Gallam is a writer and photographer with a passion for food and travel. She has spent time in more than 40 countries and hundreds of cities.