The art and pleasure of being alone

In the spring of the year I turned 25 (a whopping 19 years ago!),  I was working for a German/American tour wholesaler here in the city, and hatched a plan to take a leave of absence from my job.   The reason?   To spend several months on my own, driving across the country and seeing what there was to see.  I decided to leave New York on my 25th birthday in June, and in the months leading up to my departure I worked as much overtime as possible, got permission to take the leave of absence (if they said no I was prepared to quit – they said yes) bought a used Ford Escort with low mileage, no a/c and an am/fm radio from a guy in Valley Stream,  a tent from Lands End and saved as much money as possible.    This was the summer of 1992, which means cell phones were not commonplace and what I had in my car was a ‘bag phone’ I could use in emergencies, but which stayed in the bag the whole of the trip, if memory serves.   I liked the idea that no one could call me and wouldn’t even really know where I was unless I called them.   No texting, no email, no laptop, no internet cafes.    I stayed in campgrounds for the most part and for the first half of the three month trip, I went to bed and rose with the sun.   It was great to wake up when the sun hit my tent, completely rested, and be packed and out of the campground before anyone else was stirring.   Usually I was on the road by 6am and drove till I felt like stopping.   By noon I’d been on the road for 6 hours, and if I wanted to, I drove through the day as the country stretched out in front of me.

Not once was I lonely.   Not once did I wish I’d brought someone along.  I loved the freedom of being alone.   If I stopped at a town intending to stay one night, I could change my mind and stay for two or three or four without worrying about or consulting with anyone else.   I met people, of course.  When you live in campgrounds you become part of a fascinating mobile subculture;  you’d be amazed at how many people I met who either lived their lives moving from place to place or were on extended trips, like me.    I went to a rodeo with a woman I met who was a schoolteacher in inner city Chicago, and hiked in Zion National Park with another who taught English to her students in France.  (And from whom I received the best Christmas present ever later that year in the form of a pack of letters from her English students.)  I camped with a mixed-race family in Oregon who told me about some of the racial prejudice they’d dealt with on the road, and in Glacier National Park a group of Texans regaled me with a story from the night before I arrived, when they mistakenly thought someone in the campground who was shouting “Bear!” had lost their dog.   (It was really a brown bear, looking for food…)   I spent the 4th of July in Minot, North Dakota and had my tent blown into the street with all my belongings inside while in Havre, Montana. (I got it and the belongings back, intact.)    In Telluride the campground and everyone in it was serenaded by someone playing “Amazing Grace” on their bagpipes late one night, and I’ve never felt ‘whiter’ than when I drove through the Navajo nation and stopped for gas and snacks at a store where no one spoke much English.  (Only Navajo.  And the people were infinitely kind to me.)

I have a feeling that if I had been traveling with another person, I would not have met all those people.  I would have stuck with my friend, and maybe we would have met people anyway, but probably not the same people.  It would have been different.    People asked me at the time if I thought it was unsafe to travel like that, and wasn’t I ever scared.   Well I didn’t think it was unsafe or I wouldn’t have done it, and no, I never felt scared.   I talked to men who worked on the pipelines when I camped in Idaho, and others who gambled for a living when I was crossing Nevada.     They were bigger than me and knew I was alone, and no one ever expressed anything but admiration when they heard about my trip.    Most people, it turns out, are decent and kind.

One of the things I wish for my kids is the ability to be alone.   Some people are better at it than others.   It comes naturally to me and, I think, to Ben.   Maya would never be alone if she could help it, and in that as in most things she is more like Joshua.   But I have hopes that she will learn how to savor time on her own and to realize that some experiences are better that way.   There was an article in the Boston Globe recently titled “The Power of Lonely: What we do best without other people around” and it talks about a few things that I have suspected; being alone is when you think most creatively, and also actually improves your ability to be social.    In other words, too much time spent with other people is just as bad as no time spent with other people.   (If you’d like to read the entire article, here is the link;  )    The article also says that studies have shown that people remember things in more detail if it was a solitary experience.   And I can vouch for that – I remember minute details of my 3 months on the road, even though it was almost 19 years ago.   But ask me about our much more recent trips to Ireland and I will sometimes say, “Wait, was that the first year we were there or the second?”

So many good things come from being able to spend time alone.   As life learners, we are pegged as people who might be socially awkward.  But I think there are reasons that children who learn outside of school are often much more socially adept than their schooled peers, despite the myths to the contrary, and one of them is that they get to spend time on their own instead of being forced to spend all of their days in a crowd of people.    We all benefit from time on our own.   Some of us crave it, and others need to learn to be comfortable with it.   But the rewards are indisputable.

Leave a Comment