Fear and Freedom on a Solo Roadtrip
My van, Nessie, was tucked in beside the river, squished between three backpackers and a family in a caravan. When you travel alone, there’s no partner in crime to wash up after the delicious meal you just cooked, and being the stingy traveller I am, I hadn’t bothered with dishwashing liquid. Unfortunately, I didn’t take burnt rice into the equation, so I headed to the caravan family to nab some of theirs. Families in caravans always have dishwashing liquid.
“Hi! Sorry, just wondering if I can pinch some detergent?” I asked, putting on my best apologetic smile.
“Sure!” the mother replied, rushing to my rescue.
As the conversation progressed past dishwashing liquid (so not far), I got the inevitable question.
“So you’re by yourself?”
I nodded, confirming what she already seemed to know.
“But don’t you get scared?”
I looked around at the campervans and caravans tucked away in the lush green riverside camp. Families played with their kids, grey nomads argued about caravan tilts and backpackers lounged about cramped cars.
“Well, no, not really. I mean, look around, it’s not exactly scary!”
“Yeah, I guess so,” she said with a weak laugh, her brow furrowed as if not entirely satisfied with my answer. I took my detergent and headed on my way.
I’ve been asked if I’m scared a lot during this trip. I’ve also been told multiple times how brave I am and how impressive it is that I’m travelling by myself. Even before I left the most common question was, “Who are you going with?” closely followed by enthusiastic yet slightly cautious congratulations when I said, “Myself.”
For a while, these reactions confused me. I’m not hitchhiking in a foreign country, or trekking alone in the wilderness, or even going off the beaten track. I’m very much on the beaten track in a comfy van with lockable doors. My physical person is no more in danger than what it would be walking down the street of my hometown.
I’ve realised now the dishwashing liquid mum wasn’t asking if I was scared of being kidnapped or raped. She was asking if I was scared of solitude. Scared of being alone with my own mind and having nobody to rely on but myself. In hindsight, what I should have said was, “Yes – I was scared at first, but I’m not anymore, because I’ve realised there isn’t actually anything to be afraid of.”
The reason I decided to go it alone in the first place was because I wanted to prove to myself that I could rely on my own judgement and get past that terrifying sensation of being scared of your own thoughts. I won’t pretend there weren’t times I was tired, stressed, frustrated, felt a bit lonely or just bored and wanted to chat to someone, but the big challenge of being alone and comfortably relying on my decisions was a smaller mountain to climb than I’d imagined.
The rewards were small but satisfying. Eating whatever, whenever. Changing plans last minute and not having to run it by anyone. Not having to let anyone know where I was. Spending a day lazing and reading without worrying if anyone was bored. Just not talking was even a quiet relief after a while. I hadn’t been alone for more than a day in years, so spending the better part of three weeks with no one else to look after, blame, chastise, talk to or sit with but myself was liberating.
Unfortunately, the underlying reason people react this way to solo women travellers is rooted in archaic, conservative ideas of gender roles. For context, my boyfriend is also travelling by himself at the moment for five weeks (two longer than me) in America (much further away than me) and to my knowledge, nobody has asked him whether he’s scared or told him he’s brave. It’s just considered part and parcel of his uni-to-work transition in a way that my trip doesn’t seem to be. It’s not that anyone is actively trying to stop me; they’re just infinitely more surprised than they would be if I were a guy doing the same thing.
Women are taught to be safe, stay home and be responsible. Men are taught to take risks, be adventurous and explore. Women are taught not to trust ourselves because we are too irrational, illogical and hysterical to make decisions on our own. Men are taught to be independent, critical thinkers and decision-makers who lead the way. It might not be as explicit as it was in the ’50s, but it still exists in subtle ways, throughout our daily lives. It might even seem relatively harmless at first, but these ideas make women fearful of the world and keep them out of positions of freedom and power.
Funnily enough, despite the archaic notions behind questions like, “Aren’t you scared?” I actually welcome them. It means every person I see and meet on my trip will have a different idea of a solo traveller once they’ve spoken to me. They will see a new picture in their head when they imagine what a young woman’s life is like. Not only does that help the arduous task of breaking down stereotypes, but also shows other people that it can be done. Maybe someone I met had passed up a holiday because they had no one to go with, or really wanted to trave alone but were talked out of it or just hadn’t considered it at all. I can only hope they make the choice to get out there and experience themselves and the world, continuing to show everyone that you can and should travel alone.
Cover by Jacob Owens