An eccentric UFO enthusiast in Sedona, Ariz., once took me to the top of Bell Rock.
I was travelling alone and didn’t know anybody in the Southwest, but that didn’t matter. I soon met a local named Peter who loved Sedona’s red-rock hiking trails, and he showed me the area’s creeks, its pathways and the places tourists wouldn’t think to go. He took me on his favourite walking trail, on the juniper-dotted paths up the mesa and showed me his Sedona: the wildly gorgeous, intensely contemplative resort town.
Half a decade ago, the idea of travelling alone filled me with intense anxiety. I’d read the bravado-ridden bagatelles of old-school travel writers like Patrick Leigh Fermor and Bruce Chatwin, men who would sleep in abandoned farmhouses and go off with shepherds into the Greek mountains for alcohol-soaked impromptu feasts, and think that—as a young woman—their adventures could not be for me. I worried that fear would prevent me from having the kind of “sure-why-not” serendipitous adventures that make travel worthwhile.
Then, a close friend—who was meant to journey with me through Turkey—had to delay her arrival in Istanbul by a couple of days. I could either delay my own arrival or embrace the novelty of being on my own in a place where I didn’t speak the language and was unfamiliar with the culture.
I got on the plane.
I wandered Istanbul for hours, not just the tourist sites, but also the back streets, visiting mosques far from the hostels on Sultanahmet. I sat alone, reading a book while sipping tea at the intricately designed historic restaurant in the city’s Sirkeci train station—once the terminus of the Orient Express. I found a hidden museum—tucked away in one of the station halls—dedicated to that famous train. By the time my friend arrived a couple days later, I almost regretted not having more time alone.
I can’t identify, precisely, the moment I realized I had so much less to fear from the world than I thought. But, as my solo trips multiplied, I relaxed into this way of travelling and my confidence grew. I spent time in Las Vegas, reporting a story, wandering up and down the Strip from dawn to dusk, befriending strangers (it helps, I learned, when you start by asking the locals about their lives) in pursuit of figuring out what made that garishly strange city tick. I chatted with a blackjack dealer at the Bellagio about religion, and made friends with a group of dreadlocked-and-pierced “punks” by the hotel fountains, meeting up with them later for drinks on the South Strip.
On another trip, I walked the streets of London after a day spent seeing theatre and exploring the city’s swing dance clubs and vintage-inspired speakeasies (like Opus One Swing Dance Club near Marble Arch, or 1940s London Underground-themed Cahoots bar in Soho). I watched strangers (drunk, sober, in love, just trying to get home) making their way through the imposingly grand streets of Westminster: so much emptier late at night than earlier in the day.
“I can’t identify, precisely, the moment I realized I had so much less to fear from the world than I thought.”
Then there was the time I stayed up all night for a story I wrote. It was about a late-night diner in New York City where, by virtue of sitting at a diner counter and talking to whoever sat down next to me, I befriended, in turn, an Irish cop, an aged former actress and an older fur-wearing woman with a glittering cane who claimed to have been the first famous black burlesque dancer in the city.
Sometimes, when I’m travelling solo and I come across couples or groups of friends, I feel a twinge of loneliness. But being alone—and being aware of my surroundings, instead of talking to a companion—is precisely what has made me so open to new experiences. When I’m walking down a city street, meandering along a coastal shore or crossing the Vegas Strip, being alone means I’m focusing my attention outward: on the landscape, on the people. I’m always watching: the way people in New York ignore even the most outlandishly dressed person (a woman in a ball gown at five in the afternoon, say, or a man dressed as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz) because they’re so used to the chaos of city life.
Often, people are quicker to approach me—for a conversation, to offer help, to (depending on where I am in the world) invite me for dinner or a meal. While hiking in the mountains of the country of Georgia, for instance, I was invited to join a group of shepherds cooking lamb over an open fire. It was exactly the kind of moment I keep travelling for. I might travel alone, but chances are, if I sit in the heart of the action (a blackjack table, a diner counter, a bar), I won’t stay alone very long.
Travelling solo often involves more planning than a romantic retreat with a partner or a weekend escape with a friend. I’m more reliant on my smartphone (most international airports sell local SIM cards, including Internet access, so long as you’ve unlocked your phone)—both for navigation and a sense of safety, and also to connect with potential friends and locals. I check out local Facebook groups related to my interests—swing dance in London, say, or experimental theatre in New York—to find events I might not otherwise have heard of (and sometimes, even, a fellow traveller to accompany me). And often when I’m travelling, being able to use my smartphone to connect with people I’ve just met on image-heavy platforms like Instagram allows “likes” to transcend a potential language barrier; months after my trip to Iran, a girl I met in a tea house in Shiraz still likes every one of my selfies.
There are challenges to travelling alone, of course. Familiarity with local customs is all the more important when you’re on your own. But, with a bit of common sense, I’ve travelled from the bazaars of Iran to the mountains of the Caucasus to pubs in London, and never once felt unsafe.
Back in Arizona, Peter introduced me to more people as we hiked: friends of his who, like him, had been drawn to the Sedona’s natural beauty. Halfway up the mountain, I stopped to talk with a yoga instructor who had moved to the area several years earlier.
“That’s what I love about this place,” she said, as she showed me a hidden cave in the mountain. “There are always travellers passing through.” She’s never short of company, she says. People who are on the road are the friendliest of all.