"Don't you feel alone traveling solo?"
I've lost count of how many times I've been asked this question. By now, my response rolls off the tongue, ready to slip from my lips the second I detect someone's inevitable surprise when mentioning I'm headed to a foreign city solo:
"I'm never alone."
When traveling, I explain, I frequently meet friends, family or even strangers that live at the destination or are tagging along. Yet... sometimes the answer to this perpetual question feels too packaged, as if I'm trying to convince myself more than the asker.
The truth is, I've often straddled the line between solitude and loneliness; the better part of my recent visit to Austin was spent contemplating why.
I was not supposed to go to Austin alone. I originally planned the trip with a partner and instead found myself arriving with a freshly broken heart. Despite feeling vulnerable, sad, and alone, my stubborn ego pushed me to haul myself across the country because - as I proudly told this person when he questioned whether I was still going - "it's what I do." I didn't recognize then that the word "it" was substituting for an answer that had not yet been found.
Though I was staying with friends of friends, much of my time was spent wandering on my own, deeply entrenched in my thoughts. Seeing Austin through a lens of loneliness pushed me to confront why "I'm never alone" didn't feel completely honest - and how true solitude can rise from loneliness' shadow.
There is a vast difference between solitude and loneliness.
Unlike New York, Austin's hot spots are spread out in pockets throughout the city. This was particularly tedious considering the atrocious public transportation system. I was reminded of how pedestrian unfriendly the city was whenever I couldn't walk more than ten minutes without hitting highways or eerily isolated street intersections. Even so, I strolled through the city as much as I could, observing the loneliness that crept in after prolonged stretches of time.
Loneliness is an intimate companion whom I've struggled with time and again, especially during my bouts of depression years ago. There is a sort of quiet despair in feeling lonely. It is wading into a crowd and being seen by no one; helplessly watching life flow by from inside a glasshouse; meekly resigning oneself to drowning alone in a tempestuous sea of fears. Ironically, loneliness' cocoon of misery has the power to envelop one so comfortably as to make this state of being a sought-out habit. Like all habits, the tendency to slip back into its familiarity will never fully vanish - but it can be surpassed.
To be alone and have conviction that we are not forgotten is an enormous challenge.
I stumbled upon solitude through travel. I remember discovering it when I was seventeen, silently sitting cross-legged on a mountain peak 3,000 feet in the air. In that suspended moment when all that existed was Montana's majestic landscape and my thoughtless awe, I acknowledged my existence as more than just a warm body cyclically inhabiting this earth.
When alone in a foreign place, stripped of familiarity and routine, there is little choice but to inhabit our self - as the saying goes, wherever we go, there we are. Solitude, I've found, is mindfully choosing to be present. This means feeling unencumbered by the weight of our own company, asking questions about our life's purpose, and more importantly, listening to the answers. The point of solitude, as a dear friend of mine eloquently stated, is "learning how to live with ourselves and our decisions."
This type of thinking can be uncomfortable because it will inevitably resurface our demons. Therein lies the essential difference... loneliness is succumbing to these demons, while solitude is accepting them.
Solitude asks us to adopt a kinder, gentler approach to self-observation: one that refutes judging, bashing, and expectations. It is being aware of the insecurities that haunt us without fighting them. Only when we can look at ourselves and stop fearing what we see, will these insecurities begin to dissipate.
Unfortunately, a common knee-jerk reaction to the prospect of accepting insecurities is running away from them. Which brings me to my next point...
Too often, solitude is misinterpreted as an escape rather than a method of self-discovery.
While Austin's rapid influx of tech companies, low cost of living, and artsy, non-Midwestern feel has made it one of the fastest growing cities in America, it more so felt like a giant Texan suburb woke up after years of slumber and hastily decided to become a trendy East Coast city. I saw Austin as a place that was rushed to develop faster than it was ready to in order to accommodate external circumstances rather than its own needs.
I could strangely relate.
Living in a big city, external circumstances - in my case, work and social life - come first. At times, I am the last person I prioritize, only opting to be alone when utterly exhausted and worn down by a busy schedule. This time warps into outwardly focusing my attention to mind-numbing activities such as zoning out on social media. More often than I'd wish, spending time with myself is treated as a fallback rather than a default.
We have an entire lifetime to get to know our self. So why does it seem like so many of us don't properly make the time?
Solely approaching solitude as "alone time" is dangerous. It gives us permission to passively live day in and day out through the same routines as long as we have those brief moments of alone time to disrupt them. When every day becomes a collection of habits rather than mindful, fully lived decisions, we cease being active participants in our personal growth.
Traveling solo is innately intimidating because it forces me to look inward and stay. Physically wandering alone is easy; the challenge is falling into the habit of being alone without being present.
I became hyper-aware of this while exploring Austin. Phone deliberately tucked away in my pocket, I strolled down the notoriously grungy Dirty 6 neighborhood. I took myself out to a nice dinner downtown and was pleasantly surprised to see how quickly the initial self-consciousness of eating alone evaporated. I craned my neck at the foot of the Texas Capitol and admired how tiny the massive, overly ornate structure made me feel. With a mix of unease and enjoyment brought on by my company, I recognized how rarely I spend time with myself like this when I'm stuck in the entrails of my daily routine.
In the midst of this solitude, I still couldn't help but be plagued by a tinge of loneliness. As much as I wanted to resent the emotion, I'm just realizing how perfectly acceptable and necessary it is. When pursued in excess, solitude isolates us - but it is loneliness that motivates us to seek connection.
Solitude needs loneliness to appreciate the beauty of companionship.
We risk becoming hopelessly sad when we spend too much time by ourselves. Sometimes, these pangs of loneliness can be exactly what we need to understand that both solitude and loneliness are necessary to a meaningful existence.
As I moved through this dynamic city, I was continuously reminded of people I love. Browsing through Uncommon Objects, a store famous for upholding the "Keep Austin Weird" reputation with its eclectic selection of antiques, I kept spotting delightful little objects that echoed inside jokes with loved ones. Sitting at the top of Mount Bonnell, a hilltop park at the highest point in the city, I felt an ache to share the sunset view of Lake Austin and its surrounding Texan hills. Walking through Barton Springs, a beautiful park with natural water springs, I caught myself wishing I, too, was basking in the sunshine with friends.
People enrich our lives in ways we cannot even imagine - loneliness redeems us by reminding us of that. It incites us to seek out human connection where we wouldn't have otherwise, connections that inevitably help us evolve by leading to insightful observations about others and ourselves.
While solitude creates a world of self-awareness, loneliness keeps us from egotistically spiraling off into it. There is a balance that must be maintained between the two: if we sacrifice solitude and allow ourselves to become consumed by loneliness, we will never know who we really are. But only pursuing solitude and rejecting all feelings of loneliness boxes us into our selfishness, where we risk retreating so deeply as to shut out the beauty of companionship.
I treasure my ability to travel alone, to be unafraid to get up and go without relying on others. Even so, it's a bittersweet independence: in my strive for freedom, I risk convincing myself that I don't need people - when I really do. As much as I love traveling solo, many of my best memories are precious precisely because they are shared. Every person I've met in my journey has served a purpose. Without them, my travels would be reduced to a sterile collection of sightseeing tickets and beautiful photos.
Don't I feel alone traveling solo? Sometimes.
But I'm never truly alone. It is one matter to say it, and wholly another to see it.