“Sacramento’s a nice place to live, but I wouldn’t want to travel here.” That’s what he said.
The “he” in question was a young Sacramento resident, roughly my age, who’d shared a van with me as we rode from the airport toward the outer limits of the city. I wasn’t exactly traveling to Sacramento, either; it was merely a stop on my way to a backpacking trip in Tahoe National Forest a little over two hours away.
Arriving in Sacramento a full day early before departing on my foray into the woods, I decided to spend all of it exploring Sacramento’s Old Town. I had the day planned to the minute in the hope of visiting the whole laundry list of sites I wanted to check off before nightfall. My first stop: spending two hours exactly–no more, no less–exploring the California State Railroad Museum.
Entering the museum, I wasn’t expecting much: I’d see a few old trains, take a few pictures, and be on my way to the next attraction. But a funny thing happened–I didn’t just like the museum. I LOVED it.
As the first hour of my visit began winding down, I kept looking at my watch, nervous that I’d have to leave soon.
Another thought came to me. Why leave if you don’t want to?
Sure, I had an itinerary but there was nowhere I had to be. I was enjoying myself at the museum in that moment and there was no one else there pushing me to move on to the next thing.
It was my first real taste of the many joys of solo travel.
I was free to do as I pleased. Stay or go when I wanted, without compromise or fear of conflict with a travel partner. Before, when I’d traveled in a group, I’d usually have to bend my will to the desires of everyone else. Deciding for myself about what I wanted to do and having the freedom to change my mind at the last minute? Hey, this is somethin’!
I dove back into the museum with abandon, taking my time and really absorbing everything that interested me. I joined a historic tour of the museum and learned about the millions of Chinese workers who were brought to the West tobuild the Transcontinental Railroad. I toured train cars from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I discovered what it meant to be a traveler back then when the train offered transportation in days what would have taken weeks by wagon.
Almost three (or was it four?) hours later, I stumbled out of the museum onto the bright and dusty streets of Old Sacramento, as satiated and happy as a cat drunk on cream. I felt the supreme satisfaction of a person who follows her own bliss.
Even later, when the host of a restaurant gave me the stink eye for requesting a table for one, I was still so high on this newfound sense of selfhood, I didn’t even care.
What I wrote in my journal that night tells the story as simply as it can be told:
“…I’ve had an awesome time today. Sacramento has been so enjoyable, in fact, that I’ve almost forgotten why I came to California in the first place.”
While I can’t say I’m a “better” person as a result of the experience, traveling alone teaches me, time after time, how to recognize what my heart truly wants. It’s those moments when I’m away from everything and everyone I know, out of my comfort zone and neck deep in the unfamiliar, that show me who I am and train me how to listen to my own voice. Pun totally intended.
What are some of the most important lessons solo travel has taught you?